What you need to know to use robotics in procurement

January 3th, 2019
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Robotic process automation (RPA) is one of the main technologies (alongside automated language processing, predictive analytics, blockchain etc.) that will play a major role in the digital transformation of procurement  As the use of this technology remains fairly limited at present, Gartner has shared its best practices when launching this type of project.

Draw inspiration from others' experience with RPA

Firstly, it's worth reminding ourselves about what robotic process automation involves. Deloitte provides a clear explanation: "[Robotic process automation solutions can] process any input data by running a series of pre-programmed actions, like a macro, and following predefined business rules." These tools can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations and boost employee engagement.

However, as Gartner reminds us, procurement departments are at a very early stage in understanding RPA. Just 3% of procurement teams are using RPA at present, and 73% still have no plans to adopt RPA at all.

Procurement departments are interested in the idea, but lack the expertise and proof of concept to implement it. Procurement leaders are now at the level where shared services centres were in 2015. At the time, 70% of procurement departments hadn't done any work on robotics, but this number had fallen to 17% by 2017. Today, about half of shared service organisations are going beyond RPA and moving towards cognitive computing solutions, among other things.

Let's take a closer look at the lessons that procurement leaders can draw from the experience that shared services have in robotics.

Where to begin with RPA

In theory, RPA can be used for any process or activity that is governed by rules. In general, priority is given to redundant manual tasks, in order to free up teams and allow employees to focus on tasks with greater added value.

Before launching any pilot projects, Gartner recommends following four key steps:

  • Begin with time-consuming, repetitive and lower-value processes.
  • Consider how new processes fit into the larger procurement workflows.
  • Determine the type of data that will be processed by the robot.
  • Use a proof of concept to build support for adopting robotics.

Setting up a robot that can mimic the manual process of a person copying and pasting data from one source to another is a prime example of how one company was able to use RPA in shared services. Implementing RPA reduced processing time from 24 hours to 1 hour and improved accuracy from 97% to 100%. Over 2500 payments are now processed in this way every day.

Three questions when deciding whether or not to use RPA

Consider these three important questions to determine whether a process is a good candidate for RPA:

  1. Can the human activity be mapped as a repetitive process and therefore be programmed into a robot?
  2. Does the activity require human judgement? Can the rules on how to judge be defined to cover all possibilities?
  3. Does the activity pull (and put) data from and into the same place every time?

Lastly, what separates robotic process automation from other forms of automation is that RPA is extremely flexible. RPA is not designed for a single process and can be taught almost any rule-based process or activity. Which one you choose is up to you!