While the benefits of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) have been largely understood by finance professionals, a growing number of organizations turn now to this technology to enable and report on environmental, social and governance (ESG) programs.
In a recent white paper by market intelligence and research firm IDC, authors Angela Salmeron and Neil Ward-Dutton explore why automation can be perceived as a force for good and provide six steps to transform theory into practice.
You can’t ignore automation – why would you want to?
“Automation software, or RPA, is at the moment the most pervasive and the most predominant type of technology deployed across organizations”, says Angela Salmeron, Future of Work Practice Lead at IDC. “We are seeing use cases multiplied by the minute. At first it was very much back office, now it is also in the front office – it is everywhere.”
This follows the trend of 47% of organizations planning to introduce Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to the workplace in the next 18 months, 39% intending to implement other process automation technologies (including workflow automation) and 63% planning to add task-focused apps on mobile devices.
“And automation is not just about IT. It’s all about efficiency: automation supports people in their job”, says Salmeron. “The opportunity brought by RPA is to automate processes; not to replace jobs but to transform them”.
Margareta Mucibabici, Public Affairs Manager at UiPath, who was involved in the research leading to the white paper, explains how companies can leverage automation to accelerate their mission and contribute to higher value creation. This touches upon the discussion about the actual meaning of automation for good. She says:
“First off, automation is about accelerating human achievement.”
“And when thinking about accelerating human achievement, it’s about putting people at the centre of digital transformation. That’s why we also look at the technology that we develop, how we put it to use, how we contribute to changing the future of work…”
Reap the automation you sow
Mucibabici says “When we take an ‘automation for good’ approach, we are also looking at ways in which technology can improve the lives of people and benefit society as a whole,” she explains.
So how can businesses leverage ‘the right kind of’ automation to achieve such benefits?
Salermon says that “for both enterprises and employees to fully benefit from automation, it’s crucial that the former take steps to implement change management policies and foster education about the advantages of implementing automation to the workplace.”
Firstly, it’s important for employees to know what automation can do for them. Secondly, what it will not do.
“The mission for the RPA industry is to change perceptions across organizations.”
“Because you obviously have two things,” Salermon says. “The first is managers trying to implement technology. Employees, on the other hand, want to know if this technology is going to replace their job.”
Mucibabici similarly asks “How do we leverage automation to help organizations attain a positive impact? It goes beyond measuring efficiency, productivity, and the traditional return on investment.”
Have you heard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
“This Fourth Industrial Revolution is still about the stakeholder capitalism, which every board addresses,” Salmeron explains.
“In this stakeholder capitalism, which has advocates among very big companies, it is all about creating value, not just for shareholders with financial output, but also for other stakeholders: employees, society, the planet.”
And when we talk about these three, we talk about ‘purpose’. Purpose is becoming increasingly important for how organizations operate. According to a survey from McKinsey & Company, employees who have a strong sense of purpose at work are healthier, more productive, and more engaged.
As the IDC report states:
“Without clear goals and direction, organizations risk missing out on the full potential of automation and overlooking its ability to enable social impact. Even more so, it is now easier than ever for automation to be unintentionally implemented in ways that run counter to the positive societal and business outcomes that organizations so often say they want to deliver.”
In today’s world, more and more companies are working to align their purpose with societal goals and strengthen their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. In essence, this means that companies with strong ESG programs are better able to attract and retain employees.
Salmeron adds: “This is where a sense of purpose comes into play. You want to work for a company that you feel connected to, where you feel you can make an impact.”
“I think the future of work is going in that direction: people want their job to be purposeful and meaningful. And making jobs more purposeful and meaningful is a task many leaders are faced with today.”
For those already familiar with automation, its ability to drive speed and efficiency, reduce errors, and create more meaningful work isn’t something new. Furthermore, as organizations advance further in their automation journeys, they add new indicators of automation success, such as employee satisfaction and engagement.
Let automation launch you into the future
The IDC report describes how automation can help organizations to incorporate more responsible business practices and advance the United Nations Sustainability and Development Goals (SDGs).
“Once you have a shared vision on how you can leverage automation technology to achieve a positive impact, you can also connect it to other ongoing priorities within your organization, such as the ESG strategy. For example, adding a sustainability goal to the automation agenda can expand the art of the possible for this technology.” Mucibabici explains: “the IDC report analyzes the role of automation in the context of the UN SDGs, which businesses frequently use as a framework for setting their ESG goals.”
“It also describes the trends we’ve seen in the past, how automation is evolving and illustrates these aspects also by looking into specific use cases of organizations that have implemented automation.”
“How should we implement automation technology in order to increase the impact and be able to report on it?Align your automation capabilities with your sustainable development goals”, says Mucibabici.
Businesses that are looking for ways to harness the power of digital technologies to accelerate their purpose and ESG commitments should consider a four-step approach:
- Map your organization’s goals and metrics related to sustainability, the environment or other UN SDG
- Identify processes and data flows to assess opportunities to automate
- Redesign and improve processes to support ESG goals, if applicable
- Collect data and track progress to help overall ESG reporting
Following that approach, organizations will improve their ESG performance while also enabling innovation and creativity and fostering a sense of belonging.
Mucibabici says there are several inspiring examples. For instance, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) where automation is being used to help visually impaired employees work with IT systems and applications by using speech interfaces.
“CDCR has used automation to streamline administrative processes and improve compliance, but they also used this technology to help visually-impaired employees. I think this is an extremely powerful example that can be easily replicated.”
Other use cases include leveraging data capturing and processing capabilities of automation to report on ESG goals, optimizing the supply chain, monitoring air and water quality, implementing waste management programs, or processing energy consumption data with speed and accuracy.
Foster innovation through ‘ecosystems of excellence’
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) report Upskilling for Shared Prosperity, investment in upskilling has the potential to boost gross domestic product (GDP) by $6.5 trillion by 2030, assuming that skills gaps are closed by 2028. The economic gains would come from skills enhancement and the opportunity to take on the jobs created by the fourth industrial revolution, such as data analysts and scientists, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning specialists, big data specialists, process automation specialists, and robotics engineers.
How can businesses go from ‘limited’ to ‘leading’ while benefiting their own employees?
According to the IDC report, greater impact can be achieved by creating “ecosystems of excellence,” formed by multiple actors determined and motivated to tackle challenges jointly.
“One of the interesting findings from this research is that in order to maximize positive returns, you need to bring people with different expertise in the same room. Sustainability experts wouldn’t necessarily work with automation on a daily basis,” she says.
“But when you combine their expertise with that of your automation experts, for example, in an automation Center of Excellence (CoE), there’s great innovation potential. And becoming more familiar with these technologies can also help other business units that don’t necessarily work with automation on a daily basis.”
“Automation (for good) is coming soon to a workplace near you”
Mucibabici states that “employees want to be informed, become involved, to become part of initiatives around automation for good. Such an initiative helps boost employee engagement, improves the work of employees, and creates a positive culture within an organization. Internal communication is a crucial element to connect employees to organizational goals..”
“The white paper will help, I believe – in increasing the awareness of the benefits of leveraging automation for good, especially as we’re working towards improving resilience and ensuring an inclusive recovery from COVID-19. Now we can redesign how things work to create a more inclusive future, create more opportunities for employees and become more sustainable.”
“We have built significant momentum around automation for good. But it’s really important to go beyond the theory and see how to put things into practice.”
“But, I don’t think there’s one way to achieve this. But there are some key ingredients mentioned in the assessment tool that was developed together with the whitepaper,” Mucibabici says. “And, last but not least, correct and adapt. Make sure that things you have started with are still accurate and relevant for your organization.”