Originally posted on the Sunday Times
Robotic process automation tools can effortlessly take on mundane tasks to unlock companies’ efficiencies
Forget robot overlords. It’s robot underlords that are starting to make their presence felt. For resource-stretched small business owners, that’s good.
Over the past year global attention has focused on chatbots and, in particular, the rise of generative artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT.
But away from the spotlight, the less glamorous work of automating office tasks for small businesses — known as robotic process automation (RPA) — has been gathering pace.
Stephen Hartnett, owner of Profix Maintenance Services in Cork, is a fan. All year, whenever his administrative staff identify a repetitive, time-consuming process, he asks one question: “Is it bottable?” Increasingly the answer is “yes”.
Working with a digital mentor funded by his local enterprise office (LEO), Hartnett identified a number of such tasks.
For example, staff used to go into a timesheet app to calculate staff hours and sick days. They then had to input the data into an accounts package. Now a bot, a piece of code specifically written to mimic a staff member’s functions, does it.
“To me a bot is like a guy standing there, tapping his arm, 24 hours a day” Harnett says. “When a job comes in we have to input details in seven different places, from the quote onwards. If we 11 jobs in a day, that’s 77 steps. Now the bot does all of them”
It gives smaller businesses, for whom large-scale enterprise resource planning software is often unsuitable or unaffordable, their ability to use their preferred apps – in Harnett’s case WhatsApp and Garmin are the two most often used by his staff – and link them all together. “The bot links anything to anything. It’s going to change everything” he says.
Hartnett worked with John O’ Shanahan of LeanBPI, a business improvement consultancy in Limerick, to develop the bots. LeanBPI has developed a number of RPA solutions for micro enterprises, often funded under LEO programmes such as Digital for Business.
“RPA is for repetitive processed that are often boring for workers, time-consuming and prone to error” O’Shanahan says.Factory automation used robots and robotics to save physical labour. “Office automation is automating data workflows. In the past it was only done by larger companies such as banks, insurance and accountants, but is now in reach for smaller firms too,” he adds.
“We are seeing demand for these services now as customers are finding it so hard to fill positions. The work the bot is doing is very boring for a person but perfect for a computer. RPA bots do not require AI or complex algorithms. It’s a piece of code written for a specific customer, and operates based on pre-defined rules and workflows.”
In essence the RPA simply mimics human actions to perform a sequence of steps, interacting with digital systems and software.
O’Shanahan recently developed one for National Council for Exercise and Fitness (NCEF), a provide of education and training for health and fitness instructors.
It has classes of up to 80 students on its various modules, each of which typically requires two assignments to be completed. After these are assessed, scores must be recorded, a percentage calculated and a final mark awarded.
Each grade is then entered into three different records. In all it’s a mammoth task previously undertaken manually.
“Now the bot takes the list of student numbers, creates a pre-designed spreadsheet for each student, inputs the 80 different grades, then takes each and puts it into another document, all entirely automated. What used to take us hours now takes four minutes and that’s just one element of one module,” says Áine Ní Chonaill, NCEF’s managing director. “You can watch it at work, opening and closing files in the blink of any eye. It’s wonderful, and the efficiencies mean we are spending less time doing admin and more time on student innovation.”
Thanks to a similarly custom-developed bot, John Harrison of JFH Jewels, a jewellery wholesaler, no longer has to work late into the night keeping up with the paperwork.
“Twice a month we have to send out statements to customers. The old process took me two hours each time, typically at the end of the working day and only when I remembered to do it. Now it is completely automated. My daughter, Kim, simply presses a button and the bot sends out up-to-date statements to customers. Job done,” he says.
Harrison had already digitised large parts of his business in the past two years, particularly in relation to stock-taking, through a specially developed customer order app. “ The bot is completely different. The way it works is that I did all the steps manually while a member of the LeanBPI team took control of my computer remotely, recorded the steps, click by click, and then replicated it,” Harrison says.
“For a business with six staff, the time saving is huge. And because up-to-date statements go out on the same date each month, we’re getting paid more quickly too. I think any business that doesn’t look at RPA is either stuck in its way or not interested in improving. I’m a one-finger typist and every stock code we have is one letter and four digits. When you are tired you make mistakes. With automation, there are no mistakes”
The Carlow-based energy consultancy firm 2eva was supported by LEO as part of the Digital Business programme. The company, which is ten years old, employs 30 people and provides a range of services, including air-tightness tests, BER ratings and ventilation validation.
For Sinead Brett, the office manager, one of the most time-consuming tasks of her day has always been sending out quotations. Now she simply records a few details for each inquiry while she is on the phone with a prospective customer and the bot gathers all the information and sends out quotations in batches, along with a request to schedule an appointment.
“It literally takes a couple of seconds. And by next morning we’ll usually have a reply, so we can schedule appointments quicker. It frees me up to resond to other emails too so I’m more productive, and it has taken out the repetitive element,” Brett says.
It has also boosted efficiency. “Before I could come off the phone to one person and the phone would be ringing again, so I’d have to come back to the first person’s quote later. Now it’s just much more streamlined. And I get emails back from people saying ‘thanks for your speedy response’ a lot more now too.”
If you are interested in finding out how RPA can help create efficiency for your small business, get in touch today to see how LeanBPI can help.