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HR Embraces Robotics Process Automation

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by Julie Fernandez
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Despite the race to embrace digital labor, executives still claim human employees as their most prized resource. And HR leaders still must work hard to attract, develop and retain the employees and managers who give the business its competitive edge. But it’s difficult for HR to deliver strategic value when staff members are buried in mundane, repetitive and time-consuming tasks.  

To optimize HR processes that span multiple locations and languages and that must meet a myriad of compliance, hiring and labor regulations, high-performing HR departments have been turning to technology. For some, this has meant an unprecedented capital investment in cloud technology and systems that promise an integrated human capital management (HCM) suite, self-service and mobile access. Others need to address HR optimization in a more contained way – without million-dollar business cases, large project teams and six-month waits to go-live. In these cases, robotic process automation (RPA) offers a viable, expedient and pragmatic solution. 

At first mention, HR departments often think that any technology with both robotics and automation in its name will require the IT department and an army of black belt process engineers to implement. But RPA is different – it’s meant to be configured and leveraged by subject-matter experts outside IT.

Often called a “macro on steroids,” RPA is quick and affordable to implement and can be inexorably tied to HR processes. By interacting directly with existing systems and applications, RPA automates the routine and repetitive manual tasks – the kind of tasks that HR employees often say keep them from doing more creative, strategic work.

It may seem strange to hear that HR – by far the most people-centric business function – is embracing automation technology that takes on the work of humans. But, according to the most recent ISG Automation Index™, RPA is about automating tasks, not roles. Software robots have shown to be five to ten times more productive than humans at these repetitive “swivel chair” tasks. The data shows that hire-to-retire processes, such as benefits, payroll and recruiting, require 32 percent fewer resources to execute with the application of RPA than those same processes without RPA. And they execute their scripts exactly as they are programmed to, freeing up capacity for human employees to focus on executing more work or higher-value work. 

The best candidates for automation are HR work tasks that have well-defined business steps and rules – no matter how complex – and use established systems or data sources. Entering candidate information from new hire reports into multiple systems, for example, or filing requests for systems access, office space and equipment are tasks that software bots can easily take on. Once automated, it is often quick and easy to modify, or “retrain” the robot’s automated tasks for a change in the process. In fact, it is often easier to re-train a robot than to re-train staff, easing the adoption of process change across teams and departments. 

So, is it realistic for HR to take the lead on RPA implementation? ISG finds just over half of RPA initiatives are led by the business. For those who may be doubtful, a quick look at HR’s first-mover presence in the cloud demonstrates HR’s ability to use technology to drive transformation. Long before Workday popularized core HR in the cloud, HR departments were selecting and implementing HR talent systems. Point solutions for performance management, learning and recruiting did not require a big IT project, and the pay-as-you-go price structure was a good fit for capital-constrained HR organizations. Presented with an affordable technology that could optimize the process of tracking and developing talent, HR departments of all sizes adopted SaaS to meet a specific need, established global processes and added modules for an integrated suite. In short, HR was configuring, populating tables and managing processes and workflows that were previously handled by the IT department in large ERP software solutions. And, as it did, HR harnessed the cloud to transform itself. Today, HR organizations are embracing RPA with the same enthusiasm.

While RPA is not just for those seeking quick HR optimization, neither is it the antidote for complex process reengineering or circumventing change management. It may be tempting to believe your HR organization can automate its way to HR transformation, but best practices suggest otherwise. Resist the urge to harmonize disparate processes in a first-time automation, for example. Instead, identify the processes that will benefit the most from automation – whether you have already moved or are planning to move to HR SaaS or Shared Services. While large global companies such as Walgreens are exploring and speaking about RPA opportunities on a large scale, small- and mid-sized organizations are most likely to start small for efficiencies they can squeeze into their HR budget. For most companies, a balanced playbook for RPA includes a mix of thinking big, starting small and scaling fast.

For those companies looking to outsource as a fast track to transformation, expect HR outsourcing providers to be busy incorporating RPA into their processes – with talent acquisition and payroll at the forefront. With their greater scale and payback, service providers are some of the first to capitalize on automation.  

Whether it resides in-house or with a provider, an RPA bot is a pragmatic technology that has the potential to relieve HR professionals of their seemingly endless paper-pushing so they can focus on the higher-value work of developing a creative and engaged workforce. 

ISG helps small, mid-sized and large enterprises create RPA playbooks that fit their business needs. Contact me to discuss how we can help you.

About the author

With more than 25 years of industry and consulting experience, Julie is an invaluable advisor for enterprises needing to evaluate and assess alternatives for multi-process HR service delivery, including workforce administration, payroll, benefits, compensation, recruiting, technology, learning, and talent management. Julie leads complex global HR assessments and transactions around the world. Prior to joining ISG, Julie worked for nearly a decade as an independent consultant, providing market research, vendor assessments, systems testing and implementation consulting to a broad community of benefits administration vendors and human resources departments. Julie started her career in human resources outsourcing, establishing shared service centers for a national benefits consulting and administration firm. She is a well-published thought leader in her field. 

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