A couple of years ago, RPA was seen as the "next big thing", prompting professional services firms to dive head first–but results fell far short of the hype. Here, we argue that RPA can still offer benefits in the specific areas of research and analytics, as long as PS firms approach it in the right way and on the right use cases.
What is RPA?
In Robotic Process Automation (RPA), software "robots" mimic human actions to carry out specific tasks. In some ways, RPA tools are powerful and flexible versions of simple automations found in popular applications such as Microsoft Excel. Often, RPA tools emulate the way humans approach a task, and interact with other systems as a human would.
RPA is different from both artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). While AI and ML involve some "thinking" and "learning", respectively, RPA is all about "doing". It is ideal for rule-intensive tasks that require little human reasoning. With the evolution of RPA technologies, there are elements of the knowledge services and life cycle that can be done faster or more efficiently.
For example, RPAs are good at answering simple factual questions, or pinpointing valuable information among a mass of unstructured data. Some examples can be data collection/assimilation that can be done by bots; the chatbots that are now familiar from many firms' websites, where users can 'talk' to a bot in their own language; etc.
Trends in RPA
A study by Deloitte found that 81% of digital leaders plan to invest in RPA by 2020. Taking a longer view, a study by McKinsey suggested that 60% of all work could be automated by 2055. According to Deloitte, all professional services (PS) firms will have to consider using technology sooner or later. "[PS firms'] clients are asking for more efficient and cost effective services; their staff want to spend more time on value-adding activities; and the financial incentives are improving as the cost of technology declines."
In response to these trends, interest in RPA suddenly exploded a couple of years ago, as PS firms looked for a way to automate the entire consulting process. The problem is that consulting is "mind-heavy", demanding problem-structuring, problem-solving, analysis and solutioning to unique problems. At the end of the day, you can't get too powerful insights by applying rules.
Moreover, even the repetitive tasks that PS staff carry out are fairly niche, and demand cognitive skills. For example, they often require finding insights from multiple data streams, intelligent reuse of material created for a previous assignment, understanding unstructured data or perceiving complex relationships.
Problems arise when PS firms push too hard for automation without considering these downsides. If they pursue automation for its own sake, or with too much focus on short-term benefits and cost-cutting, they can wind up jeopardizing quality for the sake of efficiency. And when you live or die by your know-how, that sort of risk is simply not worth taking.
In our experience, many PS firms’ adventures with RPA have not ended as well as they hoped. McKinsey’s findings underline this. “The economic outcomes often aren’t as rosy as originally projected,” notes their report. “While it may be possible to automate 30 percent of tasks for the majority of occupations, that doesn’t neatly translate into a 30 percent cost reduction… Unless the process and the organization are reconfigured, savings can prove ethereal. Also, bots treat localized pain points… fixing one bottleneck may just move the problem elsewhere.”
Where RPA can help PS firms
When a consultant starts work on an assignment, they need to get a detailed picture of what is “out there” in terms of market offerings, competitor activity, industry trends, expert insights and so on. As a result, they typically spend as much as 70% of their time gathering data. Then, they need to capture their ideas in a PowerPoint presentation, so they can pitch them to the client. Once again, this involves bringing together digital resources from multiple sources, which takes many hours but adds only marginal value.
Moreover, many PS firms are promoting a self-service business model. They want all their staff to be able to do basic research, produce brand-compliant output, create pitch decks, etc. But these staff members are necessarily not trained researchers or analysts, They may not know which database to scan for what type of data, what the right search strings would be or how to make the best use of available infographics. When these problems are multiplied over thousands of staff in multiple locations, it’s clear that there are major opportunities for time and cost savings from automation.
There are parts of select tasks, such as online research or creating standardized PowerPoint slides, where robots can make a valuable contribution. While it might take a junior analyst several hours to pull together all the logos required for a “tombstone” slide, an automated productivity tool can do the same job in seconds. Standard, brand-approved templates can be made available through a single, centralized online repository.
We believe RPA has strong potential to add value and deliver cost savings for PS firms in the research and analysis function. However, they do need to identify the right use cases by breaking the problem down, pinpointing areas where RPA can genuinely add value and considering what market solutions might work for them.
Benefits of Adopting RPA
Instead of replacing human consultants, technology can make their expertise both broader and deeper – and make it cheaper to deliver that expertise too. “Rapid advances in machine learning and RPA are helping to create a new source of supply in the PS market,” says the World Economic Forum.
Ultimately, automation opens up new ways for consultants to add value. As the WEF has observed, “By automating routine tasks, technology is freeing people to focus on solving higher-order problems… Companies that can anticipate change and react faster than competitors will stay ahead of the curve.”
From a purely internal perspective, smart use of RPA tools helps to create an engaging employee experience and boost employee morale. The most talented analysts do not want to spend their working lives trawling the internet for news articles; they expect a machine to do it on their behalf.
This positive, proactive outlook is the ideal context to start thinking about how RPA can make a contribution to your PS firm, beyond simple cost-cutting or even reducing headcount. “We’ve seen a shift away from anxiety towards generating new ideas that will help drive the business forward,” comments David Royle, at auditors Grant Thornton. In other words, it’s not about jealously guarding your own job, but about finding areas where technology can free you up to add more value. That is the heart of the promise made by RPA.