by Jérémie Dumond, SAP Intelligent RPA Solution Manager, and Yongkang Ng, SAP S/4HANA Product Specialist, SAP SE
COVID-19 has revealed the importance of business continuity in times of major crises and disruptions. As businesses shut overnight, terms such as “system relevant,” “essential workers,” and “disaster continuity sites” became key discussion points in business meetings. In the corporate world, while most employees were sent home, some workers, such as those in banking and financial services, had to work in off-site campuses away from major cities and others — in utilities, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare, for example — were encouraged to live on-site just to keep the lights on.
The sudden business interruption caused by COVID-19 has highlighted the need to ensure that business processes are resilient and agile enough to adapt to rapidly changing legal requirements, such as new social distancing rules. The effects of sudden shutdowns on global supply chains revealed the fragility of just-in-time models that are optimized for maximum efficiency — for example, when warehouse managers or accounts payable clerks are unable to be on-site to process documents, entire business processes and payments can freeze up for weeks. For small or medium-sized suppliers on the other end that may have limited cash or access to credit, this could determine their survival.
As businesses seek ways to keep critical back-end processes going, or to reinvent processes around a digital-first business model, there has been a renewed interest in process automation, especially among manufacturers — those that cannot keep up with sudden spikes in orders for urgently needed supplies, such as medical equipment, stand to lose out to competitors that can.
Robotic process automation (RPA) technology can play a key role in sustaining critical back-end business processes, especially in the face of sudden interruptions, demand spikes, or a temporary loss in labor. With RPA, robots (or “bots”) — which can operate unattended — eliminate potential bottlenecks by quickly and efficiently executing manual, repetitive jobs. These bots can also use application programming interfaces (APIs) to work between different systems, such as email systems and ERP systems, which allows them to work across entire processes.
This article provides business managers with a comprehensive look at how RPA can help build the business process resilience that is required in an unpredictable business landscape. It first outlines the main process challenges faced by businesses during a significant disruption, such as COVID-19, and looks at how RPA can help. It then walks through two examples of how SAP customers are using RPA to turn challenges presented by different types of business disruptions into opportunities, and it finally provides an overview of how SAP can help organizations get started with RPA with solutions such as SAP Intelligent RPA, and not only survive, but thrive.
Key Process Challenges During Disruptive Events
Disruptive events such as the current COVID-19 crisis, or even the occasional IT landscape change, affect business processes in a few key ways. The main challenges businesses face in these scenarios are maintaining business continuity, an efficient workforce, and performance levels. In the next sections, we will take a closer look at these challenges and at how RPA technology can help businesses overcome them.
Maintaining Business Continuity
Maintaining business continuity by minimizing interruptions of business processes is critical to preventing disruptions from adversely affecting the business. For example, most suppliers still use email to confirm the delivery of specific quantities of products at specific prices. For the buying company that is receiving this email, if the purchasing employee responsible for manually recording the order information into the ERP system is not there to do so, the process could completely stop. The reverse also applies, where supplying companies may struggle to keep up with orders and ramp up production.
Bots can help manage these types of bottlenecks. This is a particularly useful approach in scenarios such as the COVID-19 crisis, where under the US Defense Production Act, industrial manufacturing and automobile companies were suddenly required to produce medical equipment using parts that are unrelated to their business, and potentially needed to work with new suppliers that are not yet integrated into a procurement network such as SAP Ariba or into an electronic data interchange (EDI) system. In this case, a bot can be built to receive confirmation emails, extract the necessary information (such as purchase-order numbers and line-item confirmation details), and then update the details in the SAP S/4HANA system, for example. In addition, the entire business process can be redesigned around the bot, where instead of sending emails to an individual purchaser’s account for processing, for instance, they can be sent to a central inbox for processing by the bot.
This approach eliminates the need for purchasing employees to act as a bridge between the emails and the ERP system. The employee would only need to remotely monitor the latest updates made by the bot to the purchase order in the ERP system. Redesigning the process around automation also reduces the potential for workflow blockages. Imagine a scenario where a purchaser needs to manually forward an email confirmation to a colleague who is responsible for another segment of the workflow, and that colleague is suddenly unavailable for an extended period of time. With a bot handling these steps, the workflow can continue uninterrupted. Redesigning business processes around automation builds resilience and ensures that businesses can continue, even in rapidly shifting conditions.
