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By Prince Kohli

As the business world grapples with the economic impact of the global pandemic, ERP systems are a source of proactive insight that can offer visibility and help organisations better plan for tomorrow.

Those businesses that transform the performance of their ERP systems with robotic process automation (RPA) can use this technology to not only survive but thrive in challenging circumstances.

The data and insight gleaned from ERP systems is essential, however most ERP systems require large amounts of manual work each day. For example, a recent study found that 51 percent of companies with ERP systems had to use manual extraction and transformation if they wanted to reuse ERP data. Most companies take that for granted – meaning that they have assumed that this participation must always be manual, using humans as bridges between applications or as part of processes.

Similar statistics point to the frustration with ERP installations and often with legacy systems. This usually arises due to their perceived inflexibility as they require custom-coded modifications to address changing business needs. Also, while they contain large amounts of business-critical data, this data is typically siloed and difficult to extract. Data entry itself into ERP systems is a manual process that consumes hours of many employees’ workdays. Besides being laborious and inefficient, it can be highly error-prone – yet many organisations accept this as a cost of doing business.

“A recent study found that 51 percent of companies with ERP systems had to use manual extraction and transformation if they wanted to reuse ERP data”

Unlocking value with RPA

RPA is a natural complement to ERP systems and is perfectly suited to address their inherent inefficiency problems. The software “bots” created by an RPA platform perform the same functions as human beings would, but much quicker and with a near zero-error rate. They can operate 24/7 or trigger automatically as needed. They scale up or down, work across any number of systems, and can automatically handle even data or system anomalies and auto correct. And, possibly most importantly for IT, they significantly enhance but in no way impact existing systems.

From a technical perspective, RPA works best on processes that have the following characteristics:

• Rules-based, where human judgment involved is small or predictable with a reasonable degree of confidence

• Repetitive

• Stable, i.e., not subject to frequent changes

From a business perspective, the most likely candidates for intelligent automation are those where efficiency, speed, or scale are the most important metrics or where error rates are currently too high, or any errors are costly. Examples of common processes often identified as candidates for RPA include various back office and front office tasks such as sales order and invoice processing, employee onboarding, intelligent data handling and transfers, customer-facing processes, managing physical or digital systems (automating building infrastructure, for example) – these are only a few out of literally limitless opportunities where intelligent automation can play a critical role.

Automating the repetitive tasks such as data-entry, movement and rules-based manipulation shifts time back to employees to focus on higher-value work. Finance specialists have time to offer more value with deeper analysis and planning and HR can focus on nurturing teams and talent. A large telco went from concept to production in only 18 weeks and was able to support seven different groups within finance by month seven. Automating financial reporting, invoice to cash and electronic fund transfers is saving this organisation 4,000 hours every month. This is valuable time back to the business allowing teams to focus on crucial digital transformation projects.

“The best RPA platforms are specifically designed for non-technical people who have no exposure or knowledge of software programming”

Implementation choices

Each business is unique, and just as ERP systems are adapted to best fit the company’s strategic objectives, the RPA implementation should be too.

Some organisations choose to empower employees to automate business processes that fill up their days with tedious work and keep them from attending to higher-value tasks. The best RPA platforms are specifically designed for non-technical people who have no exposure or knowledge of software programming. With these platforms, with as little as one or two hours of training, employees can build their own bots. They diagram the process they want to automate, and the code is automatically generated.

Another employee-centred approach enables users to ‘record’ (or follow) a process instead of diagramming it, again with automatic code generation to create the software bot. In both cases, these bottom-up approaches to RPA are virtually risk-free, as they don’t involve changes to any of the existing ERP or other systems.

Artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities are available for companies that prefer a top-down approach. These tools can observe human behaviour and automatically discover processes for one person or across one or more teams that are good candidates for automation. They can even rank these processes in terms of the potential ROI that any given software bot would likely deliver. Finally, with no other IT intervention beyond approval, they can generate the required code with one mouse click.

ERP systems are going to play a major role in corporate IT for the foreseeable future, and the use of RPA to eliminate ERP inefficiencies or gain advantages that were not imagined before represents a huge opportunity for businesses. In addition to improving efficiency, bots can free employees to make better use of their time and even boost morale – often with ROI in only a few months.

Given the high reward and minimal risk, the choice to transform ERP systems with RPA is simple.