RPA in Treasury: Making Friends with Robots

On behalf of those yet to explore robotic process automation, we ask a brace of technologists to reveal its real advantages and limitations, and speak to one business expert whose organisation is leading the way.    

There’s no denying it – mundane and repetitive tasks are a drain on resources. By taking time away from more value-adding activities to attend to such chores, not only are businesses failing to optimise opportunities but they are also unnecessarily forcing drudgery upon their employees. Both scenarios have negative outcomes. But both also have a ready solution that is best expressed by the maxim: ‘If it can be automated, it should be automated.’

Rob Van Peer
Owner and Partner, Findroids

An explanation is in order, and for Rob Van Peer, Owner and Partner of SAP automation specialist Findroids, robotic process automation (RPA) is a way of bringing the private experience of digitalisation into the workplace. Consumers can easily access information though smartphone apps, enabling them, for example, to locate a nearby restaurant, order food, pay for it and have it delivered. “That kind of speed and simplicity is something we are all used to as private individuals, but in the workplace, we are often denied it,” he explains. “RPA is about bringing that simple, digital experience into the working environment.”

It is certainly increasingly on the corporate agenda. UK tech vendor Think Automation claims that 74% of organisations “are actively looking for new use cases for automation”. Between 2017 and 2019, it says companies using automation for mission-critical processes rose from 16% up to 50%. The driver for RPA seems to be strong, with Think Automation also claiming that 90% of employees “are being burdened with boring and repetitive tasks which could be easily automated”.

James Flint
Senior Vice President, Global Sales, Findroids

For James Flint, Senior Vice President, Global Sales, Findroids, given the way most markets are turning towards digitalisation, these processes “are going to be dragged into the future, whether they like it or not”. For laggards, this may sound daunting but Flint says RPA must not to be confused with its more complex cousins, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). “RPA is not glamourous; it’s a ‘bread-and-butter’ tool designed to free up highly qualified professionals to do the things they should be doing.”

To run live, run simple

A project can start at any point on the corporate technology journey but every automation project will benefit from a thorough process-focused house-keeping exercise. While an immediate root-and-branch overhaul is not necessary, a robust attitude to change management is advisable. “It’s about adjusting your route plan to take into account your current position,” explains Van Peer.

It’s prudent to take one targeted set of business processes at a time so that the project does not overwhelm day-to-day operations. “It’s a key aspect of RPA that to run live you have to run simple,” comments Flint. It’s why he feels the primary starting points for treasury automation are cash, risk and policy. These are usually deemed ‘low-hanging fruit’ by technologists because they are common functions yet often subject to unwieldy processes.

In practice, transactional and standardised treasury processes, and data flows driven by external parties, especially from banks, often generate the most RPA benefits. These provide what Flint terms an “early win” in eliminating mundane and repetitive workloads. The capacity to deploy auto-formatting of data exchanges, for example, will save time and effort where otherwise multiple formats shared between different parties forces considerable additional work.

There may also be some internal processes that have become so embedded in company tradition that nobody had ever thought to question their existence. Treasury is not immune from such habitual activities and their removal requires the team to ask probing questions about current practices, demanding a readiness to challenge the status quo wherever necessary.

Earning buy-in

While most processes can be automated – there are few constraints to doing so from a technical perspective – it may not always be an easy proposition, suggests Van Peer. He cites processes involving a lot of legal and non-standardised documentation as problematic. There may even be what he refers to as “politically burdened” processes, where certain stakeholders may resist the push for greater transparency that RPA brings.

“RPA can come up against the politics of silos, where some people have gotten used to doing things their way,” agrees Flint. “In a world where decentralisation is often the aim, RPA centralises and brings global transparency to processes where no one has an excuse to hide or delay information sharing. That may prove to be too sensitive an issue for some.”

Where automation proves overly contentious, or a programme requires close monitoring before progressing, hybrid automation may provide the solution. Here, points of human intervention are inserted to check and mitigate any perceived risk attributed to full automation. “Hybridisation can be used as a fail-safe, adding a state of reversibility to the process, offering an ‘undo’ option before going live,” explains Flint.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated RPA consequences is employee friction, where automation is often equated with job losses. Van Peer counters that RPA does not necessarily make people redundant. Indeed, he notes, “its effect can often be the opposite, with automation often enabling employees to become involved in more useful and interesting activities”. Again, strong change management is essential but this is about earning buy-in, not imposing the unwelcome.

