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Overcoming the pain of RPA maintenance

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee)

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has brought about wholesale change to the way modern enterprises’ view each and every one of their critical business processes. In fact, analyst house Gartner predicts that by 2024 most organisations will be able to lower their operational costs by as much as 30 per cent by both redesigning their processes and implementing automation technologies. But with such high dependency on automation technologies predicted, it is important that businesses have a contingency plan in place for when the unexpected happens and things go wrong. This is where RPA maintenance comes into play.

Ensuring business continuity

Businesses around the world understand the power and potential of RPA. According to McKinsey, 88 per cent of businesses want to implement more robotic automation but often don’t know where to start, particularly when working out which processes should be automated first. When considering where to begin their automation strategy, companies often lean on the most complex and business critical tasks – but this is the wrong approach to take. 

The most successful automation projects over the last few years have seen begin their automation journey by automating a few simple processes that carry minimum business continuity risk, such as HR processes like payroll. As businesses look to ramp-up their automations however, it is important they have a clear understanding of their processes and their business criticality. At this stage businesses should look to conduct a thorough business impact analysis (BIA) so that they can understand the risks associated with automation downtime of certain processes and put the right response and maintenance protocols in place for if things do go wrong.

Organisations should look to set critical recovery time objectives (RTO) for each automated process; that is the time needed to get the process back up and running. This should take into context the specific time the process is being carried out at. For instance, for a retailer automating emails it is likely that this activity will peak and be of more importance during the Christmas period, thus the RTO will need to be quicker in December than it is during other parts of the year. Likewise, this should assess whether the RTO needs to be faster during the week than at the weekend.

Other important considerations include looking at how quickly the process downtime would lead to financial or reputational implications for the business. The business challenge here is resources. Digital workers add another layer of complexity to internal IT resources. In fact a recent study looking at the impact of RPA found that 41 per cent of respondents said bot management took up more time and resources than they had anticipated. Thus a challenge emerges where businesses lack the internal resources to maintain their digital workforce.

Scaling maintenance

Another challenge emerges when organisations look to scale their automations. RPA should always be tied to the long-term strategic goals of the organisation. It should be viewed as a tool to help a business achieve its overall objectives, and not merely a short-term solution to try fix a broken part of a process. It is therefore unlikely that separate RPA projects, set up within the same business but acting in silos, are going to be of much use toward helping the business achieve its overall strategic goals.

Organisations should therefore naturally look to scale up - and fast. This is where the second RPA maintenance challenge emerges; how should organisations look to scale up their maintenance of their live digital workforce?

One option could be to utilise the delivery team of developers responsible for implementing the automation. While this is a valid option when it comes to maintenance, it is not without risk. This is because once they have successfully delivered 5 to 10 automations, their role is effectively transformed from actually being developers to being full-time RPA maintainers. This limits their capacity to develop and deliver new automation projects and can lead their businesses whole automation programme to stagnate.

The cost of scale

Evidence suggests that the most successful automation projects occur when automation is carried out on an industrial scale but scaling automations can lead to huge maintenance costs when done in-house. For instance, during the early stages 5-10 automations can be maintained by one person in a full-time role (FTE). However, in order to cover for absences such as holiday or illness, cover is needed for this role, thus more than one person is required. This ensures processes can always be up and running and business continuity is maintained.

However, as organisations scale up their automations, more FTEs are required exponentially. For instance, if one FTE can cover up to 10 automations, then maintenance for 100 automations would require a minimum of 10 FTEs. So, for example, if one FTE costs €70,000 then 10 FTEs would cost the business a minimum of €700,000 FTEs. This is a huge cost for businesses to incur and can result in businesses either being put off scaling their automations, or them taking the risk of not having appropriate maintenance in place for all of their automations.

The value of outsourcing

So how can businesses overcome the challenges of RPA maintenance? The answer lies in finding a trusted partner. Outsourcing maintenance to an always-on 24/7 specialist can speed up delivery costs by giving time back to the business' internal delivery team, reduce costs and mitigate the risk of automation downtime.

Outsourcing maintenance also gives opportunities to scale their maintenance needs as and when needed. As maintenance requirements grow, outsourcing capabilities means organisations will not have to invest in skilled individuals who are available around the clock. Even if organisations only have small volumes of automation, companies can optimise the process uptime by running updates and reports at night with maintenance specialists readily available to respond to any arising issues at any given time. 

This ultimately means that RTOs can be changed and met during peak times. In sum, outsourcing maintenance is the best way businesses can cost-effectively guarantee business continuity, while ensuring they can scale their automations.

James Ewing, Regional Director, UK & Ireland, Digital Workforce