Exploiting RPA to Cultivate Operational Innovation
Abid Mustafa
Director of Strategy and Customer Experience

Professional Background: Abid Mustafa is a seasoned ICT professional with over 24 years’ experience in Digital Transformation, IT, Operations, Project Management, Strategy, and Customer Experience, with special expertise in RPA, robotics and AI. He is well versed in different aspects of the telecommunication industry and has worked for a number of operators in Europe and the MENA region. Mustafa is also the author of In the Age of Turbulence: How to make Executive PMOs Successful (ISBN: 1482740621), which is available both in paperback and Kindle format.

Education: BSc, Electronic Engineering, King’s College, London University

This is the last in a series of five articles on adopting RPA in the enterprise.

The quest to digitalize an organization’s operational capabilities demands agility, risk tolerance, acceptance of failure, and innovation. It can be argued that innovation is the product of the first three organizational qualities; however, this would be an exaggeration. This is because the most important element in producing operational efficiency is giving people more time to think, try out new ideas, and fail and learn from their experiences.

Anyone who has worked in operations would concur that time is forever in diminishing supply. In organizations embarking on the digitalization journey, new operational traits like agility, risk tolerance, and acceptance of failure require time for innovation to take root, mature and succeed.

Hitherto, organizations have used Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to reduce costs, increase accuracy and reliability, enhance customer experience, and scale operations to meet growth. Very rarely, RPA is used to foster a culture of innovation in operational departments.

Operational departments are attuned to producing workarounds to ensure KPIs are met and customers are happy. But workarounds are not healthy and add unnecessary layers of complexity to existing processes and systems. RPA can help. Nevertheless, some would contend that the ease of use of RPA encourages operational managers to produce even more workarounds without addressing root causes.

There is little doubt that RPA is a double-edged sword. Operational managers can manipulate RPA to create more workarounds and circumvent necessary process reengineering/optimization and system automation work. Conversely, they can use RPA to give more time to operational staff to try new ideas on how to fix perennial problems. The latter stipulates that the freed-up time accruing from temporary fixes should be dedicated to innovation.

The trouble is that operational managers are hostages to bad habits, and once temporary fixes are in place, staff is redirected to other operational chores. If handled properly, RPA can engender the right environment to stimulate operational innovation. For instance, in a call center environment RPA can be used by the back office to temporarily reduce the average handling time (AHT). This reduction in AHT can provide more space to think about eliminating the need for manual intervention altogether and deploying a robot (after simplification of the process) that removes the need for front-office as well as back-office staff.

Using RPA to provide ample time for operational staff to fix longstanding issues or undertake work in a completely different way is a good way to foster innovation. Nonetheless, RPA’s success in cultivating innovation rests on operational managers encouraging staff to come up with temporary solutions and using the freed-up time to try new ideas. But the real question is: can operational managers change their habits to exploit RPA to instill innovation in the workforce?

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