Maintaining an Efficient Workforce
Another challenge businesses face during a crisis such as COVID-19 is ensuring that teams suddenly separated from one another remain efficient. With COVID-19, essential employees were quickly identified by how essential their functions are to the business, rather than by their rank or seniority. This meant that certain employees, especially those in mid-level to higher-level management positions, found themselves working from home or from another location, while others such as line workers remained on-site.
This separation can be particularly challenging for inventory and warehouse management processes, where warehouse clerks or a reduced operational team may be allowed on-site while managers remain off-site. In highly manual processes such as inventory counting, which requires close coordination between warehouse managers who work in the ERP system, such as SAP S/4HANA, and warehouse clerks who work with data in spreadsheets, the separation of managers and clerks is a logistical challenge that risks slowing down the entire business process. This presents even more of a risk for businesses such as online essential-goods retailers, which may experience higher demand volumes and inventory turnover speeds in crisis scenarios.
In this scenario, an attended bot can be built to help bridge the processes within the ERP system and the manual inventory count process. When the manager creates a new physical inventory count document in the ERP system prior to an inventory stock-taking exercise, this action can automatically trigger the generation of Microsoft Excel templates for the clerks, complete with line items, their descriptions, and item numbers. Once the count is done and the clerks update the numbers in the template, the templates can be uploaded into a file folder where an unattended bot picks them up and automatically posts the inventory updates in the ERP system. This approach reduces the risk of manual errors when the data is entered in the templates and in the ERP system, especially during high inventory turnover, and the manager only needs to monitor the inventory statuses in the ERP system, which can be done remotely. Automating certain manual steps in these types of processes helps save time and ensures a quicker turnaround on inventory updates.
While automation in modern warehouse environments might also incorporate advanced technologies such as image recognition, many of these are expensive technologies that require scale and a longer implementation timeline, which can put them out of reach for smaller organizations. In comparison, RPA can be quickly built and deployed by smaller businesses to ease bottlenecks and rapidly respond to changing needs. With RPA, even “offline” spreadsheets gain a level of robustness that can get the job done more efficiently than real-time mobile inventory apps, especially when bandwidth is overwhelmed during a crisis or when businesses do not have the time to redesign applications.
Maintaining Performance Levels
With more people working remotely, adequate bandwidth has become a challenge for organizations as they try to maintain performance levels while work volumes surge. Call centers in banks, insurance companies, and airlines in particular face sudden spikes in requests for various services. For the agent, it can be difficult to distinguish between simple inquiries and more complex service interactions. While automation in call centers has existed for some time to help manage costs, the COVID-19 crisis has led to increased pressure to accelerate automation to help avoid a drop-off in performance. With call centers, for example, RPA can help by prioritizing incoming calls during the initial stage and directing only critical inquiries to the agent. The overwhelming volume of repetitive, simple queries can be handled by a bot that is able to scale to meet surges in demand. This capability helps sustain performance levels while reducing demands on bandwidth and agents, which have limited capacity.
The need for uninterrupted service is especially critical for activities such as unblocking risks or credit limits for insurance or bank customers in urgent situations — stranded overseas, for example, due to the cancellation of flights. In a crisis where certain business services may become an essential lifeline to customers, companies cannot afford to have these processes slow down or completely stop because service lines are overwhelmed, bandwidth is poor, or employees are suddenly unavailable.
In the company’s back end, even mundane accounts payable processes can be critical to ensuring suppliers and customers are paid on time. During times of limited bandwidth and sudden volume spikes, it may be too time consuming for organizations such as medical equipment manufacturers to create large numbers of new business partners in the SAP S/4HANA system, for example, and to then validate each one for missing bank account or payment details. In this case, RPA can help alleviate performance bottlenecks and maintain the flow of essential supplies. A bot can be built to post new business partner data that was manually entered in a spreadsheet in the ERP system or to check existing data for incomplete payment information. These activities can be performed in a single run, which helps prevent the high bandwidth use caused by users constantly interacting with the ERP system to individually create and check business partner data.
