Robotic process automation: Part II of a five-part series

Process automation - automation strategy

Part II: Creating a process automation strategy

It’s simple, right? You bought a robotic process automation (RPA) tool, thinking you were going to automate a bunch of processes and save the company millions.

It worked fine for a couple of simple processes, but now you’re not sure what to automate next. Even worse, after only a few months, the automation robots you implemented are having issues. What happened? It was all working on Friday!

Your main problem isn’t that you chose the wrong automation tool (although that might also be an issue). Your problem is that you didn’t put together an automation strategy, before you bought the tool.

So, what’s an automation strategy?

An automation strategy is planning and management of your automation initiative. A typical automation strategy should answer the following questions:

  • Which processes do we want to automate?
  • With which applications will we have to interact?
  • Who maintains those applications, and how often are they updated?
  • Who needs to know that we have automation running against the applications?
  • How do we find new automation opportunities?
  • How do we get notified before changes are made to an application?
  • Is there test data available, so we don’t have to test with production data?
  • With what security rules and regulations do we have to be compliant?
  • Which departments (e.g., IT, Security, HR) need to be involved?
  • What resources will need to be involved, and for how long?
  • What’s the overall cost of implementing the solution?
    Hint: the automation product is probably the least expensive part of the solution.

To be sure, even with all of those items to manage, automation provides a high return on your investment. I have helped many companies implement automation into their environments and, for every one of them, it’s always been worth the time and expense. It’s definitely worth the time and money to implement process automation but, to have real success with it, you must do it the right way.

Process automation - automation strategy

Five steps

Here are my five steps to implement a successful automation strategy:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
    Talk to someone who has already implemented a successful strategy. Maybe it’s a manager of another group in your organization, or a trusted partner. Copying another successful implementation in the same industry is the best way to get started quickly.
    Another option is to find a vendor that understands your industry and your problems. There are a lot of automation tools out there, and many are very generic. Consequently, most vendors don’t have specific domain expertise. To them, all automation is the same. I can tell you: it’s not! There’s a big difference between automating a simple desktop task and automating, for example, complex medical claims.
    Do a Web search to find the right vendor and solution; but don’t search for automation or even robotic process automation; you’ll find very generic solutions from vendors who have no expertise in your area. Instead, make your searches specific — for example, automating medical claims.
  2. Pick your team carefully.
    Yes, that’s right: you’ll need an automation team. It should consist of at least one business analyst, one technical person (this could be an IT resource), at least one programmer (someone has to “build” the software robots), and a decision-maker or approval committee (to decide “What do we automate next?”). You also should have a subject matter expert (SME), but this role could — and should — be rotated among several people. Each SME has expertise with certain processes so, engage only the best SME for the process you intend to automate next.
  3. Define your process.
    Your process should start with identifying the next (or first) automation opportunity. It should also include the method used to identify automation opportunities; and, before you begin your first one, you should have a list of five to 10 opportunities. In fact: for each opportunity, you should be able to calculate the potential ROI, and that should be the highest criterion on which you base the decision to automate a process. However, basing it on cost is only one option. You could use the “squeaky wheel” approach. This is where you choose to automate processes that draw the most employee complaints. Although this might result in minimal cost savings, it could be worth it to make your users happier!
    Once you define the list of automation opportunities, you need to implement them. The rest of the process should be defining the requirements with the SME, validating the business rules with the business analyst, documenting the step-by-step instructions with business rules, and providing those rules to the programmer for creation of the software robot.
    Testing is critical. Make sure that (a.) you have valid test data that truly represents real, production data and (b.) it can emulate all of the scenarios implemented in the robot. That’s the only way to test your robot fully before it moves to production.
  4. Have a backup plan.
    What happens if you have 10 robots running all day and, suddenly, they all stop? Let’s say that, up to this point, your automation solution has been so successful that you were able to eliminate 50 FTEs. But now, you don’t have the people to do the work and your robots aren’t running. Your backup plan must take into account this nasty scenario and others like it.
  5. Measure, measure, measure.
    Make sure your software robots provide the data related to the work they’re doing. This is some of the most valuable data in your organization. Use an analytics tool (if your automation product doesn’t already have one built into it) and analyze the data. What you’ll get from it is not only what your robots did but, more importantly, what they didn’t do. Of course, what they didn’t do is what they should do. That can help you understand how to improve your robots and the value of doing so.

If you carefully plan and take advantage of the knowledge and experience of others, you will have a successful automation strategy. Remember: don’t automate unless you have a strategy in place ahead of time!

Part III: Choosing the right process automation solution.

Robotic process automation: Part I of a five-part series

Robotic process automation

Part I: What is RPA, and why should CIOs care?

Robotic process automation (RPA) has become very popular in the last couple of years. It’s become such a mainstream topic that you can find RPA-related articles in publications such as the New York Times1 and the Wall Street Journal2. So, what is RPA, and why has it become so popular?

Automation — specifically, process automation — has been around for more than a decade. However, RPA is a specific type of process automation. The robotic part means a software robot that mimics a human. More to the point, it means software that interacts with the same applications and interfaces that humans use. It’s important to understand this: it has many implications; and it’s the major distinguishing characteristic among process automation, business process automation (BPA), and robotic process automation.

