RPA, Robotic Process Automation, often gives the idea that robots are going to a) kill us all, or b) take over the earth. This has always been a hit in Hollywood movies and frequently keeps us glued to Netflix mega-series. It makes great entertainment and most of us accept it as fiction. But as the Guardian reports, when it comes to industry and jobs, automation is often treated as a serious threat – a prediction that may actually be stifling digital transformation and business growth, in areas utilising RPA solutions.

McKinsey predicts that 50-70% of tasks are potentially automatable and that this will form the next generation of new technologies. At a time when dealing with huge volumes of data and avoiding errors is critical to using information systems like SAP effectively, organisations are turning increasingly to Robotic Process Automation (RPA) for repetitive, structured processes and some are seeing benefits that far exceed expectations. Typical use cases include automating processes like customer invoicing, journal entries, or asset depreciation.

Deloitte describes the role of “robots” as performing “routine business processes by mimicking the way that people interact with applications through a user interface and following simple rules to make decisions.”

Based on this definition, it’s easy to see how automation could help users who work with SAP by streamlining repetitive, rules-based tasks, but there is a big difference between generic RPA solutions and RPA solutions built specifically for SAP.

Generic RPA solutions are designed to automate processes across many systems and therefore rely on surface-level record and execution mechanisms to mimic user interactions. This can cause the robotic solution to break when something as small as a change in screen resolution occurs. In addition, even what seems like a simple process from the outset can be complex and time-consuming to automate, as exception handling, delays in system performance and other factors must be built into the process by technical resources. These types of issues can cause project cost and time overruns, or even outright failure.

SAP-specific RPA solutions integrate with SAP at a much deeper level, so while it’s simple for non-technical staff to record processes through the SAP interface, the robotic process occurs at the system level, making these solutions much more robust and enterprise grade. Solutions built with SAP-specific RPA technology also enable a user to quickly step in to fix any errors using familiar software such as Excel—resulting in faster rollout and ROI.

Decreasing transaction processing time

The case study below shows how one business is using RPA to manage its financial data processing:

A shared financial services approach allows accounting functions to transform delivery by consolidating processing into one specialist unit across multiple businesses. Vodafone’s shared financial services centre handles the bulk of the organisation’s financial management and processes and transactions like fixed assets, purchase to pay, record to report and general ledger.

Handling a huge number of assets within an SAP system is especially challenging within this dynamic environment, where requirements are always changing. In one area of the business, Vodafone was handling nine million assets and 100 thousand postings per month which would normally take six months to process.

The tasks included using five different SAP screens and two different transactions, so a 100-line item would take up to 60 minutes to process. However, using SAP-specific RPA capabilities, Vodafone was able to use an Excel-based solution and reduce the processing time down to 15 minutes. The results were seven times better than Vodafone expected.

“The system works very well for us,” says Peter Barta, Asset and Project Accounting Team Leader, Vodafone, adding “our complicated processes are handled in fewer steps, which reduces time spent on complex postings and allows us to avoid any internal IT debt.”

The future for ERP/SAP (and humans)

Of course, the question that remains for many people is, what happens to the people running the processes that RPA replaces?

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, nearly a third of all jobs could have at least 30% of activities automated by 2030. And although some jobs may cease to exist, others will be created.

However, what we’re seeing happen in many businesses, is robotic solutions assist, rather than replace people. RPA technology can in effect ‘take the robot out of the human’ and eliminate repetitive and mundane data entry tasks. Instead, they will be free to work on projects that have the potential to add real value to the business and boost job satisfaction at the same time. It’s ‘win-win’ for businesses as not only have they effectively freed up an employee to perform other tasks, data management issues become a thing of the past.