At Curtin University in Western Australia, robotic process automation (RPA) is more about people and culture. It also has absolutely nothing to do with robots.
The University has been on a program of rolling out RPA since launching in June 2017. So far, most of the benefits have been to improve the working lives of staff and students as well as making the organization more efficient.
"I think we've shown that it doesn't mean that people will become redundant and lose their jobs because that is not the purpose of RPA," said Thomas Griebel, manager of Finance Business Improvement at the University.
"It has actually improved staff motivation because people don't have to do the repetitive tasks. Our staff gets better service, and the overall quality of their work has improved,” he added.
Griebel’s point is that automation has had a positive cultural impact and has delivered a win-win dividend in several areas.
Removing dull and repetitive transactional-based data entry from the jobs of university staff has not only delivered organizational efficiencies, but it has also freed people up to focus on the human aspects of their jobs which previously they didn't have sufficient time for.
Curtin began its RPA program with a proof-of-concept project in the Finance department, and that has now enlarged to the automation of 10 processes across functions ranging from Finance, Human Resources, student service, and information management and archiving.
The RPA project has also been extended to areas such as the disbursement of scholarship payments, a process which requires integrating both HR and finance.
The University has implemented the AssistEdge RPA solution, and estimates that the automation of processes has saved 17,800 hours of manual effort, which, “have been given back to the business,” said Griebel.
"It has definitely been a journey, and we are still going around to other departments and looking at automating processes where that makes sense," he added. “Because now we understand where you can apply it successfully, and also areas where you can’t.”
In creating its RPA team, Curtin University redeployed four staff from the Finance team and added another member from the IT team. It then recruited a recent Curtin graduate with the requisite skills, and also has three or four revolving student placements because they can “deliver new ideas and it creates a great environment for learning.”
The hours which RPA has saved have been redeployed at the discretion of the line managers in specific departments, but they have all been driven by a philosophy of finding more value-added work which not only improves the work experience but adds to the overall performance of the university as an organization.
“So, those managers have to decide how those extra 5,000 hours we have freed up can be used in the most meaningful way,” said Griebel.
One example of the efficiencies RPA has delivered is in the onboarding process in the HR department. Previously, staff would be required to input details for all students from one system to another for accuracy.
Now, the data migrates from one system to another automatically. While much of this goes through smoothly, around 10 to 20 percent still needs the attention of a staff member.
“Staff doesn't have to focus on the simple and standard cases as they previously did, Now, they can spend their time on the 10 to 20 percent where they actually need to apply some judgment,” said Griebel.
“Previously, staff would have had less time to think about these more difficult cases, because they were all tied up with handling all of the standard cases. Now, they can really focus on the more complex ones and give them the time they need to be resolved,” added Griebel.
While RPA is already proving itself at Curtin, Griebel can see a future well beyond RPA which includes machine learning and AI.
“Once you automate some processes successfully RPA can become a bit boring because it has done what it should,” said Griebel.
“We are looking ahead and thinking about digitization, chatbots and machine learning. When you implement RPA, you very quickly see that it is just one tool of many that can help, and from there you can start to imagine what else is out there and what is possible. Now, we feel confident to do further investigation of the next steps to take,” he added.