The capabilities of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software are impossible not to want, especially in oil and gas, where companies are striving to keep costs low. RPA can mimic users in completing mundane, standard work with speed and accuracy.
Before jumping in to test the waters, however, take time to build a compelling business case and scope potential ramifications of implementing virtual bots.
RPA provides a stepping stone to Artificial Intelligence (AI) platforms (Figure 1). Automation of tasks can start with simple macros in Excel. RPA takes automation up a level by providing tools that look up data, reconcile and enter into an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. RPA can rapidly toggle among systems (e.g., Excel, SAP and email programs) to complete repetitive tasks. Well-designed applications ease the way to cognitive programs that use data analytics to learn and predict. AI uses cognitive computing and machine learning to execute complex tasks.
Unlike humans, virtual bots do not become fatigued, lose interest, take lunch breaks and easily get distracted by social-media posts. They don’t even need a comfortable chair to sit in as they perform their digital magic within networked machines.
Although low maintenance, bots need to be managed. They rarely do 100 percent of a process, which means a manager must help complete tasks, and their productivity needs to be checked.
Accelerating high volumes of tedious tasks—whether in finance and accounting, human resources, recruiting, supply chain or other functions in oil and gas—can deliver time and cost savings, improve accuracy, and strengthen controls. While the benefits are many, ask five questions before diving in:
Do I have a solid business case? You might want to reduce an accountant’s tedious workload with a virtual bot, but think of the total costs of the ownership. There are software licensing fees, updates that will need to be programmed in as system changes occur and organizational issues that need resolution. And don’t forget, bots need to be managed by someone.
Am I perpetuating cumbersome procedures? Similar activities conducted across geographies can have different templates and procedures, some of which are unnecessarily complex. Look to leading practices, and redesign to standardize and streamline procedures with RPA.
How will bots be governed? The vast majority of bots today are not deep thinkers and are incapable of anticipating conflicts with, say, an ERP system that could result in a slowdown in closing the books. Organizations need people in charge who know how to design new operating models, implement governance structures, assess performance and update bots.
How will human roles and responsibilities change? Automation of time and expense compliance via bots can, for example, provide human team members with more time for analysis of exceptions (e.g., big spenders) and ways to build a stronger case for volume discounts with hotels. Before moving forward, think of ways to redirect current resources to create a more intelligent workforce.
Can’t we do this on our own? Because of the do-it-yourself simplicity of some RPA tools, some departments are eager to jump in without setting up central governance or seeking IT guidance. Be sure to obtain input from key stakeholders. Security issues arise because bots need a profile to log in and access information. An internal audit team also will need to review changing work flows, prior to RPA, for compliance and control purposes.
By thinking through key issues, automation projects are more likely to start on the right track, and deliver impressive returns while also holding down the costs of ownership.