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SMEs look to RPA to improve GDPR compliance and staff productivity

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio)

It is safe to say most businesses have felt relieved to have passed the 25th May deadline for the GDPR, but perhaps none more so than SMEs. With less internal (and possibly external) resources and personnel to draw upon to ensure processes were in place to aid compliance than larger businesses it has been a more difficult journey for some SMEs.

A OnePoll research survey for Ultima, a modern infrastructure and automation services provider, found that 88 per cent of SMEs are considering using intelligent robotic process automation (RPA) to help them with data compliance. Robotic process automation is the use of software robots to automate business processes, for example, in back-office functions or other core areas. Combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based technologies, the use cases for process automation are even wider, and provide even greater returns.

The results of the research undertaken with 500 senior decision makers within businesses employing 50 to 99 employees (that use computers connected to the internet) demonstrates how many SMEs are viewing RPA as a means of helping with data regulation. RPA is a good way of ensuring greater accuracy of processing, and thereby compliance by removing human error. It also ensures greater security of data and information, and can be used in many areas including HR, legal, finance and IT. 

Some SME leaders have undoubtedly been weighing up the investment in RPA versus the significant financial penalties for infringing data protection legislation, on top of any business financial loss which could be occurred if they were left vulnerable through poor security. The investment helps to ensure the overall IT security of the business as well as compliance so the benefits are far-reaching. Happily there are now RPA offerings for SMEs that use software robots as part of a SaaS offering making them affordable as well as effective.

At Ultima we have been using RPA technology to automate some of our own back-end operations and we’ve seen productivity rise by a factor of two since implementing the technology across five processes. The use of robots in our own IT managed service offering has ensured we have greater control over our data, removed room for human error and so is helping us meet our GDPR needs better. 

Freeing up talent

The research also found that over half (56 per cent) of SMEs had plans to use RPA to free up staff, allowing them to work on higher value work. Automated systems can perform repetitive, high-volume tasks, introducing greater speed and consistency. Resource time can be reallocated to more innovation-focused and complex tasks, which can reduce the need for lengthy process optimisation or outsourcing programmes.

Software robots can consistently carry out prescriptive logic-based functions to ultimately automate end-to-end processes or process parts, without the need to modify underlying systems. RPA can expedite back-office tasks in areas such as procurement, finance, IT and human resources. Once organisations have stepped onto the ladder of RPA, this opens a raft of opportunity to introduce AI capabilities to digitally transform processes and the core of the organisation.  This “stepping stone” approach ensures organisations are able to fully embrace these disruptive technologies and encourages a culture of transformation.

Enabling employees to switch off from mundane tasks to focus on more strategic and innovative ones will in turn help to facilitate greater job satisfaction and enhance staff retention. And for many companies, specific skills are in short supply and increasing the capability of the workforce is near impossible without extensive on-boarding and training of new personnel. In these scenarios SMEs will benefit from offloading repetitive, low value tasks to increase overall output on what that really matters.

Our CEO, Scott Dodds, sees a world where eventually every employee has a ‘cobot’ that works alongside them undertaking the mundane tasks that we don’t necessary need or want to do. Our cobots will work happily 24/7 helping us achieve more but also freeing up our minds and time to think more strategically and achieve a better work/life balance. The cobots’ consistency and their ability to avoid ‘human mistakes’ will also have a positive effect on the way we work, taking the stress out of many simple but necessary tasks.

In the main, the research has found the C Suite doesn’t need persuading about RPA, it is already on board. 77 per cent believe that RPA will drive productivity through the automation of mundane transactional tasks. Some of this is also already in place within SMEs with 69 per cent of organisations confirming they already employ an element of AI, specifically Natural Language Processing (NLP), as part of their operations.

Pressure from digitally mature competitors

SMEs due to their more flexible and adaptive nature often find it easier to respond and implement new technologies. However, in the current economic climate many companies are being forced to operate a lean resource model, with business as usual activities consuming a large proportion of time and personnel, leaving little room for investment in innovative new technologies.  

But not looking to the future and investing in new technologies carries its own risks. The fast pace of change in today’s world means that those who maintain the status quo are at major risk of disruption from digitally mature competitors who are ahead of the game. We want our customers to be ahead of the digital curve or they are likely to be swept away in the tidal flow of those companies who are racing along in it. Those SMEs with AI and RPA in place are rushing ahead on the digital river, using the technology to release resource from repetitive business as usual tasks to focus efforts on quality and innovation to gain competitive advantage.

The term ‘digital transformation’ has become synonymous with large enterprises and niche digital disruptors who are driving change in their sectors. However, organisations across the globe, no matter what their size, are evaluating and transforming their business models to take advantage of emerging digital technologies with the aim of improving customer experience, increasing operational efficiency and reducing the risk of disruption. 

A recent survey by PwC found that 72 per cent of companies expect to achieve advanced levels of digitisation by 2020. This transformation is essential to ensure companies, including British SMEs, gain competitive advantage and remain relevant in a digital world. For many SMEs this requires a major shift in how they sell goods and services to customers and how they operate. It seems that many are already unlocking the power of RPA to improve efficiency, allowing them to use their best asset - their employees – to focus on and undertake more transformative activities. 

Chris Watkins, Principle Architect Security, Ultima
Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio

Chris Watkins is the Principle Architect Security at Ultima.