Debate is raging about the ability of robotic process automation (RPA) to replace human labour, but an Australian firm is betting it can cut out the consulting giants and take its own methods global.
RPA comes with a bold promise; in theory it takes business processes that are now performed by human workers and creates a software bot that then performs the same task around the clock.
Despite ANZ Banking Group sticking an early toe in the water and developments like tech giant DXC investing in a 60-strong practice to target local clients, plenty remain unconvinced that smart systems can effectively replace human workers effectively.
Few people have done more to advance the case for RPA in Australia than Sydney-based Mohit Sharma, who saw the looming shift to automation years ago and made the transition at his company Mindfields from being an adviser in offshore outsourcing to an expert in setting up organisations for automation.
His leap ahead of the curve has seen him winning clients in numerous countries and he has performed work on early RPA strategies at ANZ, Canadian banking giant CIBC, ING Direct, Rabobank, Rio Tinto, Broadspecturum and Pepper Money.
Now he intends to package up the lessons he has learnt into a product that works similarly to software as a service, in that it offers guidance and execution for automating business processes, charged by the process.
This automation as a service (AaaS) product, he says, will give more organisations the chance to have a go at RPA and see if it works for them, without the currently prohibitive costs.
It will bundle the latest research with education modules and advice on implementing and executing specific automated processes.
Organisations now pay separately for these services and consulting giants are making their share of revenue in advising on each step of the journey.
“Every organisation is suitable for automation – it depends on their vision and drivers,” Sharma says.
“Both small and large organisations can enhance their productivity or ROI per human hour by automating mundane jobs in the first phase. The major hurdle is the cost of automation, including consulting. Our aim is to eliminate this hurdle and democratise RPA for every size of organisation.”
‘Consulting scam of the millennium’
Not everyone is so convinced about the seismic shift being ushered in by RPA, with founder and director of Sydney outsourcing and analytics advisory specialist Swamy and Associates Sri Annaswamy describing it as ” possibly the greatest consulting scam of this millennium so far“.
His theory is that businesses are being sold a lemon by smart consultants trading off the mystique of artificial intelligence while really delivering something that is underwhelming at best.
“Many of the basic automation tools provided by RPA vendors such as Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere and the like, actually use simple but very detailed rules-based automation of boring tasks in standardised areas such as accounts receivable,” Annaswamy writes.
“In a simple sense, they are no more than larger versions of the universally used Excel macros … Sadly desperate banks and insurers all across the globe with fundamental revenue-growth problems have got conned by these slick (and some not so slick) charlatans and their thoroughly flawed business cases.”
Two senior McKinsey US partners, Alex Edlich and Vik Sohoni, joined this group playing down expectations, writing in May that executives they have dealt with had found the task of installing thousands of bots lengthier and more complex than they imagined.
As a result, they said numerous technology chiefs had put robotics programs on hold and even refused to install new bots .
“It is clear that the first act in the ‘robotics evolution’ has not been a slam dunk for many, especially when companies try to scale the localised proofs of concept,” they wrote.
Sharma is keen not to criticise those working within big consulting firms, but says the organisations have tricky decisions to make about how they position themselves in an age where lessons learnt from earlier work can be coded in software rather than re-applied at a high hourly rate.
He says consulting is often a routine and repetitive process and admits that in launching his AaaS product he is effectively cannibalising the revenue he could earn from talking about his early client work.
“We do not want to charge new clients for the framework we have already developed for existing clients, instead we have customised workshops backed by ongoing research, and we can also host sessions virtually or through blogs to further reduce the cost of automation and shorten their decision cycle,” Sharma says.
While financial services have led the way, Sharma says the majority of organisations across sectors are yet to begin the process of investigating or adopting RPA in earnest. So he is banking on getting a big enough slice of the global pie, to make it worthwhile leaving the consulting revenue on the shelf.
“Large consulting firms have got brilliant humans and more brilliant offices. Unfortunately, these things add no value to the clients when the consulting process gets automated,” he said.
“Where there can be driverless cars then human-less consulting is also possible. It is an irony that consulting firms are advising other organisations to brace for automation but have failed to do it themselves.”
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