Robotic process automation (RPA) is one of the hottest areas of technology investment in 2019.

Leading platform vendors have grabbed headlines as new funding rounds underlined their status as “unicorns,” while recent research from industry analyst firm teknowlogy Group has found that investment in RPA software is growing at a rate of over 30 per cent in most major markets.

RPA’s popularity boom has been driven by the benefits noted by first-wave adopters in the last decade, in both efficiency and quality gains as well as the ability to free workers from the drudgery of repetitive manual tasks.

However, many organisations are now facing a new set of challenges as they look to scale their RPA initiatives to the next level. For most organisations, RPA has been adopted at a tactical level, often as part of focused digital transformation projects playing out across different departments and siloes, with little coordination.

This has led to a situation where many businesses are struggling with a fragmented landscape of RPA implementations, making it difficult to stay on top of issues such as licensing costs and bot utilisation. A lack of a clear, joined-up strategy also makes it more challenging to get both line-of-business leaders and the wider workforce to buy into an extended and more effective use of RPA.

So how have organisations successfully overcome these obstacles? A new study on scaling RPA from teknowlogy Group is exploring these issues with senior business stakeholders at some of the most advanced RPA users in the world.

The has been at the forefront of RPA adoption, and one common feature among the more successful users has been the creation of a centre of excellence (CoE) within the business, where different divisions and functions create virtual workforces and realise automation opportunities that improve efficiency, control and client experience.

One major international bank said that its CoE has helped it to establish the “rules of the game” in terms of what the organisation wants to achieve with RPA and how it plans to achieve it. This has helped it take adoption beyond pockets of the business to helping the whole organisation change the way it works.

Where the CoE sits within the organisation varies from company to company. For some, it resides in the group technology function; for others, it is part of a shared business services division. But the most important factor is that it must be centralised, and it must have the power to pollinate guidance, expertise and direction across the organisation.

Another financial institution stated that its biggest challenge has been to equip the workforce with the tools needed to accelerate use of RPA at pace, while ensuring that it’s done in a controlled manner. This is a major undertaking, given that the organisation is on track to have more than 1,200 robots running in its business by the end of 2019, supporting critical functions such as clearing and settlement, client support and risk control.

The head of the company’s RPA capability has tackled this project by creating a central control framework. The framework manages the use and implementation of robots across the business, providing clear guidance and controls to manage the firm’s risk. It has implemented a federated operating model to empower business-led automation while driving scale and value realisation. The CoE hands over the keys of building the business case for RPA adoption and implementing specific projects to the business leaders, but it ensures that, while the actors change, the rules and the tools stay the same.

Five other critical success factors are cited by experienced business leaders for scaling RPA adoption:

RPA is not always the answer. Not every use case is suitable for RPA, and assuming that RPA is a silver bullet solution from the start can damage any process transformation program. Each automation needs to stand alone and justify itself, from both a financial and a technical perspective. Identify potential blockers at an early stage or risk a long-term backlash from the business.

Skills development is essential. Establish a training curriculum and create a clearly defined skills map to ensure that resources within both IT and business units can upskill into coaching roles, helping accelerate adoption across the organisation.

Manage user expectations. One common experience among RPA users is that the level of expectation among the workforce for what software bots can actually deliver is very high — particularly if the bots are underpinned by intelligent machine learning or cognitive technology. To avoid a loss of interest further down the road, be clear in what users can expect in terms of added value and in the level of training the bots will require.

Engage IT at an early stage. Many RPA strategies are being led from outside the traditional IT function, but that doesn’t mean that IT should be sidelined completely. The chief information officer is a hugely important ally in ensuring that aspects such as user acceptance testing are run smoothly, managing potential cyber risk and providing a clear view of when any changes are to be made to the applications affected by the robots.

Evolve and mature. Nobody knows everything before they start, so don’t be too rigid or dogmatic in your approach. The benefits and risks identified at the beginning of the journey are bound to change over time. Set up the processes, working groups and forums to evaluate and evolve the operating model to ensure that it stays in tune with the changing needs of the business.