Analysing the job

“When companies talk about robotics, often they forget that the key success feature here is the human element,” says Van Peer. “To succeed with RPA, you must allow people to tell you what frustrations they are experiencing with their job, and start there.” But then he says it’s important to find out what they would do if, for example, they had 50% less workload. This allows employees to start thinking about the kind of decision-driven, value-adding – and more interesting – activities they would like to take on.

“We all have routines, but this enables people to take a step back and question what they would really like to do,” he says. “From there, an organisation can start working backwards and begin to understand which processes it needs to automate. And by letting people see the benefits, typically it achieves better buy-in and enables more ideas to come to the table.”

Case Study

RPA in Action: Port of Rotterdam Authority’s Co-workers

The theory is fine but it’s the practice that really tells the full story. This case study reveals true RPA progress.

When you run the largest seaport in Europe, and the world’s largest seaport outside of East Asia, there’s a good chance that some repetitive administrative tasks may have crept into daily operations. For this reason, the Port of Rotterdam Authority has for the past three years been engaging with an RPA programme designed to eke out maximum process efficiency. But there’s more to it than that, says Wouter Hoving, Robotics (RPA) Lead, Finance, Port of Rotterdam.

Wouter Hoving
Robotics (RPA) Lead, Finance, Port of Rotterdam

Rather than see the technology simply as an efficient tool, he describes the robots (or bots) that his team have built and deployed since the programme began in 2018 as “digital co-workers”. “It gives the idea that what we are doing is a bit different from standard automation because our bots are following the same business rules as their human counterparts, even though it sometimes means they run into the same issues,” he explains. “Straightaway we had to ask what this meant from a security and audit perspective. Is it the same as for a regular employee? We had to think seriously about robots in terms of segregation of duties and appropriate access rights.”

With the fundamentals tackled and bots now engaged in various streams across Port of Rotterdam’s operations – including asset management, port development, IT and finance – its employees are no strangers to the digital co-worker notion.

“Initially people were sceptical, thinking the robots would take over their jobs. But once we’d built and deployed a few bots, most employees began to see the benefit. Bots were taking on aspects of their job that they weren’t enjoying, and that freed up their time for more challenging and interesting tasks helping them to add more value to the business.”

The initial project engaged with a mix of repetitive administrative processes, including some minor tasks “that were interesting from a financial standpoint”. The latter tasks were selected because the team had calculated that the alternative – building application programming interfaces (APIs) – would be too expensive and time consuming. “A bot can be built quicker and cheaper, and essentially delivers the same benefits as APIs,” comments Hoving.

Overcoming resistance

Having done its homework, the port’s first RPA application started with a proof of concept (PoC), testing what the software could achieve in various contexts. From there, the programme moved into initial opportunity assessments, examining different departmental needs and discovering the most appropriate deployments. These were judged from the perspective of relative technical and business value. It wasn’t long before a wider RPA programme received the green light, Hoving recalling that “we were able to realise our business case quite quickly because we took time to find out where our efforts would yield best results”.

The first beneficiary was Finance, where a bot that processes journal entries was implemented. Out in the wider company, one of the first departments to implement RPA was Asset Management (looking after port property). Here, automation of certain administrative tasks enabled employees – mostly qualified engineers – to spend more time in and around the port zone, carrying out inspections and consulting with on-the-ground staff.

As news of the “good work of our robots” spread, quick and early successes with RPA have seen more functions within the Port vying for consultation time with the RPA team. It means RPA leads such as Hoving no longer have to overcome RPA resistance, the focus having shifted towards exploring new opportunities for all.

Managing change

While RPA appears to be a welcome solution for many, it comes with a few caveats, warns Hoving. Chief among these for Port of Rotterdam was what its adoption might mean for employees, the RPA team anticipating that many would see it as a job threat.

The feeling was that uneasiness could be countered through open and honest consultation from the outset. “RPA success needs everyone to understand and accept that bots taking away dull and routine tasks helps them add value to their work, and to the business, which itself creates longer-term security,” he says.

To maintain openness, an early decision was taken to run the RPA programme in-house. An implementation partner (KPMG) was brought in for the first six months of the programme solely for initial training. Thereafter, the internal team, based in Port of Rotterdam’s RPA centre of excellence, has operated solo, training new employees on active systems and keeping existing staff up to speed with new developments.

