Five reasons why the PM function can’t ignore Robotic Process Automation

by Voyager Solutions / 9/12/2018 10:45:28 AM

We asked 5 people at Voyager Solutions to help us understand the impact of Intelligent Automation on the world of programme and project management. Voyager Solutions are a leading provider of Intelligent Automation Services including consultancy; implementation and capability development.

One. Whether we like it or not, there will be a robot on every employee desktop eventually, with an Intelligent capability

We all know that automation has been happening to us over the years, but if you apply the take up in our personal lives with our world as project managers, you can see how quickly the technology could be amongst us at work.

Technologies such as Google Assist allow us to dictate tasks to a robot assistant – at home ordering food could easily follow a similar process as asking for resource or checking project space at work and using a chatbot to talk to a bank about balances compared to a project manager who wants to ask a digital assistant for a different cut of some management reporting. This is already happening in our personal world.

The journey for a typical client often starts with Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Put simply, Robotic Process Automation software, automates back office tasks previously performed by humans. RPA is best applied to repetitive, high volume, rules-based transactions, so it can assist many core operational processes – particularly those typically found in shared service centres. Project administration transactions readily lend themselves to RPA. Opportunities also exist in project related master data maintenance, and project reporting.

The business case for implementing RPA is convincing - especially where staff-cost benefits are considered. A typical robot can automate the work of 2-3 people - assuming the robots work 24x7. RPA delivers quality benefits too, by executing the business process to a consistent, repeatable standard - eliminating errors which can so often occur when staff members perform repetitive processing. Over time, further increases in process quality can be achieved, as the process rules are refined - so exception handling and supervisory intervention are also reduced. The net result of this is an improvement in the customer’s experience too.

RPA also provides increased control and process auditability. Unlike outsourcing or off-shoring to low-cost centres, there is no need to provide 3rd party access to sensitive systems. And it avoids the risk and cost of system integration effort typically managed by the IT department to integrate disparate technical platforms. This places the control of project administration processes squarely back in their department.

For many companies, setting up a centre of excellence in robotic process automation provides a platform for extending the benefits into new product areas, often called the ecosystem – this is where machine learning and artificial intelligence can enter the scene. Intelligent Automation (IA) is used to describe the wider family of products.

Paul Taplin, Digital Automation Partner at Voyager explains: “Our clients may start using robotic process automation to automate basic transactional processes, but can use this as a platform to drive other future Intelligent Automation technologies. Products such as UiPath have strong integration with Microsoft and Google products so the personal and business distinction is blurred, and the scope for business applications is accelerated by the fast adoption of such technologies in our personal lives”

Learning and assistant technology is also advancing – some of us are familiar with help systems that know where you are within a product, to bring up relevant information. But the technology is now capable of helping you proactively as well. Products can sit alongside business applications and even interrogate Artificial Intelligence products to understand probabilities associated with weather and how much stock to order based on this and historical experiences.

A project manager could ask a robotic assistant to query previous project data relating to project costs and variances to better plan a future project.

Two. As more projects kick off, you are likely to become involved as a project professional

The decision to start down the journey of robotic process automation (RPA) is often made by an operational business area, rather than a central project or IT. This is because the robots are often directly performing tasks that the human user would have performed, on the systems that are used in the operational areas.

Improvement activity is not required before setting a robot up on a process – software robots sit on what is called the “presentation layer” so are like a virtual workforce with their own logins and access. So from a business perspective, it is like adding to the workforce.

A business case is often based on redeploying humans or replacing outsource activity with robots, which tends to be driven by the business areas themselves.

So where does the programme and project function fit in?

Firstly, the task of investigating and leading the initial robotic process automation project could be given to a project manager, who will look at the business case, product selection and the overall project that will often have workstreams looking at the governance, IT, the operating model, policies risks and controls that are needed.

Secondly, the processes that are implemented which are sometimes called use cases are often identified and designed by Business Analyst roles, which may be from a central programme and project function.

Thirdly, as the scope of robotic process automation projects become larger, companies build capability in terms of people, process and technology including Global Centres of Excellence who determine the methods and standards. Such a scale often needs to be managed at Portfolio level, so a Programme and Project Function can be involved in its role in supporting the business, often as early as during the annual forecasting / budgeting process.

Finally, even though they tend to have shorter lifecycles for automating processes, there is often a standard methodology which programme and project functions have the expertise to deliver, as it is based on a traditional IT lifecycle.

Louise Troy, Voyager Automation Service Manager explains: “There are many workstreams in an automation programme, especially if it is being implemented on a global scale. The operating model works on its own may need to build an entire organisational function, and in some areas, the significant expectation on benefits requires careful managing, as headcount targets are pivotal to the original business case”

But there is confusion. When Voyager Solutions surveyed programme and project managers from across its FSTE100 client base about RPA and IA, there were some interesting findings.

90% were sure that RPA and IA development will affect their role; 50% of them said they had taken steps to get awareness of RPA/IA, but the timescales were interesting.

38% said that it would impact the immediate projects they are working on; 38% also felt that it would impact in the next year; with 25% feeling that it will be at least a year before they feel any impact.

Three. You will start to see the odd robot or two working directly in Project related tasks

Over a relatively short period of time there has been a growth in Project Management tools utilising IA technology to aid the project manager in their day to day role.

These applications can provide assistant driven functionality, supporting areas such as administration (looking for missing data), but products are emerging which can provide more “cognitive” input to areas such as project performance, data management and knowledge management.

