To survive and thrive in the years following the oil and gas price plummet of 2014, companies in the oil and gas industry excelled at finding ways to enhance efficiency, from slashing operational expenses to tightening procurement procedures and supply chain management. The emergence of big data and the Internet of Things as practical tools over the past few years also has given oil and gas companies the power to use information generated by equipment sensors in the field to monitor operations, predict breakdowns and improve performance, further improving their bottom lines.
The industry largely has kept pace with other industries, such as manufacturing and distribution, mining, and pharmaceutical and biotech, in adopting these new technologies. And, like companies in those industries, oil and gas organizations also are trying to foresee how the next big innovations in automation and artificial intelligence could be used to their benefit.
By focusing on those up-and-coming technologies, however, oil and gas companies have fallen behind other industries in the adoption of another technology that’s readily available today — robotic process automation, or RPA. Although the prospect of the technology is not quite the futuristic vision of shiny robots moving among pumps and rigs to diagnose and fix malfunctions, RPA can work efficiently behind the scenes to reduce administrative expenses, increase productivity, and generate a quick and attractive return on investment.
How RPA Can Help
RPA software, also commonly known as “bots,” can perform the manual, repetitive steps in a process typically done by an employee. These programs essentially constitute a virtual workforce that can be customized to execute predefined tasks or processes in a controlled environment such as an ERP system.
RPA can also interact with other systems, allowing it to work on a variety of rules-based tasks that consistently use the same processes and interfaces. In addition to saving time and money, RPA vastly improves accuracy in processes that are otherwise prone to human error, and it gives organizations the ability to free employees from mundane, repetitive tasks and place them on more productive assignments. Companies can also implement RPA without disrupting underlying systems.
Industries with heavy transaction-processing loads, such as banking, insurance and healthcare, have been among the earliest adopters of RPA. Some global energy organizations have implemented RPA software to handle accounting processes but, to date, few midsize and small oil and gas companies have embraced the technology. This is primarily due to the oil and gas industry’s focus on applying technology and automation to equipment and operations in the field, which is an area that’s very capital-intensive but also can have a dramatic effect on the bottom line.
But RPA should not be overlooked as a bottom line booster, and plenty of opportunities exist to employ it in back-office functions, including finance and accounting, human resources and payroll, and operations. To an extent, RPA can also play a role out in the field, particularly given the emphasis on automation and artificial intelligence as a way to help organizations sift and analyze copious amounts of equipment and geologic data that’s produced electronically.
How to Prepare for RPA
Before embarking on an effort to implement RPA software, companies need to make sure that the tasks targeted for automation are in fact suited to the technology. Here are just a handful of questions to consider when starting the journey:
- Availability of data — Are data elements that support the process available in existing IT systems with little or no manual intervention?
- Maturity of processes — Has the process been executed in a repeatable fashion over multiple periods, and are there strong documentation and control descriptions that summarize the activity and its desired, expected outcomes?
- Level of effort — How manual is the process, and how long does it take to complete it?
- Logical to automate — Do the steps and/or points within the process follow rules-based logic or contain logical elements that can be programmed into a software solution?
- Business value — Does the projected return on investment or the value provided outweigh the costs of implementing RPA?
For oil and gas companies that proved capable of innovating to survive the industry’s most recent slump, the time seems ripe to explore new technologies that promise to help drive an even faster rate of growth. RPA offers a relatively inexpensive and disruption-free solution from which companies can derive benefits quickly. Not only will it free workers to concentrate on more productive tasks, it will also provide a stepping stone to further automation initiatives.
Cassie Putnam and Kara Kott from Protiviti’s Internal Audit practice contributed to this content.