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Could RPA Make Procurement Jobs More Human?

The new “hot” technology generating hype in 2019 is Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Here’s how it can help procurement…

By Viktor Gladkov / Shutterstock

Procurement is, by nature, in the business of relationships. Whether it’s managing suppliers or stakeholders, the success of any procurement organisation relies heavily on building relationships between people.

Despite this, many procurement professionals do not have the time to focus on the human side of their job. Data collection, reporting, transactional activities, urgencies, etc. are all tasks that eat up their precious time and prevent them from focusing on relationships that could generate more value and better outcomes.  This problem isn’t new and is the main driver behind the constant, growing interest in procurement technologies that automate processes and increase efficiencies.

What is new, though, is the pace of innovation and the hype around some of the latest technologies.

Emerging technologies have begun to dominate discussions in the procurement space, and it has become impossible to avoid debates, articles, publications, etc. on artificial intelligence (AI) or blockchain. The new “hot” technology that has been generating a lot of hype in 2019 is Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

Before jumping on the RPA bandwagon, it is critical to look beyond the features to understand the bigger picture. In the case of the latest RPA technology that has integrated AI, it is about making procurement jobs more human by offloading even more mundane, robotic tasks to… robots!

The goal is to augment, not replace, people by combining the best qualities and capabilities of both human and machine to achieve better outcomes.

RPA: Copy/paste on steroïds…

“[RPA is] a preconfigured software instance that uses business rules and predefined activity choreography to complete the autonomous execution of a combination of processes, activities, transactions, and tasks in one or more unrelated software systems to deliver a result or service with human exception management.”

Source: IEEE Guide for Terms and Concepts in Intelligent Process Automation (whose purpose is to provide standard definitions of concepts, capabilities, terms, technology, types, etc. for emerging process technologies)

This technical definition of what RPA is and how it works can be summed up with a simple analogy. Imagine that you have to repeatedly copy data from one Excel file to another to produce a monthly report. One way to eliminate these mundane, low-value, tedious tasks would be to create a macro that would do all the copy/paste for you. In addition to saving hours of your precious time over the course of the year, it would also reduce the risk of errors. This is, essentially, a simplified definition of what RPA is about. It’s a way to automate repetitive and scripted actions that are usually performed manually by users (not just copy/paste!). It is a form of business process automation.

The typical benefits of RPA are:

  • efficiencies to free-up resources usually spent on manual tasks and re-focus them on core business (efficiency fuels effectiveness)
  • better consistency and compliance in data entries by reducing errors
  • from a system/IT perspective, RPA is a valuable workaround to break data silos. It avoids the costs (investment, change mgmt.) and risks associated with replacing an existing system or creating interfaces. RPA solutions sit on top of the existing infrastructure and simply simulate user actions to take data from system ‘A’ and put it in system ‘B’.

RPA has limitations and it is important to be aware of them and consider if the trade-offs are worth it. Some of them are:

  • RPA can do one thing and only one thing. If there are changes in the source or in the destination systems, then it will stop to work correctly
  • It requires extensive programming to ensure that the RPA solution takes all cases into account. If not, it will not work or, even worse, it will create even more issues as it is very consistent in executing rules. If something is off, the same error(s) will be consistently repeated
  • For the same reason, it is vital to ensure that processes are running well before implementing RPA

If RPA only Had a Brain…

There’s no getting around it: RPA is a very dumb technology.  It does exactly what it’s told, blindly executing whatever set of rules it’s given. Such technology has been in use for years but on a limited scale. However, with the advancement of other, smarter technologies opening up new opportunities to make RPA more useful and less “dumb,” it is experiencing a revival. AI is one of the emerging technologies revitalising RPA, and stirring up hype. These days, it’s rare to see RPA without an AI component, which has also lead to a lot of confusion between RPA and AI.

“[AI is] the combination of cognitive automation, machine learning (ML), reasoning, hypothesis generation and analysis, natural language processing and intentional algorithm mutation producing insights and analytics at or above human capability.”

Source: IEEE

By nature, RPA and AI are very different technologies:

Because most business processes require a combination of “DO” and “THINK,” newer generations of RPA solutions integrate AI components to:

  • Understand input via natural language processing, data extracting and mining, etc.
  • Learn from mistakes and exceptions
  • Develop/enrich rules based on experience

It is this new, smarter generation of “RPA+AI” solutions that has broader applications as a valuable tool for Procurement.

RPA Applications for Procurement

“It is not the type of business process that makes for a good candidate for RPA, but rather the characteristics of the process, such as the need for data extraction, enrichment and validation.”