RPA in the Real World: Two Customer Examples
So, what does the use of RPA look like in the real world? How are other SAP customers using it, and how is it helping them address their business needs? Here, we look at how a European insurance company is using this technology to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on its business, and how a leading organization in the polymer solutions industry is using RPA to accelerate a digital, cloud-based strategy, which can bring its own type of disruptions to the business.
Using RPA to Mitigate the Effects of COVID-19
One SAP customer, a European insurance company, faced significant challenges with its customer contracts process when COVID-19 hit. In this company’s process, every quarter, all insurance contracts are automatically assessed by a core system. This assessment is a complex calculation that attributes a “risk” note to every contract. If the new note is outside of the regular risk rate range, a task is created: the sales agent needs to review the customer case and understand why the current contract no longer corresponds to the risk supported by the company. The contract is then frozen in the system to prevent any new action for that customer (from a sales or an administration perspective).
To make the contract’s frozen state as brief as possible — the review time frame is defined as one month maximum — the agent must contact the customer to collect details about any new situations or incidents that can explain the sudden risk rate change (such as exceptional incidents or unrecorded changes to the customer situation). Based on this information, there are three possible outcomes:
- An information update: This type of update does not require any changes to the contract itself, so no special action is needed — the agent can rerun the risk calculation and close the review, and the customer account is then unfrozen.
- More investigation time: The agent will postpone the end-of-review date. The customer account is unfrozen but another review task will automatically be triggered the next month.
- A contractual update: This type of update requires a review of the contact itself. The agent requests new customer details, updates the contract, and closes the review, and the customer account is then unfrozen.
As soon as governments locked down Europe in response to COVID-19, the insurance company realized that the shutdown would not only prevent employees from working in the office, but also add tremendous complexity to contract reviews, and cause a huge number of customer accounts to be locked amid a growing backlog of reviews. The business was facing insufficient resources to manage the workload, an inability to hire more staff, and a long road ahead — as these were the early days of a situation bound to worsen in the coming weeks. For this company, the clear answer was an RPA solution, SAP Intelligent RPA, because it could be based on the existing process (no need for a heavy and long implementation), it could be based on the existing system (no need for change management), and it could be live in just three weeks.
A bot now opens every incoming review and automatically closes low-risk cases or, for higher-risk cases, modifies the deadline to allow agents time to come back and process them. The bot is equal to five full-time equivalents, and it allows an entire department to work safely from home while ensuring business continuity by preventing thousands of customer accounts from being frozen.
Using RPA to Accelerate a Digital, Cloud-Based Strategy
Another SAP customer, a leading business in the polymer solutions industry, chose to adopt a brand-new, cloud-based ERP system — SAP S/4HANA Cloud. While this type of deployment is not a crisis like COVID-19, it can be a disruptive event in its own right, and it brings its own set of challenges. One of the key challenges is connecting the cloud-based system to the rest of the company’s backbone infrastructure. Building hundreds of new flows, sometimes from or to heterogeneous systems, often takes months and generates a temporary IT landscape where old and new systems are both covering parts of business processes.
In the case of this particular SAP customer, an SAP S/4HANA Cloud system has been deployed that relies on locally deployed SAP ERP Central Component (SAP ECC) instances — it requires accountants to manually upload financial data from those local sources on a monthly basis. To make this process more accurate and efficient, within just a few weeks, the organization created a bot using SAP Intelligent RPA to manage the process. By automating this manual process with a bot, the company reduced the time required every month to transfer about 1,000 financial documents from four working days to 10 minutes, and it was able to eliminate manual typing errors, freeing accountants to work on more valuable tasks, such as dispute handling and forecast planning.
Based on the success of that first experience, the accounting team started looking for other repetitive, low-value processes to automate to free up even more time to spend on more important tasks. For example, in another process, thousands of process orders needed to be manually completed, closed, or deleted, which required an accountant to search the process order status in different systems, make the appropriate decision, and execute it. This process was creating high costs for low value, an increased risk of errors, and long delays to update all the statuses. Using SAP Intelligent RPA, the orders are now processed with the support of a virtual assistant, which reduced the execution time from 50 hours per week to half an hour.
