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Robotic automation takes off in the Nordics

Software robots are rapidly automating traditionally manual tasks at enterprises across the Nordic region

Automation is among the top priorities for Nordic IT decision makers in 2017, according to the latest TechTarget survey, with 37% of Nordic-based survey respondents planning to implement an IT automation initiative during the year.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a particularly hot topic, but what does it mean for Nordic companies?

“I have been in the IT industry since 1986 and [RPA] is one of the trends that has been fastest to take off,” said Jarkko Vesa, founder of Finnish IT consultancy Not Innovated Here. “Typically growth is like a hockey stick’s blade, it starts at the end. This took off right from the start.”

RPA is software designed to improve efficiency, minimise errors and save human resources by taking over routine, rule-based digital tasks currently performed manually.

Vesa described 2016 as the big year for RPA in Finland and – although hard numbers are difficult to find – believes Nordic countries have become advanced markets for the technology.

In the region, software robots are increasingly implemented across industries to handle repetitive tasks, such as comparing data or processing claims, in everything from customer service to administrative processes.

What sets these robots apart from traditional IT automation is their capability to interact with computer systems the way a typical employee does and adapt to changing circumstances. There is no need for intensive programming or deep system integrations, and results can be seen fast without major investment.

“Deployment is so fast you can have the first version ready in a few weeks,” said Vesa. “Which is why [RPA] is spreading fast compared with traditional IT projects.”

The rise of the software robot

In Finland, an early adopter of RPA has been financial process automation provider OpusCapita. The company first implemented RPA software in 2015 after identifying that around 200 of the 2,000 tasks (and 20% of the workload) in its service delivery had the potential to be automated.

Two years later, software robots work with OpusCapita’s payroll, accounting and even take care of service requests. The latter started as a showcase experiment, but has proved popular.

“Our customer service notified our clients that if they submit certain service requests through a standardised form [instead of a call or an email], the request will go to a robot that will deal with it within 30 minutes, 24/7,” said Jaakko Lehtinen, head of RPA and AI at OpusCapita.

“A fairly large propotion of these requests have now moved to [robots] because service times are so fast,” he added.

Today, OpusCapita is so confident on RPA’s merits that it has developed software robot products for its external customers. One of them is the Finnish government’s shared services centre for finance and human resources (HR), called Palkeet, which launched its software robot project in late 2015 following a major SAP deployment.

“We estimated we can still automate the process work behind our current services by 20% to 50% by 2020,” said Helena Lappalainen, Palkeet’s development director. “We went through the production process in our accounting, HR and ICT and found more than 60 process tasks that could be automated [with RPA].”

Now Palkeet is deploying its first software robots to tackle purchase invoices and payslips and training its employees to work with their new digital colleagues. The plan is to implement the technology in stages and eventually cover all the 65 central government agencies and departments Palkeet serves.

Swedish medical technology company Getinge Group is a step further along and is already seeing results from deploying software robots in its shared service centres in 2016. In processes where RPA has been applied, such as order handling, the company has achieved 50% to 90% automation levels.

COO Niclas Sjöswärd said this has allowed the service centre’s employees to focus more on quality assurance, process improvement and analytics instead of transactional tasks. Now Sjöswärd is sharing its experiences with several large companies in Sweden.

Changing how we work

While one of the benefits of software robots and digital assistants is freeing employees time away from repetitive tasks, the fast advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have also started to raise questions regarding their impact on the way we work.

A case example is Norwegian bank Sparebank 1 SR-Bank, which is introducing an AI-powered virtual customer service agent called James. The bank said James will be able to do most of the work of its approximately 40 customer service centre employees, changing their job description dramatically.

At Palkeet, the goal is to save 15% to 20% of man-years in process jobs through automation. While this will take time to achieve, Lappalainen said software robots are already changing how people work as the digital employees will happily keep working through the night.

“In the future when people come to work [in the morning], they’ll focus on the parts the robots cannot process, where human thinking and capabilities are needed. This is a big change for us,” she esaid. “Supervisors need to take into consideration not only of the accountants in their team, but also the work done by the robots.”

Lappalainen said employees’ reactions have largely been positive as they are able to focus on more demanding tasks. But the issue of job losses could come more pertinent as AI and other intelligent technologies push development beyond routine tasks.

For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates in the UK around 30% of existing jobs could be automated by the early 2030s. The most exposed sectors include retail, wholesale, transport, storage and manufacturing.

Learning languages

Vesa believes this is just the first stage of RPA and it has yet to reach its saturation point.

Lappalainen echoed this sentiment. “I was at a service centre seminar in Europe [last year] and there was a good statistic: almost 20% of organisations there – and there were hundreds – were either piloting or had implemented robotics,” she said, “and the rest were looking into it.”

At the same time, AI and machine learning are driving the next stage of automation. OpusCapita is already piloting software robots capable of learning how a process works by observing it and analysing historical data instead of needing to be taught. But Lehtinen said what will really disrupt automation in the future is natural language interfaces.

“Natural language interfaces will lower usage barriers for normal people. If we can give, for example, an accountant software which understands human languages then we can ask them to explain to the software how final accounts are done,” said Lehtinen.

“This might sound like sci-fi now, but when you think how fast voice interfaces have developed on mobile devices then it will happen sooner than many people think.”

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