November, 20, 2020

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been a recurring theme in several industries over the last 5 years. It revolves around a simple concept: leave the smart decisions to the human worker and let the machine carry the heavy load. RPA potentially empowers companies to automate end-to-end business processes using software bots (digital workers) that perform repetitive and manual tasks, resulting in productivity gains, efficiency via cost reduction, an optimized customer experience, and more engaged employees.

Organizational impact: CRIF pilot project

This talk about robots might make you think that this is just an IT matter, but in reality it is much more and requires a concerted effort from different enterprise functions.

The stakeholders may vary for each project, but usually Business, HR and IT departments work together toward a common goal, identifying processes that may be worth automating, analyzing them from an organizational point of view, improving them where possible, and applying technical RPA know-how to streamline an automated solution.

Looking in more detail, the CRIF project started in 2018 with the selection of an RPA tool, called Automation Anywhere, which was assigned to CRIF Global Tecnologies, specifically to the IT Corporate Service team, acting as the central hub for these activities with a strong input from the Human Resources Department.

A dedicated team was created with both technical and business expertise aimed at producing automation solutions for businesses across the company. The new RPA team was trained on the technology, which at the time was new to CRIF, and on the appropriate methodology and approach for this kind of project.

Pilot business units across CRIF embraced the opportunity and the challenge of applying these technologies to their processes. The newly created RPA team was supported by a specialist consultancy firm.

The process

The journey began by scouting for all the potential processes in these pilot areas. This led to an initial estimation of the ROIs, which determined the selection of certain processes above others. The ROIs considered include, for example, cost and time savings, a more manageable workload, simplification of activities, error reduction, and staff morale.

Based on this scouting activity, some processes passed the initial test, while others were abandoned due to negative feedback. Those that actually made it were analyzed in depth from a functional and technical point of view in order to describe in detail all the steps involved and all the technologies and applications involved.

Based on the analysis, the RPA developers started to build bots using Automation Anywhere. The development cycle is somewhat similar to the traditional waterfall methodology, but due to the continuous feedback required by customers and the changes made to the process itself even during development, a hybrid approach was applied, closely following an agile model. The final step was the release in production, when bots actually took over human activities.

Technical Aspects

RPA tools rely on a simple principle: full interaction between applications can be achieved via UX interaction, thus simulating the actual work of a human, and avoiding complicated custom integrations. This works particularly well when legacy applications need to interact with newer industry standards or completely different development languages. We are using Automation Anywhere as our main tool at a CRIF level. Here is a very basic overview of our architecture:

Basic Architecture

Control Room: is a web-based platform that controls bot activity. In acts as a dashboard and command centre and is used to schedule, run, and monitor all the bots.

Bot Creator: developers use desktop-based applications to create bots. On authentication, the code for the created bots is stored in the control room. Developers can create individual tasks/bots, merge them, and create dependencies where needed.

Bot Runner: the Bot Runner is the machine where the bot runs. There can be multiple bots running in parallel distributed across several runners. The bots report the execution log pass/fail status back to the Control Room.

State-of-the-art RPA team at CRIF: the RPA team has been growing steadily since the introduction of the technology in CRIF. Team members with a variety of areas of expertise are responsible for the different aspects of the service as in any other development team. General coordination is entrusted to a Project Manager. Business Analysts work closely with the business units to produce functional and technical documents in order to have a very clear and straightforward overview of the processes and automation potential. Developers implement new bots and are responsible for the maintenance and improvement of bots already deployed in production.

Since the automated processes are business-critical, specific personnel are increasingly involved in the performance monitoring and efficiency measurement of bot behavior. While RPA does in fact relieve business units from daily workloads, technical IT maintenance becomes of primary importance when bot numbers start to scale up significantly. Robotic Process Automation now has a strategic place in several industries. It undoubtedly delivers in terms of improved productivity and efficiency, but it does come with a steep learning curve from a technical and organizational point of view. Being able to effectively identify and select the proper processes for automation is no easy task, since several hidden obstacles may be underestimated and potential ROIs could be easily eroded during the development process.

An efficient discovery phase, a structured development cycle, and a solid monitoring system are needed to make this happen. Last but not least, collaboration between all actors involved is indispensable for a successful journey.

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