For this customer, RPA technology served as a migration accelerator when it moved to SAP S/4HANA Cloud by simplifying integrations, but its value also ended up going beyond that. RPA became a part of the company’s overall transformation strategy by supporting the digitalization, optimization, and standardization of the organization’s business processes.
Getting Started with RPA
One of the key strengths of SAP’s RPA solution, SAP Intelligent RPA, is the speed of its deployment. Business leaders have observed that existing plans around automation and digitization can often take years, and in disruptive situations, that is too late. With SAP Intelligent RPA, organizations can have their first projects up and running with concrete benefits within just a few weeks.
This rapid deployment capability has a significant impact on the methodology and mindset for the deployment project. With an RPA project, essentially no wait times or delays are required for the project plan. Its rapid deployment paves the way to an iterative implementation approach, where users can learn by doing and experimenting within a very short project cycle, and the deployment can quickly spread across the organization through multiple small initiatives.
Automation sweet spots are easy to identify — they are essentially anywhere users are struggling to execute repetitive, manual tasks. The traditional use case for RPA is an administrative process that involves a lot of manual copy and paste of large volumes of repetitive data between different systems. Finance, HR, procurement, and IT are all good candidates to start with when seeking areas ripe for automation.
To help its customers succeed with RPA, SAP provides a variety of resources:
- SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation in a Nutshell is a free online course that provides business analysts with an overview of SAP Intelligent RPA and how to use it to drive automation initiatives.
- How to Build Bots with SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation (see Figure 1) is a free online course that shows technical resources how to design and configure bots using SAP Intelligent RPA, and how to make them run as digital assistants.
Figure 1 — Free online courses help SAP customers make the best use of SAP Intelligent RPA in their organizations
- The Intelligent RPA Store (see Figure 2) is a rich library of prebuilt bots that can help accelerate the delivery of automations. If it’s a standardized use case, customers can get started quickly using the prebuilt bots, or they can use a prebuilt one as a template to speed the customization of bots to meet their needs.
Figure 2 — The Intelligent RPA Store provides a library of prebuilt bots to help SAP customers hit the ground running
- The SAP partner network is a resource that enables SAP customers to benefit from the skills and experience of those with expertise in SAP Intelligent RPA.
- SAP offers a discovery and enablement workshop aimed to help SAP S/4HANA customers get started with intelligent RPA adoption. To learn more, contact the SAP S/4HANA Co-innovation FrontRunner team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RPA can serve as the first step in the automation journey. Starting process optimization by reproducing manual tasks with automation is a good way to reassure business users and get them on board with automation. Once this first automation step is live, organizations can build on this foundation by adding innovations such as chat bot communication and using machine learning to manage complex business rules.
COVID-19 has shown that unprecedented change is a matter of when, not if, and it is prudent that employees, managers, shareholders, and customers — not only as part of a business but also as humans and citizens — be prepared to adapt products, processes, organizations, and IT landscapes to what comes next. Business reactivity and adaptability is now a survival requirement more than a market differentiator.
RPA can help businesses face new situations by enabling them to quickly adapt their processes and IT capabilities. By automating manual processes, such as uploading purchase orders into the ERP system, businesses can easily scale with surges in work volume, save on costs, and increase efficiency, and employees can focus on critical activities, such as dispute handling and supplier negotiations.
Get started with a trial version of SAP Intelligent RPA, and learn firsthand what it can do for your own organization.
Jérémie Dumond (email@example.com) is currently with the solution management team for SAP Intelligent RPA, focusing on go-to-market activities. He has been working in the RPA world for about five years, starting with Contextor and joining the SAP family with its acquisition of Contextor in late 2018. Jérémie has extensive experience in the process optimization area, and he supports the SAP sales and presales teams in positioning and selling SAP Intelligent RPA.
Yongkang Ng (firstname.lastname@example.org) is currently with the SAP S/4HANA Product Success FrontRunner team, which works with customers on innovation adoption. The team’s goal is to help customers automate existing business processes in SAP S/4HANA using the latest technologies, such as machine learning and robotic process automation, as part of their digitization plans. Yong has more than five years of experience at SAP, where he previously worked on database and data platforms, focusing on innovation topics using technologies such as SAP HANA.