Want your RPA program to work? Don’t forget the workers.

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Kevin Kroen Partner, Intelligent Automation Leader, PwC US June 07, 2017

When you invest in a robotic process automation (RPA) program, you’ll still need people to work alongside robots. As obvious as that seems, many firms miss it, and that means they miss one of the most powerful ways to influence the success of their digital labor program. I was thinking about this as I read the recent blog from my colleague, Bhushan Sethi, on the people impacts of automation. How can financial institutions do a better job of embedding this people mindset into the RPA programs they are developing today?

There are plenty of good reasons why financial institutions are turning to RPA to automate and streamline repetitive, mundane tasks. Using bots to perform work that can be easily programmed typically frees up employees to handle more sophisticated issues. But technology doesn’t get deployed in a vacuum. All too often, we see firms overlooking many of the workforce issues that arise when they implement RPA projects.

At its core, automation is about change, and that’s often difficult to implement well, or for people to truly accept. In a recent paper, we explored how financial institutions implement change. In it, we describe the challenges faced by teams designed to “change the bank,” or CTB, and those who “run the bank,” or RTB, on a day-to-day basis. Let’s take a closer look at how financial institutions should approach short-term and long-term workforce challenges that arise when implementing RPA.

Short term

Organizations should think strategically about staffing when they introduce bots. Automation can fundamentally reshape a business unit, creating new capabilities and operating procedures. It’s a classic CTB use case. So, you need people with RPA implementation expertise. You also want them to be change agents, looking beyond “that’s just how we do it” and eagerly embracing new possibilities.

At the same time, you can’t dismiss the potential contribution of individuals steeped in the complexities of the existing business. All too often, those with day-to-day responsibility don’t have sufficient input, which can lead to huge problems later on. Those subject matter experts have a detailed understanding of the industry, the functional areas, and specific business processes that are being automated. In fact, their insights could be the critical success factor for the project.

It’s a balancing act: successful deployment of robots requires a correct mix of change agents and subject matter experts. RPA experts might create functions in a vacuum without understanding the real pain points in today’s processes. Likewise, those charged with running the business may be too deeply invested in the current state without seeing the bigger picture. To create the kind of meaningful change that furthers business objectives, you need to break down the silos between the CTB and RTB functions. And there are specific techniques you can use to increase the odds of success, like reassigning CTB technology experts temporarily to teams that run the day-to-day business, or cross training RTB specialists on core RPA process architecture and technology skills. This helps everyone become comfortable with change, and employees will likely welcome the ability to learn about different parts of the business and expand their skills.

Long term

Of course, firms shouldn’t lose sight of the broader implications of automation on their employees. If you implement an RPA program without fully appreciating the impact on jobs and society, you stand to significantly undermine the benefits of the bots. Worse, you could suffer lasting reputational damage.

Who will be retrained, reassigned, or let go? These are crucial decisions and HR policies should be realigned to address the new labor landscape. Once you’ve developed the policies, you’ll need to incorporate them into your RPA projects. To reduce disruptions, these should be consistent throughout the organization and position change as a gradual process.

As firms move ahead with their RPA programs, they often miss some key steps in their project plans. We recommend that firms:

  • Create a dedicated workstream to design and implement a long-term workforce strategy.
  • Define a key robot operator role drawing on both classic CTB- and RTB-focused skills.
  • Make sure that newly designed roles have well-defined training programs, role evolution plans, and upward career paths.

Making it all work

In working with our clients, we found those who are most successful with RPA don’t just focus on technology. Rather, they implement RPA as part of an overall digital labor strategy. They rethink roles and responsibilities while considering the broader effects on workers. At the same time, they build an organizational structure that accepts change as a fundamental part of doing business.

RPA is just the start. It’s an exciting technology with powerful benefits—and you’re likely to see far more of those benefits if you bring human capital strategy and organization design into the picture. If you get this right now, you’ll be able to deploy the same thinking down the line with other technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain. Whatever technology you deploy, you’re likely to see better results by focusing on your workers, too.

For more information on PwC and RPA, visit our RPA in financial services page. Learn more about industry news by following @KevinKroen and @PwC_US_FinSrvcs on Twitter. All views expressed above are my own.

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Kevin Kroen

Partner, Intelligent Automation Leader, PwC US

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