When State Auto Insurance thought about making back-office functions more efficient, it turned to robotic process automation (RPA).
"HR and claims and underwriting and product for our personal and commercialized divisions, finance and accounting — all of them had processes that had potential to be automated, things that were either mundane or high-volume tasks," Holly Uhl, director of State Auto's operational excellence and robotics, told CIO Dive in an interview.
The Columbus, Ohio-based company is on the forefront of using RPA to make operations more efficient.
If a task is repetitive, "there's a chance that a bot can do the same thing," Josh Ensign, consultant with Point B Management told CIO Dive in an interview.
And while RPA carries the worry of "robots are taking our jobs," companies say what is more likely is robots taking tasks humans don't want to do, which frees up time to engage with coworkers and customers and drive business forward.
The issue is of growing importance to CFOs. Although finance chiefs have been interested in RPA as it applies to automating aspects of the accounting function, they have a role to play in advising on what operations throughout the enterprise are good candidates for applying RPA.
RPA is growing
According to Deloitte's 2018 Global RPA Survey, 53% of the 400 respondents already began their RPA journey. Deloitte expects this will increase to 72% in the next two years and, if growth remains constant, hit 100% within five years.
Organizations that have adopted RPA found success in improved compliance (92%), improved quality/accuracy (90%), improved productivity (86%) and cost reduction (59%).
They also found 78% of those who had already implemented RPA expect to increase investment over the next three years.
Ensign said the fastest uptake has been in financial services, and RPAs have also gained traction in "any industry where you have a large number of people doing highly manual tasks."
Start with simple processes
When State Auto looked at where RPA might work, it landed on five operations functions:
- Two in claims related to entering a new claim and sending documents to vehicle owners
- Two in Accounting/Finance to create reports
- One in customer service to update a data mismatch
"We had one specific task in our commercialized division that was done 25,000 times a year," Uhl said, a task that involved just two yes or no questions.
State Auto was able to automate that task in a day, she said. "The team [responsible for it] was excited not to do that work because who wants to press a key 25,000 times a year between seven people?"
Starting with simple tasks, even if it's a small part of a larger process the company hopes to one day automate, is a "quick win," said Ensign.
Small successes can show employees what a company hopes to do with RPA, and how it will make their jobs easier, not necessarily take their jobs away. Picking something that "is easy to apply just to show that it works can help people get a grasp" of the technology, he said.
"...Who wants to press a key 25,000 times a year between seven people?"
Director of State Auto's operational excellence and robotics
Trying to automate too much too fast, or trying to automate one process with many steps at once, can spell disaster, said Ensign.
"They try to automate end to end, which is a bad idea," he said. "If it's this global process that has 50 steps maybe you start with one step."
When State Auto decided to move forward, they worked with UiPath, which was named a leader by Gartner in its Magic Quadrant for RPA Software, along with Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere.
Think resource allocation, not cost cutting
State Auto's first bot with UiPath went into effect in March 27. Since then, the organization has automated 63 processes across the company, and have capacity gain of just under 86,000 hours, Uhl said.
That gain has allowed the company to grow using the workforce it already had in place and reduce menial tasks.
One of those bots was used when the company moved to a new human resources and accounting system. That required moving 1.2 million data records.
"RPA is a tool. It's a hammer. It's a really cool hammer. You use it to do things your company should be doing anyway."
Consultant with Point B Management
Instead of assigning human employees to do occasional spot checking, State Auto used a bot to validate that every record was correct. As a result, they had 100% accuracy from moving the old system to the new.
Keep expectations in check
RPA doesn't scale the way some might expect, said Ensign, especially after seeing quick wins from automating simple tasks. The Deloitte RPA survey found only 3% of respondents have scaled their digital workforce.
It's easy to see some savings from automating simple processes and think it can expand exponentially. Ensign has talked down clients who mentally scale RPA up to the point that executives think it's going to save tens of millions of dollars and see 2,000% ROI.
"While the point you start from is true and accurate, it doesn't scale the way that people think about," he said.
Instead, organizations should start small and automate processes over time. He also said organizations should see RPA as another, better way to do something already done in the organization.
"RPA is a tool. It's a hammer. It's a really cool hammer. You use it to do things your company should be doing anyway," he said.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, Josh Ensign's first name was misidentified.