Accelerating RPA Maturity: 3 Ways Consumer Products and Retail Companies Can Step Up Their Game

Rick Childs, Managing Director Consumer Products and Services Industry Leader
Tony Abel, Managing Director, Supply Chain Global RPA Leader

The number of organizations turning to robotic process automation (RPA) for process automation is growing fast. So, too, is the number of RPA leaders looking to expand their use of bots to almost every function in their organization. Despite these trends, and the fact that use cases and tools for building bots are plentiful — consumer products and services companies, including retailers, lag in RPA maturity compared to their peers in other industries, according to Protiviti’s 2019 global RPA survey.

Only 12% of consumer products and retail businesses are in the “maturing and advanced” stage for RPA. That figure is expected to more than double to 26% within the next two years, but that’s well behind the projections for other industries like technology, media and telecommunications (56%) and financial services (53%). Worse, our research suggests that in two years’ time, consumer products and retail companies will rank last in RPA maturity, compared to the other five industry groups in focus in our recent survey.

So, why are consumer products and retail businesses struggling to move beyond the planning and implementing stage with RPA? Business uncertainty is one factor. Cost and competitive pressures and global trade and supply chain concerns are just some of the issues preventing companies from feeling confident about deploying new technology like RPA.

Resistance to change is another reason. Industry leaders responding to our latest Executive Perspectives on Top Risks survey, which Protiviti conducted with North Carolina State University’s ERM Initiative, ranked this risk third, noting that it may undermine their organizations’ ability to make necessary adjustments to their business models and core operations.

RPA Opportunities Outnumber the Obstacles to Getting Started

Resistance to change, along with talent issues (succession, hiring and recruitment), are a reflection of the ongoing “retail apocalypse” that has many traditional consumer products and services firms struggling to compete. They want to let go of dated strategies and practices, become less constrained by legacy technology, and, of course, increase innovation. They’re wondering how to do these things, and yet, they’re not recognizing that RPA can be a critical step toward achieving those goals.

RPA bots are fast, accurate and tireless. Even better, they are technology-agnostic, so they can work across legacy systems without the need to change underlying IT infrastructure. While RPA bots are not the right solution for all front- and back-office activities, they excel at handling highly manual, repetitive, time-consuming, rules-based processes, allowing the business — and its human talent — to focus more on creating new products and services and driving sales and revenue. RPA can also help companies lay the groundwork for a future transition to intelligent automation, which can be a mix of RPA and other forms of artificial intelligence (machine learning, natural language processing, visual computing, etc.).

Today, we see leading consumer products and retail companies using RPA for everything from demand and supply planning to reconciliation to order processing. Some RPA-mature organizations are also relying on bots for sales analytics, store planning and even new product launches. Trade promotion management (TPM) is another key area where leaders are finding significant opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and improve the accuracy and speed of decision-making. And yet, so many of their industry peers still cling to manual processes and spreadsheets to collect and analyze TPM data.

Certainly, consumer products and retail companies must navigate many challenges in getting an RPA program off the ground. But perhaps the biggest risk these organizations face is RPA inertia — remaining stuck in the planning and implementing stage for so long that they keep falling further behind the RPA leaders in their industry and others. To escape that inertia — or ideally, avoid it from the outset — organizations should, among other things:

1. Confirm that they have the right resources organized

Initial steps in creating an RPA program include assessing opportunities, creating a proof of concept and deploying a pilot. But well before that pilot phase, companies also need to organize resources. If this doesn’t happen, it can cause an RPA initiative to flounder. Many of the RPA leaders who took part in our recent survey said this was an important lesson they learned in rolling out their own RPA program. The process of organizing resources includes everything from setting up a cross-functional project team to developing a human resources plan for addressing workplace disruption.

It may also be helpful to evaluate whether a trusted external partner, such as a managed services partner, can help to formulate smart strategies for RPA — early on, during the assessing opportunities phase. Partners that have RPA resources can also assist with implementing bots, and testing, validating and refining them.

Involving the internal audit department or other internal control teams, especially in the pre-implementation phase, can also be valuable. These groups can assist in identifying risks and ensuring proper governance and control for RPA —allowing the business to move more confidently, and faster, toward achieving its RPA goals.

2. Increase RPA investment strategically — and swiftly

The starting point for RPA is typically a routine back-office process, like procure-to-pay or supplier onboarding. Organizations can move at a comfortable pace toward broader automation, as this post explains, because RPA solution providers now provide “bot banks” that allow them to deploy “mini-bots” or “objects” to perform specific process tasks. It’s good practice for businesses to be strategic in their approach to RPA and start small. But they will also want to be careful not to go too slow with implementing and scaling the technology, or risk being outpaced by the competition.

Our global survey found that RPA leaders are spending five to 10 times more on the technology than other companies that aren’t yet RPA-mature. They’re investing more in people and governing processes to support their programs as well. So, consumer products and retail companies that want to get ahead of the RPA curve, or at least catch up to it, should consider channeling more budget into RPA initiatives, sooner than later.

3. Create a Center of Excellence to help fuel RPA progress

Most RPA leaders, to help scale RPA technology across the enterprise in an organized and consistent manner, centralize their teams in departments or centers of excellence (CoE). We also see some firms establishing CoEs for RPA according to specific product lines or regions. Organizations on the lower end of the RPA maturity scale, meanwhile, tend to take a more decentralized approach, housing their RPA staff mostly or entirely in a business unit or division. This is often the area of the business that has taken the first step to pilot or test RPA and, by default, continues to carry the baton.

Creating a CoE helps to add structure and accountability to the RPA program. The CoE focuses and organizes RPA opportunities and seeks out and invites input from the broader organization. It promotes cross-departmental collaboration, especially between the IT function and the business. The CoE also helps the organization to better manage RPA-related change. All of these things can help a consumer products or retail company to scale its RPA program effectively so it can reach RPA maturity faster — and even avoid falling behind the curve in the first place.

For more tips on developing a successful RPA road map, download Protiviti’s global survey report, Taking RPA to the Next Level, available at www.protiviti.com/US-en/insights/rpa-survey.

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