The Hackett Group on Procurious

RPA is particularly well-suited for operational and transactional Procurement because these areas are characteriSed by countless manual activities. Here are some examples:

  • Automation & elimination of mundane tasks
    • Invoice processing: It is possible to drastically reduce efforts and cycle times to extract essential information from an invoice and perform an m-way match by using a combination of RPA and AI (Optical Character Recognition + Natural Language Processing)
    • RFx preparation: Tasks related to data collection (quantities from ERPs, specifications from PLMs or other file sharing systems, etc.) and even the drafting of RFXs can be streamlined by using RPA.
  • Data compliance and quality
    • Supplier onboarding: RPA can automatically get more supplier data or data needed to verify registrations or certifications by crawling the web or other data sources.
    • Data mappings and deduplication: RPA can be a great support in Master data Management (MDM) by normalizing data (typos, formatting, etc.) and by ensuring that naming/typing conventions are respected.
  • Support to gain better insights
    • Supplier scorecarding: This is an activity that requires thorough data collection. RPA can be leveraged to collect data from various sources and integrate the information into one system either for internal purposes and/or for the preparation of a negotiation or business review
    • Contract analysis: RPA can crawl file sharing systems, network disks, and even emails to collect and gather contracts in one central location. Then, it can extract key terms and store them as metadata in a contract management solution.

Conclusion

RPA, in combination with other technologies, is an efficient way to connect silos (from a data perspective) to win back valuable time and remove the “robot” work from the desk of procurement teams so they can focus on the human side of their job.

On top of that, procurement organisations can gain tremendous insights from implementing RPA because it can make new data digitally accessible and more visible.

However, it is important to keep in mind that RPA is only a workaround; it does not break silos like an end-to-end procurement platform would do.

Data: You Complete Me

AI has the potential to shoulder a vast amount of the #procurement workload. But machines can only do the work for you if you capture all the data in the first place.
Last month Procurious hosted the very first Procurement Thought Leadership Forum in Chicago to discuss the evolution of procurement; what the future holds for the profession; how we can effectively determine the size of the global market; the importance of professional associations and maturity levels across the globe. 
The event, sponsored by Basware and attended by a number of the world’s leading procurement consultants, sparked some fascinating discussion and debate.

Dealing with Data

Remember that Tom Cruise movie – Minority Report? Eric Wilson, SVP Basware North America, certainly does. “In the movie Tom Cruise swipes things on a giant screen, he then predicts a crime and the team prevents it before it happens. It was pretty cool. Especially, back in 2002 when we didn’t even have touch screens on our cell phones and artificial intelligence (AI) was in the realm of science fiction.”

Of course, today we all use AI in our daily lives, whether we realise it or not. As Eric asserts “AI is the new electricity. When we replaced steam powered machines with those using electricity, we transformed transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare and so on; increasing efficiency tremendously.  AI has the same, huge potential, but nobody truly knows yet how it will change the world.”

Indeed, as  Eric pointed out it’s difficult to think of an industry that is not being impacted by AI;  IT, FinTech and Healthcare, to name just a few, are all being totally transformed. Self driving vehicles is an industry that is built entirely on AI.

But holding the right data is critical in order to harness the benefits of new technologies. If an organisation can turn all the data they hold into tangible customer value by leveraging machine learning and AI they can actually begin to benefit from these technological advances in the market. But to do so relies on having the right volume, quality and completeness of data .

“If you don’t have a view to the future when you are evaluating automation options, not only will you not achieve your business case for today, but three years from now, your system will be obsolete,” states Eric.  “It will be obsolete because it did not capture all of the data in the first place.”

In Eric’s mind there are no two ways about it: you can’t use AI if you don’t have the centralised data for those machines to learn from. “And so, my key takeaway now and always is: when you are putting together your RFPs for systems, data better be first and foremost on your mind!”

The conversation century

Elizabeth Linder, Founder and CEO of The Conversational Century joined Youtube in 2007 and often thinks back to that year, a significant time for Youtube, in order to understand the social media space.

It was an exciting and life-changing time for skilled amateurs. A time that had millions of people singing in their bedrooms or racking  up millions of video views for a commentary on something they would never otherwise have been considered an expert in. Youtube ultimately offered them the opportunity to be heard.

Elizabeth is a strong believer that the internet is the best place to build trust. “The people” ( i.e. you and me) have already got this all figured out. But the reason so many people still believe the internet is destroying trust is that our leaders are still so far from getting it right! We simply don’t have leaders at a political level that have invested in a voice on social media.

Some key things to remember when trying to start conversations online:

  • Most leaders fear that they have to move at an increased pace because of today’s internet culture. You don’t. Go at your own pace but keep people informed as you do it. It’s ok to communicate to people that “the discussions are still in progress” or “we don’t have information on this yet” so long as you’re communicating something!
  • Believe in the power of primary sources because the public certainly do. Hearing directly from the source rather than a paper adds a lot of value to your communication. If you’ve ever been quoted in an article, blog or feature you’ll know the producer of that piece never quite gets to the meat of what you were trying to say because youdon’t own the conversation or drive the discussion – they do!
  • Embracing in the hacker culture, i.e. making it up as you go along, is key. EU politicians, for example, only see social media as a tool for outbound communications and not for their inbound policy making. Hacker culture dictates that they need to consider the latter.

Elizabeth’s take away advice on owning the social media space? “Be yourself online and talk to people in a way that lets them in but not in a way so casual that you’re treating them like family.”

