How to make Robotic Process Automation (RPA) successful


Digitalisation & Technology, 11.11.2022

As CDO, I regularly get feasibility studies, trend reports and implementation guides from digital service providers on my desk. Sometimes, it can be a bit too much tutoring, but on the whole, it’s OK. After all, at ERGO we like to cooperate with partners – mostly with technology providers we scouted ourselves. With everything that lands on my desk, though, one aspect regularly falls short of expectations: the soft skills of digitalisation. The cultural part is the core of digital transformation, however. We have now summarised in a whitepaper how we implement that at ERGO, using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as our example.

Naomi is a small humanoid robot which embodies RPA at ERGO.

Robotic process automation (RPA) has the reputation of being a temporary measure. A quickly installed, inexpensive technology which is often productive for much longer than you would think from the term “temporary measure”. At ERGO, we’ve now got more than 350 of these highly efficient robots up and running, most of which have already achieved their return on investment within a year.

When we started up in 2018, our team of experts – the Robotics Competence Centre (RCC) – was quickly initialised. All we needed for it was “EIS”. “E” stands for the onboarding of experts in the best role set-up for our needs. “I” for the infrastructure that made us operational. “S” stands for the software that we use to program the robots.

But even the best technical set-up is still no guarantee of success – or, to put it another way, if you set up and manage based exclusively on the aforementioned categories, it’s highly likely that you will fail. We have at least learnt for ourselves that, with automation processes, culture and soft management adjusted to the organisation are also a decisive factor for the success of transformation.

Our technology teams are marketing agencies on their own account

“When the tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” You probably know this saying. Areas of innovation must guard against this mistaken assessment. But, much more often, we experience the opposite: our tool just doesn’t find any nail. Because departments don’t know our solution, don’t see themselves as having any problem, think our solution is the wrong one, or are so absorbed with the daily business that there is no time for an additional implementation project.

For this reason, when the team started in the Robotics Competence Centre, it didn’t only determine the automation potentials within ERGO. It also approached departments proactively and attracted attention through communication. Waiting for business or banking on the fact that word of a solution will get around doesn’t work. The team quickly learnt that it had to be a marketing agency on its own account.

ERGO CDO Mark Klein

Author: Mark Klein, CDO ERGO Group

Mark Klein has been ERGO's Chief Digital Officer since 2016. Previously, he was head of T-Mobile Netherlands. His main task at ERGO is the digital transformation of traditional business in Germany and abroad. He is establishing new, digital business models.

Mark Klein on LinkedIn

Travelling through areas, promoting and selling their own approach became an intrinsic part of the work. The first stops for “sales events” were primarily areas that had to deal with temporarily higher workloads. In fact, the RPA team had to do a lot of persuading here. But where robots promised a real solution, they quickly won over promoters – who then further promoted the technology in-house.

Teamwork instead of client and contractor

With projects – including in-house ones – we like to talk of “customers”. The mindset is therefore clearly that the service is provided in the best interests of the target group. When it comes to robots, however, this approach is at most the lowest common denominator. In our experience, the better the team of experts and the Competence Centre join forces and approach the task as a team, the better the subsequent solution will be.

At the outset, we had the very first robots built externally, and that worked well. But later we asked ourselves why the in-house RPA team was much more widely accepted by the “customer”. It was because they are in fact engineers and IT experts, but see themselves as troubleshooters with a clear business objective. For them, it’s all about taking colleagues along and having a common philosophy in the project. It’s about integrating, interlocking and – yes – also inspiring.

The staff working in the departments are decisive to the project, because they know every detail of their processes and can immediately help in describing them for programming the “artificial” employees. Through close cooperation, the teams also immediately develop a sense of responsibility for the robots and the project.

The RCC has also had good experiences with winning over middle management, who are per se open to innovations and bring a pioneering spirit with them. The team invites them to events, gens them up – and turns them into multipliers in their departments.

Introductory seminars on understanding technology

The robotics team now tries to explain the technology at the start of every project, in order to impart at least the main features of the technology to the operational team of experts. They should understand what happens, what the technology can do – and what it can’t do.

To start with, this means extra work on both sides. However, our experience is that uncertainty and low transparency often lead to defensive attitudes among employees. That is one side of the coin. The other is that the teams of experts know their operating procedures and processes best. They quickly learn to assess the technology in this respect and to think in terms of applications.

With this knowledge, they become regular sales staff for the RCC, because they recognise which processes are suitable. Colleagues in the teams of experts run through processes and even bring in use cases themselves which often lead to new RPA solutions.

“Automation still worries many people! (...) Even if, from the area of innovation, we consider this to be unfounded, we definitely want to address these concerns.”

Mark Klein, CDO ERGO Group

Robotics community as a learning system

“Working in sprints” and “build-measure-learn logic” are buzzwords people like to use. Our Robotics Competence Centre, however, applies agile working methods from total conviction. For example, the team switched over its working method to pairing and has maintained it ever since. Mini-teams from RCC and the departments work together on a single screen and a single keyboard. This approach has brought unprecedented thoroughness and, at the same time, a fast pace.

Prioritising quick wins has also proved to be highly efficient for the organisation. This means that the first use cases to be automated should immediately bring substantial benefits, significantly reduce workloads, and be able to be technically well mapped using RPA software. Bulk business transactions are eminently suited to this mix.

The agile review meeting too has become standard in the RCC and has now been incorporated into an international community structure. Within the community, networking between individual competence centres is ensured, successes are celebrated, best practices shared, various working methods discussed and RPA software tools presented.

Do not underestimate the fear of change

Automation still worries many people! Time and again, individual colleagues are concerned that robots could take away their jobs. Left alone, they could delay or even block the use of new technologies like RPA. It is therefore particularly important to take everyone along with the transformation.

Even if, from the area of innovation, we consider this to be unfounded, we definitely want to address these concerns. Our business analysts explicitly address the uncertainties. Besides their role as a link between the department and IT, they are also a kind of project change manager for the teams of experts.

Involving works councils as early and as fully as possible is also part and parcel of raising awareness. For our projects, this is not only a must in the context of corporate co-determination. Above all, it is also a particular success factor at ERGO. We regularly present automation projects using robotics to the works councils.

Translating celebrations and pride into communication

For us, celebrations are an integral part of the trade. At ERGO, teams give “their” robots names, and have even been known to bake “go-live” cakes. The Competence Centre and team of experts celebrate every start of a new robot with a team event. They stand together in front of the screen and look on as the artificial colleague carries out its first customer jobs.

We also go into each project with a small, in-house communication concept. We want to be transparent and communicate early on, using multimedia, and in a way that is appropriate to the audience. Best practice is for the robotics team to create only the communication framework. On stage, however, are the teams of experts themselves, presenting their new solutions to the in-house audience.

For doing good and having other people talk about it is even better than doing good and talking about it yourself!

Click here for the Whitepaper

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