For CIOs riding today’s rising wave of robotic process automation (RPA), leading-edge adopters whose mature implementations have paid off can provide invaluable lessons about how to make the best of the technology and where its use can lead.
Telecom titan AT&T is one such enterprise, having began RPA trials in 2015 to reduce repetitive tasks for its service delivery group, which had a large volume of circuits to add at the time, as well as various services in play for provisioning networks, says Mark Austin, vice president of data science at AT&T.
“These things would come in large batches, and they would have Excel files and people were literally typing these things in individually into the systems because they weren’t set up for batch,” Austin says. “We heard about RPA at the time, and we started trying it and all of a sudden we were able to automate one process and then the next process and it kind of grew from there.”
With the technology in its early days, the first thing AT&T IT did was go to its compliance and security experts for guidance on governing RPA, which helped the team make its automation tools stable and secure. The next step was to win the battle for hearts and minds within the company by turning skeptics into believers that automation could make employees’ lives better. Initial efforts focused on addressing unpopular, monotonous tasks such as order entry.
The pilots helped demonstrate how automation could fit into daily operations and workflows.
Within a year, AT&T had implemented 350 automation bots. More than six years into its RPA journey, AT&T has implemented more than 3,000 automation bots. Austin says RPA has helped AT&T recognize hundreds of millions of dollars in annualized value, saved 16.9 million minutes of manual effort each year, and shown a 20x return on investment.
Taking RPA to the next level
Mark Austin, vice president of data science, AT&T
With RPA ingrained in its business process DNA, AT&T opted to combine automation with data science and the chief data office because it believes the future is in smarter bots that leverage AI functionality, such as OCR or natural language processing (NLP), an emerging strategy often referred to as intelligent automation.
“Tying those things together is pretty powerful,” says Austin, who runs AT&T’s data science, AI, and automation group.
By way of example, Austin points to what he considers one of the company’s biggest RPA successes: a bot his group has created that uses OCR to scan vehicle registration documents and NLP to understand those documents and any necessary actions AT&T must take in support of more than 10,000 technician vehicles, one of the largest vehicle fleets in the US. If payments are required, the bot can also trigger the payment process.
Being able to create automation bots such as these was invaluable when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Austin says.
“There were a lot of customers that were calling and saying they wanted to move the charges from this org to that org in their company,” Austin says. “Someone might call up and say they wanted to move 5,000 lines. What we do now is we have them interface with [interactive voice response (IVR)]. The IVR detects what they want to do and then it triggers a bot to send them a secure form to fill out. They fill out the form, submit that back, and we run the bot to automate the process to get it going.”
The company has also rolled out bots to help customers avoid overage charges. One such bot monitors usage of AT&T’s integrated voice, video, messaging, and meeting services, more than 21,000 records per minute, looking for overage charges above a pre-set amount. If it encounters one, it automatically notifies the customer and the assigned AT&T sales rep.
Codifying RPA best practices
After the first year of pilots, with demand for RPA spreading rapidly through the business, AT&T created an automation center of excellence (COE) to accelerate implementation.
“When you’re the size of AT&T, and you’ve had so many mergers and so many systems, there’s just lots of manual processes,” Austin says, explaining why it was essential to create a COE that could focus on implementing automation throughout the organization.
The centralized automation team now boasts 20 full-time employees and some contractors as well. Austin notes that the real secret to successfully scaling automation is spreading RPA knowledge throughout the organization. The COE helps develop, deploy, manage, measure, and enable automation projects across AT&T. More importantly, it seeks to educate subject matter experts in automating their own tasks and processes.
“Pretty early on, we figured out that if you really want to scale, you’ve got to move to training others how to do it, teach them how to fish, so to speak,” Austin says. “Ninety-two percent of everything we do with the 3,000 bots is done outside of my team. If you’re not an IT person, it’s maybe 40 hours of training.”
The company has trained more than 2,000 citizen RPA developers who have built the lion’s share of AT&T’s 3,000 automation bots. To support them, the company has created a “Bot Marketplace” where citizen developers can “shop” for ready-to-use tools and support to get their automation solutions up and running. The marketplace stores and shares low-code and no-code automation solutions and tools. It now adds roughly 75 new blueprints of reusable automation components every month.
As RPA knowledge has spread, Austin says the lines of business have started forming their own automation teams, creating a hybrid model in which the COE provides tools and support, while front-line teams in the lines of business implement automation.
“They even have some new job titles popping up,” Austin says. “We’ve got a couple process automation managers and automation developers that we’re seeing out there. On our team, we’re continuing to move to automate the process, the platform, and then tie in the data science side.”
When it comes to lessons learned, Austin has some advice for others out there who may be starting their RPA journey. First, start small and get some wins. Second, don’t try to keep things centralized. While the center of excellence has been essential to AT&T’s RPA journey, just as important has been democratizing the effort to scale the proliferation of automation within the company. Finally, evangelization is important. AT&T has created an internal automation summit where groups can present their automation projects to the rest of the company, show off their successes, and help spark new ideas.
Artificial Intelligence, Robotic Process Automation