In 2019, Flagship Group began exploring robotic process automation (RPA) as a way of improving business processes. Flagship’s head of technology, Yogesh Gohil, takes us through the motivations, challenges and all-important results of this innovation journey.
Beginning the journey
We approached RPA as part of a wider initiative to become a future-ready employer. In simple terms, this means moving towards machines doing work rather than people. Companies will still need talented employees, but they will take more of a role in designing products and processes which machines will then carry out.
As part of the first step of this journey, we did some groundwork and quickly identified that there were lots of processes in our organisation suitable for automation via RPA. These were mostly high-level, repetitive processes that we knew could add value because they took up a lot of staff time which could otherwise be better spent elsewhere.
Partners in automation
Working with our automation partner, Human+, we chose our first process for automation. Perhaps unusually (and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this!), we decided to design, build and automate an entirely new process from scratch, rather than automating an existing process. This was an asset liability register – an extremely complicated process involving collecting and centralising data from multiple different locations – which we desperately needed from a compliance perspective.
With the help of Human+, we really nailed down what the process entailed. This was crucial to making sure we understood all aspects of the process and that the automation would be successful. If you’d like to find out more about what it means to work with an automation partner, read about our automation story in Human+’s intelligent automation guide (human-plus.co.uk/housing); it’s a great way of getting started with RPA because it sets out what you can expect and there are lots of things you’ll be able to learn from our experience.
An in-house future
From the outset, we understood that RPA wouldn’t be a silver bullet for us. But, like most housing providers, we have a lot of legacy systems that automation can help us join together, saving us time, and making everyone’s lives a whole lot easier.
For example, with our asset liability register we don’t know how long it would have taken us to create manually, but it would probably have required around five or six employees to do it full time. That’s just the initial setting up of the technology and doesn’t include all the updates that are needed from time to time, so automation was definitely a worthwhile choice.
In fact, our initial foray into RPA was so successful that we generated a lot of enthusiasm for further automation projects, with many of our employees wanting to become involved in RPA in some way. This was very positive but we also realised that it was a big ask for our people alongside their full-time roles. We therefore devised a framework for our in-house RPA projects to make this easier.
The framework is a template that sets out the necessary criteria for what a potential RPA project should look like within Flagship. Teams from all areas of the business can use it to propose a process to be considered for automation. Each quarter, I’ll report back to our executive team on the projects we’ve completed, those that are underway and the ones we are considering, complete with the expected returns on our investment.
Paying its way
One of the most important features on this list is demonstrable value for money from automating the chosen process. Automation isn’t cheap but if it’s done the right way, it definitely pays for itself (sometimes within a matter of weeks). Thanks to the results of our asset liability project, this is something our internal stakeholders now understand really well, and there’s a big drive within our organisation for this kind of initiative.
Other aspects of the framework include demonstrating that the process is really well understood by the team in question and their firm commitment to delivering the RPA project as a whole. Doing things this way puts the responsibility for RPA on the business area, rather than on IT.
Our role as an IT team is to support the business teams’ objectives, so it’s best to put the onus for RPA projects on the business teams themselves. Having said that, this does require a fair bit of effort which is why you still might want to bring in an external partner to help.
We’ve looked at so many different processes that we could automate but there are still lots more to consider. We want to do something with our finance team next, most likely within invoice reconciliation, which is a very manual, repetitive process at the moment, so RPA can definitely help there. There are also lots of little processes within the organisation that wouldn’t give you as big a win but are still worth automating.
After that? We see RPA as the first step on our automation journey. We now want to explore intelligent RPA, which introduces artificial intelligence and machine learning to expand the capabilities of RPA.
RPA tips for housing
My top tips for RPA in your organisation:
- Find the right partner – Working with a partner will help you to understand your business better and the processes being automated. This will save you lots of time and ensure the automated process actually does everything it needs to do.
- Use the same technology – Don’t chop and change between different RPA technologies. This could leave you in a position where you have multiple technologies being supported by multiple suppliers across the organisation, leading to a far more complicated change management process.
- Get stakeholders on board – Internal buy-in across business teams and senior leadership is essential. To achieve this, you’ll need to be clear on the expected RoI and likely business impact.
- Create a framework for internal RPA projects – With the right framework and roadmap, much of the groundwork will already be done. This will really help your IT teams as well as when making the case for RPA to your board.
Yogesh Gohil is the head of technology at Flagship Group.