The value of professional certifications

Rick Blasgen, CEO – Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) and Tom Derry, CEO – Institute of Supply Management ISM led a session on the evolution of procurement  and supply chain and the value of professional certifications.

Both leaders are very optimistic about what the future holds for procurement and supply chain professionals . “I think [these professions]  will be an embedded feature of every competitive global company around the world because they see so much of what goes on,” argues Rick. “We see it really growing into the fabric of successful companies.”

And Rick believes professional certifications “are a normal part of continuing to educate yourself and continuing to be knowledgeable about such a dynamic and ever-changing field.”

“One of the things important to CSCMP is to advance the logistics, supply chain and procurement professions and the careers of those working in them. The only way we do that is by being thought leaders and thinking about using the new technologies and tools that have never before existed.

“Our certifications will educate you on these things and then test that you have the understanding and can utilise the complexity within them.”
“An association used to function as the place where people felt obliged to belong,” says Tom. But nowadays he doesn’t believe professionals feel such a sense of needing to belong to an association  just for the sake of belonging  “They need value for money and they expect a professional body to provide tools and skills that enable them to be successful at a critical moment in their career.”
Sizing up the procurement market
Braden Baseley, ProcurementIQ Analyst discussed the size and maturity of the global procurement market, revealing preliminary  insights from their specially commissioned research report.
The research reveals…
  •  There are 554, 560 procurement pros working in the US, which make up 0.4 per cent of the workforce
  • The average salary for a US procurement professional is $72,199, which is pretty good considering the average US salary is approximately $55, 000
  • California, Texas and New York employ the largest number of procurement professionals
The report will also explore how procurement skills are changing and evolving and the skills that are most desirable in procurement teams.
The Procurement Thought Leadership Forum was sponsored by Basware. 

RPA vs. BPA: Spot the Difference…

If you’re getting your RPA mixed up with your BPA. let us clear a few things up…

Tomsickova Tatyana/Shutterstock.com

When it comes to trending topics, there’s a lot of acronyms getting thrown around these days and sometimes they get used interchangeably when their meanings are actually very different. Robotic process automation (RPA) and business process automation (BPA) are prime examples.

Read on to learn the distinction between RPA and BPA.

What is Robotic Process Automation or RPA?

First, let’s define what RPA is not: RPA is not a physical robot which handles physical operations, like in manufacturing company (e.g: car manufacturer).

Physical robots are machines which do almost everything that can be done by a human. Those devices are programmed and mechanically designed to perform physical tasks.

Instead, RPA is a virtual software ‘robot’ or application that replicates the actions of a human being interacting with the user interface in the same way that a human would. It is task-oriented, so rather than improving entire business processes, it looks at fixing individual tasks. RPA can be use-trained in weeks to perform a variety of functions and processes.

What is Business Process Automation or BPA?

BPA isn’t a specific piece of software but an approach to streamlining business processes for maximum efficiency and value (rather than being task-oriented). It is an in-depth look at how processes are operating, identifying areas for improvement, and building solutions – usually from the ground up.

BPA is about making sure the infrastructure of your business processes is solid.

While you could use RPA to handle high frequency processes which had previously been performed by humans, perhaps what is really needed is an overhaul of your workflow. If a certain type of transaction makes up the bread-and-butter of your organisation’s service, for example, you’ll want to make sure that process is as tight, efficient and self-contained as possible.

There are times when you have to transform the process itself rather than trying to just layer automation over the process. That’s when you need BPA.

So how do RPA and BPA work together?

The simple answer is that companies streamline business processes with automation and then complement that with RPA.

This image illustrates a before and after example of a company:

RPA-v-BPA.png

The ‘before’ image illustrates a situation where a company has a a very low level of automation, so a lot of processes are paper/human intensive. They do have an AP system in place, but a there is a definite efficiency gap. Using BPA, they need to evaluate and re-engineer processes to get rid of unnecessary steps, manual activities, paper-heavy activities and other inefficiencies that are draining time and money.

In the ‘after’ image, the company has increased their automation level up to 80-85 per cent by streamlining and improving their business processes. Now that they’re up to an automation level of 85-90 per cent the company can explore use cases where RPA makes sense.

What’s an example of a use case for RPA in this situation?

With the purchase-to-pay process automated, RPA is layered over the process to fill in the gaps. Here’s an example of how it could be applied:

  • A customer receives an invoice from a supplier.
  • That supplier is not in the ERP database.
  • RPA notices that the supplier does not exist in the ERP database.
  • RPA creates the supplier in the database master file and complements the supplier profile with data from Basware.

This is a task that would take a lot of time for a human to do as it would require the person to manually seek out the required information from various systems and make sure all details are correct. RPA can take care of this in seconds.

How can Basware help?

With 30+ years in purchase to pay, Basware has extensive expertise in this industry. We understand complex workflows, exception scenarios, compliance requirements, supplier data quality and other intricate areas of procurement and finance. Our experience in this space has enabled us to build a team of business consultants that can help you maximise efficiency and cost savings to simplify operations and spend smarter.

Read more  about what RPA means for procurement and finance and contact us to learn more.