Of course, assumptions should never be made about the impact of RPA on employees. Accordingly, Port of Rotterdam also developed a change management programme that operates in alignment with progress. But, says Hoving, it was apparent from the start that consultation should be ongoing with both HR and the works council (in Dutch ondernemingsraad or OR, a body set up to protect and promote employee rights in the company).

An RPA programme that fails to explain itself effectively to employees will likely only ever be viewed as a cost-cutting exercise. “We knew that this was going to be more than just FTE [full-time employee] reduction, and that we wanted to ensure that our FTEs were being employed most effectively, but initially it was hard to predict how that was going to work out,” notes Hoving. “We quickly saw how the mindset was changing because we were able to demonstrate that it was not about taking away jobs but that we were adding value by freeing up time and allowing the business to respond to change with greater speed and flexibility.”

RPA in action

One other notable beneficiary of RPA has been the port’s Tax department. Recent changes to EU rulings have affected the classification of sea-going vessels. These are zero-rated for certain tax purposes but defining ‘sea-going’ is not always obvious and can be extremely time-consuming, says Hoving. “As the port authority, asking our many different clients for the right information is difficult, so we’ve been working with data scientists to create a robot capable of determining if a ship has been outside of Dutch territorial waters for the required period to classify it as sea-going. It saves us and our customers a lot of time.”

This is a highly specific use case, but the team is also using RPA for general activities such as creating purchase orders from purchase requisitions. It also has a robotic system of extracting data files from specific websites to upload into its systems. “Again, it would have been too expensive to build an API so we have a robot that ensures our industry data is current.”

Indeed, a large part of what enables the port to function efficiently is robust data quality. Properly programmed RPA means mistakes are not made, and if existing errors are detected, a fully audited trail is created enabling easier and quicker correction, explains Hoving. By improving system connectivity and data quality, he believes RPA is preparing the ground for wider use of artificial intelligence (AI). “Our AI initiatives are at a model-training stage, but we’re now looking at how we can use AI with robotic document processing in finance or procurement, for example.”

Being realistic

Generalist activities are driving the bulk of the port’s RPA programme, and inclusivity has always been key to success, says Hoving. At the start of the programme, the RPA leads conducted workshops with different departments. They asked each which of their tasks they felt were best suited to RPA, based on the criteria of being repetitive, having standardised rules, and outcomes requiring no professional judgement. “We then took a deep dive into each candidate project to really see if it was something a robot could manage.”

While initially it was necessary to pull departments into the RPA world, as the roll-out has increased, so demand is increasingly being pushed to the RPA team. Resultingly, departmental enthusiasm has at times got ahead of itself.

“We see plenty of examples where a department wants us to build a robot to take on a process it does not enjoy, but often there is a part of that process requiring professional judgment,” notes Hoving. “Decisions made by employees on the basis of their knowledge or experience rarely suit RPA because the bulk of a process must be able to be incorporated within strict business rules.”

If human judgment falls at the end of a process, and the robot simply has to prepare files to assist, then RPA can help. However, where a professional verdict is required earlier in the process, the benefits of RPA are diminished. RPA also struggles where non-standardised data is used, such as when supplier invoices are not correctly formatted.

In some cases, Hoving suggests that a department should not be asking if it needs a robot, but if it needs to continue with certain tasks at all. “It sounds obvious, but we see processes that have grown over many years and which continue only because they always have. By posing this simple question we’ve managed to remove so much of a process that there is no longer even a business case to build a robot.”

RPA has seemingly become a catalyst for the review and standardisation of a whole raft of Port of Rotterdam’s administrative processes. “We did this for our Asset Management department, where invoices for dredging the port [to keep it at the correct depth] were redesigned,” notes Hoving. “Working with our suppliers, we created a new template that made the process more efficient and, in turn, more robot-friendly.”

Increasing reach

Having harvested the ‘low-hanging fruit’, the work continues at Port of Rotterdam to find new and perhaps less obvious roles for RPA, says Hoving. “Of course, our processes change, and that can expose more workflows to possible automation. I do see RPA growing but the further we go, the harder those processes are to automate,” he comments. “To reach the more complex processes, and to open up new opportunities, I think we’re going to have to look closer at machine learning and AI in combination with RPA, and perhaps even use chatbots at the start of a process to help deliver more standardised data into the RPA environment.”

Whichever path Port of Rotterdam progresses down with RPA from now on, Hoving concludes that “in terms of acceptance and uptake, we’ve come a long way”.