RPA Opportunity Heat-map for Utilities
● Erwin Loonen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Manager Energy & Utilities. Erwin is an experienced energy professional. He has led a number of IT, Data Science and Automation projects at energy retail, wholesale and grid companies. Moreover, he is the RPA lead of the Dutch Sia Partners office.
● Thijs Scholte (email@example.com)
Junior consultant Energy & Utilities. Thijs has hands-on experience with business analysis and process optimization. Also he is a certified RPA developer in UiPath and BluePrism.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is gaining traction as a promising technology to replace the human workforce in repetitive and low value-adding tasks. Given the ongoing war for talent and a shortage of qualified personnel, organisations are increasingly critical about the tasks that their employees fill their workdays with. This is where RPA software companies such as UiPath, BluePrism and Automation Anywhere jump in. Looking at their double-digit growth figures, they take advantage of the momentum which is there. How and where can energy companies also get started with RPA? These questions will be answered in this article.
The increasing need for automation in the competitive utility sector
The utility sector is no exception when it comes to the ever-increasing desire of enterprises to be quicker in responding to market changes in a cost-effective manner. Like in any other sector, energy firms are seeking to become leaner and meaner in their daily operations. In general, we identify four global trends driving the competitive battlefield related to streamlining business processes: increasing speed and quality while reducing costs and risks (see figure 1). RPA technology can add value on each of these 4 dimensions.
RPA acts as a virtual layer on top of an organisation's application landscape. It can handle most of the rule-and screen-based activities like any desk employee would normally execute during a workday. An RPA bot can act either under the supervision of an employee or fully autonomously. One of the core advantages is that it’s relatively lightweight, flexible and able to automate full chains of business processes, crossing multiple systems and interfaces.
Although these benefits are compelling, one should also consider a couple of attention points. For example, one should be careful with automating large portions of activities off the value chain of a process. The best practice here is to first optimise before starting with automation. Also, RPA bots can be prone to failure in a highly dynamic application landscape without proper exception handling. So, in these highly dynamic environments, a short payback period is essential when assessing the start of an RPA project. Luckily, most of the leading RPA software vendors offer low or no-code development studios, enabling rapid development of bots. This enables a fast deployment cycles of RPA bots.
How to select eligible processes for RPA projects?
Proper use case selection is a critical success factor in RPA projects. In principle, the following two dimensions should be considered to identify low hanging fruit for automation in general (figure 2):
1. Degree of standardisation
RPA bots rely on clearly defined rules for the execution of tasks. Thus, any process that requires out-of-the-box thinking does not qualify for RPA projects. For example, product development or custom contract structuring for utilities are processes that should not be considered. On the other hand, any process that requires numerous checks, validations, data processing and data scraping could be proper candidates for RPA projects.
2. Impact due to automation
The key driver in the business case for RPA projects is automation impact and can be segregated into:
Freed man-hours from operational, low value-adding activities that can be used for more creative and higher value-adding work to improve the business structurally.
Process improvements in terms of speed, quality, costs and risks as mentioned in the previous paragraph. For example, improved customer and employee satisfaction as well as process efficiency gains and quality improvements.
Specifically for RPA projects, a third assessment criterion should also be the number tools or systems involved in a business process. For example, if most of the work is manually don in just one (monolithic) system, usually all the automation can be done within that system itself. However, if the actions are performed over several tools, adding value step-by-step, RPA may be the better solution. For example, data is copied from one system, manipulated in a second system and subsequently stored in a third system, the process qualifies for RPA.
Using the Sia Partners’ RPA heat-map to identify low hanging fruits within a utility company
When applying the assessment criteria from the previous paragraph to the core processes of a utility firm, we can create an overview of where to start with RPA. We created a heat-map of an energy supplier and trading firm based on their high-level business processes (see figure 3). Without being exhaustive and strongly generalised, this at least gives us some focus in identifying low hanging fruit for RPA projects. Please note that we focus here only on the utilities’ core processes while there are also significant opportunities for RPA projects in the support functions (e.g. IT, HR, Procurement and Finance).
The overall picture of the heat-map shows that most of the opportunities lie within back- and mid-office related processes. These processes have their operational and rule-based character in common. Also, the relatively high recurrence rate or transactional nature of the processes is an aspect that increases the impact of automation.
To exemplify what a qualified use case in the energy sector would look like, we’ve illustrated two cases of successfully executed RPA projects within an energy company in figure 4.
As shown in the use case descriptions, the benefits can be enormous when applying RPA in the context of an energy company. Of course, it is paramount that the employees involved should be given more interesting tasks to carry out, otherwise support for RPA projects will quickly diminish. This is why an RPA project team should not only consist of analytical techies but has to be complemented with people adding organisational change sensitivity to the project. Just like automation in general, RPA only is sustainable if it improves the well-being and sense of fulfilment from the people involved.
The recent attention for RPA in the business world is fuelled by some global process drivers as outlined in this article. In the highly competitive utility business, energy firms cannot just lean back and maintain the status quo. Although the ongoing war for talent, we often still see a large part of a highly educated workforce wasting their time in executing repetitive and rule-based tasks. Now it’s time to open up this pool of creativity by automating recurrent brain-numbing activities.
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