UK SMEs shouldn't fear falling behind on RPA

A recent industry survey has found more than half (57 per cent) of the UK’s SMEs fear big businesses use of robotic process automation (RPA) will help to drive them out of business in the next five years. 

Robotic process automation, put simply, is the use of software robots to automate business processes, for example, in back-office functions or your other core business processes. By automating time-consuming, repetitive tasks SMEs stand to improve their productivity and gain competitive advantage.  

With a lack of time and resources, it might seem that such a digital transformation is a daunting prospect for many small and medium-sized businesses. But SMEs need to embrace the new technologies available and shouldn’t fear them. Digital transformation – and by that I mean the transformation of your business through the use of digital technology to fundamentally improve business efficiency and productivity – will be key to staying competitive.    

How does it work? RPA increases productivity by speeding up the time taken to do mundane tasks; it ensures greater accuracy and compliance by removing human error, and it also ensures greater security of data and information – a bonus as we approach GDPR deadlines too. RPA can be used to improve business processes in many areas including, HR, legal, finance and IT.    

It’s not surprising 57% of UK SMEs fear big businesses use of it will put them out of business, as until now the technology has been out of the reach of SMEs and was only available to the large enterprises that could afford it. But this is changing and SMEs need to know that.   

On a positive note, the One Poll survey we conducted of SME c-suite executives found that two-thirds of businesses want to use robotic process automation. Sixty-five per cent of companies reported that they either plan to or already automate repetitive, time-consuming tasks. The financial services sector leads the charge, where more than 80 per cent of companies either plan to or already automate at least some business processes.  

As a firm, we have started to automate our own processes, including some IT, HR and finance processes. For example, we now use software robots to handle the processing of tickets that come into our IT managed services desk. Our software robots are available 24/7, 365 days of the year so we are able to respond to customer needs faster and more accurately as the robots leave no room for human error.   

One of the most exciting ways we are using RPA is to automate some of the forecasting and planning tasks within the business. Our software robots collate real-time sales and marketing information and now process all the information they collect during the day overnight to produce detailed forecasts and business intelligence. To collate this information and analyse it would have taken approximately 8 to 10 hours per day of staff time. Now we have improved business intelligence to plan with, and staff have more time to spend on customer service and strategic thinking than before.    

We are also using RPA to conduct some of the more mundane HR aspects of processing the needs of joiners to the firm. For example, ordering their equipment and setting them up on financial and IT systems. In addition, we have automated some of our invoice posting activities. Overall I would estimate we have increased our productivity as a firm by a factor of about two, which means we are better able to focus on growing the business and building an improved customer experience for our clients.     

For SMEs now is the time to sit down and think about which of their internal processes could be automated to create efficiencies in their business. We have only automated five key processes at the moment, but the returns have been dramatic. Most businesses will have several processes they can automate; some businesses will have a myriad of processes that can be automated. Working out which ones to automate should be done on a clear ROI basis and by looking at where mundane tasks are hampering staff’s ability to work on more important tasks.   

Importantly, RPA doesn’t necessarily mean job losses. McKinsey’s research has shown clearly that employees welcomed the technology because they hated the boring tasks that the machines now do, and it relieved them of the rising pressure of work. We call our software robots ‘Virtual Workers’ as they are there to work alongside humans to do the work they don’t need or want to do. They allow SMEs to free up their staff to spend more time on strategic and creative projects that will give them a competitive advantage, while also improving productivity. In the longer-term, as Professor Leslie Willcocks at the LSE says, ‘it will mean people will have more interesting work.’     

Interestingly, the survey backed-up our belief that RPA will help employees become free of the uninteresting tasks and able to focus on more strategic work. 77% of respondents want to use RPA to automate mundane, transactional tasks, and 56% saying freeing up staff time to focus on more strategic work was a key driver for using RPA.   

For SMEs, the cost of purchasing RPA has appeared prohibitive. Many have understandably felt they would be left behind as only larger enterprises can afford such technology. But RPA is now an affordable option thanks to the ability to provide RPA as a SaaS (software-as-a-service) offering. With a simple cloud deployment and as-a-service delivery SMEs can now access RPA without having to build costly infrastructures and re-architect applications.   

Now is the time for SMEs to embrace the opportunity of implementing RPA in their businesses to increase productivity and help them remain competitive. RPA and the digital transformation that it brings by automating tasks and procedures that allow specialist teams to focus on higher-value tasks is exciting. It means that smaller businesses will be able to deliver tasks at a scale and speed that would only have previously been imaginable for a traditionally ‘big’ organisation. SMEs really need have no fear of falling behind on RPA; indeed they should see it as a huge opportunity to help them compete alongside the ‘big boys’.      

Scott Dodds, CEO of Ultima 

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