Robotic Process Automation Gains a Foothold in HR

Manual, repetitive tasks can be reduced or eliminated by bots

By Dave Zielinski Apr 10, 2018
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​You've heard of artificial intelligence and machine learning. But there's another technology that's also producing impressive labor-saving efficiencies, reducing costs and improving data management for HR. Robotic process automation (RPA) is performing rules-based, highly transactional processes in the HR department that require little or no human judgment.

RPA works by having a software "bot" take over high-volume, repetitive operational tasks from HR employees, often improving the accuracy and speed of data processing—such as payroll, benefits enrollment, onboarding and compliance reporting that all require a significant amount of manual, repetitive labor.

Onboarding or transferring an employee, for example, triggers multiple process steps in payroll and benefits systems that RPA bots can do, freeing up HR staff for other duties.

"RPA bots are particularly good at performing 'swivel chair' tasks requiring the ability to access multiple applications to get work done," said Greg Vert, a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting.  Examples include pulling data from one HR system and loading it into another, auditing data for integrity, and generating or distributing reports by aggregating data from multiple sources. RPA bots also can perform tasks like opening e-mail attachments and completing electronic forms.

Deloitte's 2017 Global Human Capital Trends study found 22 percent of the highest-performing HR organizations are currently implementing or have implemented RPA, compared with just 6 percent of the lowest-performing organizations. Almost half of HR global shared services executives believe RPA will deliver 10 to 20 percent savings to their businesses, the Deloitte survey found, with 9 percent expecting a savings of 40 percent or more.

Vert said a study from research firm Forrester found that automating a high-volume, low-complexity process can free up to three to four full-time employees, allowing them to focus on tasks like strategy creation, innovation, data analysis and more.

For the first time, the annual HR Systems Survey conducted by Sierra-Cedar is tracking use of RPA in HR, said Stacey Harris, the company's vice president of research and analytics, signaling a growing interest in the technology. The 2018-2019 survey will be released this fall.

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RPA Case Study

Some organizations are far along on their RPA journeys. At Ernst and Young (EY), the London-based tax, transaction and advisory services company, there are now 822 internal RPA bots in production or development, with 23 of those being used in HR, said Larry Nash, the company's United States recruiting leader.

One bot that EY has in development, for example, will track employees' continuing-education requirements and prompt them if action is needed. "Every minute not spent by an employee monitoring CPE [continuing professional education] reports can be better spent elsewhere," Nash said. "Once such HR processes are automated, the benefits accrue year after year." Other gains from RPA are equally valuable but harder to quantify, Nash said, such as the consistency and quality gained from being able to perform an HR process the same way every time.

EY makes the business case for a bot by determining the cost of human labor saved in executing a process, the cost of developing a bot and a three-year projected return on investment, Nash said. "Eleven of our HR bots in production in the United States are estimated to have a three-year ROI of over $4 million."

Getting Started with RPA

If you're just beginning to consider RPA, Vert suggests identifying the top processes for potential automation based on volume, standardization and complexity, and then piloting two or three software bots in those areas. One advantage of RPA is it can often be easily used with existing HR technology platforms without having to replace or disrupt a payroll system, since RPA accesses applications at the user interface layer as a human would.

"RPA software is intended to sit on top of legacy systems," said Nash. "Ideally the legacy system has no idea the user is a bot instead of a human." While RPA bots can be limited by the speed of the underlying system, Nash said EY has found that many individual tasks—such as creating an e-mail to be sent to employees attending a training session—can be done faster by a bot than a human.

RPA Costs

Costs of implementing RPA software vary based on whether bots are developed in-house or by a vendor, a vendor procurement process and a company's scale. Vert said there are three key costs to consider when evaluating RPA solutions: one-time setup, bot licensing fees, and bot development and maintenance costs. Some established RPA vendors include Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere and UiPath.

As the costs of RPA decrease over time and bot development skills become more common, opportunities to apply RPA within HR will only grow, Nash believes. "One thing we've noticed is the more we talk with our HR teams about opportunities for automation, the more skilled they become at identifying and surfacing opportunities to apply it," he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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