Today, these tools can be relatively primitive relying on accurate, regular input of data; they do start to inform us on what could be around the corner in terms of products that can apply machine learning, with constant improvement based on the ability to learn from vast quantities of historical data.

As the technology advances and the tools evolve it is easy to see how they will start to deliver advice and not just data.
A project manager may start with tools to facilitate and control administrative duties (eg. opening up hours in a calendar), but then progress to using products in more advanced areas such as performance, risk and audit.

The Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) world has strong relationships with Robotic Process Automation, with companies for many years using robots to fill gaps in functionality, for example where manual entry is needed to transfer data between legacy systems and ERP systems.

It is in some of these areas that we naturally find automation around project related master data maintenance or downloading / uploading excel formats in production scale project management systems.

India Miller, A Voyager RPA Lead outlines this: “When we implement RPA in large organisations, such as FTSE100’s, the use cases often start with traditional centres of excellence where we might typically automate an excel to ERP system. But we are seeing more use cases in project related data such as project accounting and resource management which have similar characteristics.”

Four. You might be asked if your global programme and project methodology can be applied to RPA/IA products
A company might well have started an RPA journey with a single process and taken the decision to use RPA software in a single area. At this level, it is likely to have used the lifecycle and methods of the software company or an implementation partner to make this happen.

But careful consideration needs to be made about what lifecycle should be deployed, as an organisation introduces RPA at scale across businesses and geographies.

There is very often a stand off between three parts of the organisation (each with lifecycles and methodologies) at this stage. The IT function who may or may not be driving the project will expect to see an IT lifecycle which contains mandatory components such as testing and UAT sign off.

The software provider or implementor may well mandate that design documentation has to be a certain format to ensure that robots perform exactly as designed, and signed off.

Finally, If like many organisations, the company has a central programme and project function (with mandatory programme and project governance and standards across every project in the entire company), the RPA project will need to be developed as a project category governed by the methodology.

The good news is that there is middle ground in this that works for all, with an overall framework provided by the PPMO function, and some individual mandatory documents that satisfy the IT requirements.

The RPA project can also lend itself to agile ways of working, with a focus on short lifecycles and very specific use cases to solve very specific problems. The programme and project function needs to embrace its role in policing and championing the standards and look for opportunities to support the set-up of the first implementation that will help the company scale up without incurring expensive consultancy fees to agree and deploy methods every time a new product is introduced.

In every case, we have been able to create a set of standards that are provided within the overall framework of the programme and project function, which meets the specific policies and needs of key stages in the IT lifecycle, and is generic enough to cover any new RPA or IA product that is introduced. We have a very clear picture of the five key areas that the methods need to cover.

The other myth with RPA projects is that they need fundamentally different roles to deliver them within the programme and project frameworks.

The reality is that the programme to set up the RPA capability in an organisation still needs to be programme managed, and its workstreams may have project managers and business analysts.

In our survey, on methodology and tools, 75% felt that they are not likely to see new methods changing the core programme and project tools for at least a year.

Tom Roberts, a Voyager Project Lead explains this: “We have been building methodology and capability for RPA/IA into our clients, but a lot of it is still on a standalone basis, with only a few building it into the central programme and project methodologies. Programme and project manager colleagues want to start by experiencing a project which is run under the integrators methods, to understand what the real picture needs to be in terms of methods and standards”

Five. If you ignore RPA/IA, the business stakeholders could progress the projects without you

As programme and project professionals, we are driven by the relationships with our business customers, and in many cases, we may be aligned or located with a business team.

Given that projects are often initiated by a business area, a project manager may be involved from day one.

But, in many cases, the initial journey into RPA may be driven by a business stakeholder who manages the project set up particularly at the “chicken and egg” stage of getting the funding where there is no budget yet to develop a full programme, but a need to conduct project type activity to investigate.

The next port of call is often the IT function, who need to provide support to set up the trial version of the software onto the system (sometimes called a proof of concept) and set up access to a test system for the target application (the one that the robots will be processing on eventually eg. An ERP system).

If it looks as if the project is likely to scale up beyond this, IT often appoint a part time project manager to support the proof of concept focusing on setting up the software; access to the target systems etc.

The IT project manager may also need to look ahead at what the project costs are beyond the Proof of Concept. This will include the ongoing project and business as usual costs of within areas such as helpdesk; security; application support and third party costs if an external provider is to be used.

So at this early stage, a project is forming with some key workstreams including a benefits component; the need to set up governance; IT; business and third parties and a potential need to build up an organisational capability – this may be the point where a project manager becomes formally involved.

Carolyn Fox, the People and Talent Partner explains: “we are picking up a demand for upskilling from the wider programme and project community including business analysts – we are starting to fill our seminars and courses in these areas, and only see an increased demand for this."

As a programme and project professional, it is worth looking ahead at what the needs will be in skills, methods and types of projects, but even outside of this, you will see RPA/IA start to play a part in daily business life across every aspect of an organisation, including the actual business of a programme and project function.

Voyager Solutions were established in 1998 to provide organisational alignment and implementation services to technology, outsourcing and back office operating model projects. We have supported programmes ranging from single site to 100+ country roll-outs.

We provide an end to end Intelligent Automation service from development of the enterprise level operating model through to delivery and support of the changes required. In addition we specialise in the development of client RPA competency centres and the upskilling of client personnel to provide a sustainable, long term Intelligent Automation solution.