After a push at the start, Mencap’s automation journey is gathering pace

UK charity was helped out by a bank at the start of an automation investigation that is now a project sweeping across the organisation

Early support from a bank enabled Mencap to take advantage of a robotic process automation (RPA) strategy, and the UK learning disability charity has not looked back since.

The company, through a dedicated RPA team, has quickly automated five processes in human resources (HR), and has its sights set on much more.

Mencap, which supports 1.5 million people in the UK, began its automation journey after former IT director Vince Gratrick met up with a former colleague who was working at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). After a discussion about automation, RBC and its automation software supplier, Blue Prism, agreed to help build a proof of concept to show the Mencap executive team what automation could do for their organisation.

The charity then created its own pilots before establishing a dedicated team to begin its automation journey in the HR department, where it has already automated five repetitive manual tasks.

Sam Jackson, head of HR shared services at Mencap, which has 8,500 staff, is responsible for everything in the employee lifecycle.

He joined with the task of transforming the HR department so it could provide staff with value-added services such as advice, rather than just processing admin.

But this was challenging because of the high volume of manual tasks that HR staff had to complete. These included processes when people join or leave the organisation, as well as when staff move within it.

“The problem I had was to deliver a team of HR advisers to deliver a better service including advice, but we couldn’t because we were too busy doing administration,” says Jackson.

Job satisfaction problem

This was causing a job satisfaction problem because people had joined the team to be HR advisers and were not utilising their skills, he adds.

Jackson thought there must be a better way of performing admin, so approached the IT department. “I spoke to the then IT director about what we could do,” he says. “I expected it would involve buying a new system, but he suggested automation – and that is where it all started.

“He also wanted somebody in the business to try it, and I agreed.”

After some pilots, the first procedure automated in the live environment was the process carried out when people within the charity change role, which happens about 180 times each month. According to Jackson, this is high volume and repetitive and often involves making changes on several systems.

Mencap has since automated the process that is carried out when employees change their hours, another when people leave, a reference management process and a process to ensure a staff member is paid from the right cost centre when a change to employment occurs.

These processes take up a great deal of time for the HR staff, denying employees important services and reducing job satisfaction for HR staff trained to do much higher value work. For example, the process to complete when people leave the organisation takes a robot five minutes to complete compared with 45 minutes for a human, and this needs to be done on about 240 occasions each month. The automation is freeing up the equivalent of 10 days’ work for a member of staff.

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“We were fixing the problem of not being able to get staff to do higher-value stuff and today they are working on projects and as advisers actually giving advice to staff rather than doing admin,” says Jackson.

The charity plans to go further, with many more processes to automate in HR as well as moving the technology into other departments.

It now has a resource dedicated to the RPA journey. “When we did this originally, it was all done as a proof of concept with no resource within the organisation,” says Jackson. “But in October last year, we recruited our first person to lead our RPA team. The lead RPA developer was recruited internally and in December we added a junior developer.”

The finance department is next in line for process automation, he says. “There are a lot more processes that we want to automate within HR, such as salary changes and start date changes, but the area we are looking at doing this is in the finance department, particularly accounts payable and receivable.”

The charity’s finance department will benefit from the vital experience gained through the automation projects in HR, and Jackson now realises the importance of user involvement in the development process. “What we learnt from the experience in HR is that it is all very well and good having someone who can built the robot, but you need to have someone who understands the process,” he says.

Jackson adds that the RPA team is likely to second one or two people from the finance department to help develop the robot and to help users understand how it works and “own it”.

Owning the project

Owning the project from within the department is essential if the changes are to be accepted, he says. “I remember talking about automation in my team and it did not cause worry because we talked about the benefits and how it would help, but a lot of people in other parts of the office were concerned. We overcame that through honest conversations about the robots.”

The payroll team were quite reluctant at first, says Jackson, but when the same team made changes to the robots recently, they were concerned about robot downtime because they now rely on them so heavily.

Jackson is an HR professional with no technology background. “I have no tech experience,” he says. “I was still using a Nokia 330 until a few years ago, so there were a few alarm bells when the former IT head, who led the project, left.” There was a question mark about how to take the automation strategy forward, he adds.

But the challenges faced by the charity meant opportunities to automate were valuable and the journey continued, says Jackson. “Like any responsible charity, we ensure that everything we do and the money we spend on front-line and back-office functions are focused on our central cause – supporting people with a learning disability. To achieve this, we are on an exciting work transformation journey.” 

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