Robotic process automation

There are several reasons RPA has become popular in recent years. Businesses are constantly under pressure to reduce costs, but they can’t rely on their IT departments to be responsive to their needs. RPA allows businesses to use automation without requiring IT involvement. Mind you, that approach is not best! However, it can help them implement a solution much faster. Even some IT departments have embraced RPA, because it’s easy to implement and requires no application or infrastructure changes. This allows the IT departments to deliver value to the business more quickly and efficiently. However, many see it as merely a Band-Aid® for legacy applications in which they don’t want to invest.

Part of a strategy

It’s a fact that automation reduces costs — in some cases, dramatically. But most CIOs don’t see RPA as strategic. Instead, they view RPA as a tactical approach that’s best for the business users or individual IT departments to use on a case-by-case basis. Still, CIOs should embrace RPA for what it is, rather than avoiding it for what it’s not. Yes, RPA is a Band-Aid for some situations, but it’s also an effective way to save money quickly. To be sure, a company should use RPA as part of an overall automation strategy or a digital transformation initiative. The company should not use RPA as a “one-off” solution for one process and one department.

RPA tools also have limitations. Why? Because, in most cases, the entire targeted process is running on a desktop PC. As a result, that limits you to the flexibility of the RPA tool and the robustness (or lack thereof) of the desktop environment. If your process has complex logic, it’s less likely that an RPA tool can automate it. Also, there are certain types of application interfaces that work well for humans, but are a challenge for automation. Two examples are mainframe applications and Web-based applications. You usually can access both using server-based technology that’s more powerful and more accurate than a default desktop interface allows.

A better way

Why not use the best of both worlds? That would be a server-based process automation solution that utilizes RPA technology to interact with the desktop applications when it makes sense to do so.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a process that uses a client/server application, a Web-based application, and a mainframe application, along with some standard desktop applications such as Excel® and Outlook®. With a pure RPA tool, you will have to create a process that runs on the desktop and interacts with all of these applications. If the logic isn’t too complex, then you might be okay, but it’s still a lot of applications with which to interact. However, if the logic is complex — well, good luck. This will be a challenge for most RPA tools.

A better approach is to have a server-based solution that runs all of the business logic and process information. This gives it the power to process complex logic and keep track of the hundreds of software robots that could be running at any one time. Such an approach also enables the server to connect directly with the Web-based application, using standard Web services. This eliminates otherwise required “screen-scraping” on the desktop or navigating a browser’s document object model (DOM). Ideally, the server-based solution can also access the mainframe applications directly on the network without “screen-scraping” a desktop-based mainframe emulator. (Of course, the desktop applications have to reside on a desktop, and that’s where the RPA tool comes into play. However, there is no need for complex logic to run on the desktop, since the logic is running where it should be: on the server.)

This approach allows you to take advantage of the RPA tools that are getting much attention, while still implementing them in a more robust, server-based environment that can be part of a strategic automation initiative. This is no Band-Aid approach. And it’s something a CIO can and should embrace: yes, bring in RPA and allow the business units to use it, but control it and implement it in a centralized, enterprise-level environment.

Part II: Creating a process automation strategy.
Band-Aid is a registered trademark of Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc. Excel and Outlook are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.


1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/the-robots-are-coming-for-wall-street.html.

2. http://www.wsj.com/articles/robots-on-track-to-bump-humans-from-call-center-jobs-1466501401.

WorkiQ is Citrix Ready — and what that means

Citrix Ready

WorkiQ is Citrix Ready — and we’re very proud of that. However, it does bring up two obvious questions. First, what does it mean? Second, what difference does it make? I’m going to try to answer those for you in reverse order. (After all, if it makes no difference, it doesn’t matter what it means.)

As you may already know, WorkiQ is OpenConnect’s real-time desktop analytics solution. It provides visibility into employee productivity. To be a little more specific, WorkiQ captures employee activity through a small software agent that usually is installed on each user’s workplace computer. However, there also are work environments in which a typical user doesn’t have a dedicated workplace computer. That’s why it’s important that WorkiQ has been certified as Citrix Ready.

Citrix and WorkiQ

One of the popular on-demand computing platforms is Xen Desktop by Citrix. We’ve worked hard to make sure that WorkiQ works great for a company that uses this platform. You might say that WorkiQ “sees” a Citrix session as just another standard activity session. Perhaps the user is on a dedicated desktop computer. Perhaps she’s using a Citrix computing resource. She may even be moving between the two. It doesn’t matter. In any of these cases, WorkiQ generates an accurate timeline of activity.

Many companies use Citrix to allow employees to work from home or from mobile devices. Citrix provides a standardized configuration and increases security. It also reduces wide area network (WAN) traffic by locating the computing resource closest to the data the user is accessing. That data exists on the server.

By the same token, we don’t put WorkiQ on individual devices in a Citrix environment. Instead, we capture the users’ activity by installing our Citrix-specialized WorkiQ agent on the Citrix server. The beauty of this approach is that WorkiQ can directly “see” traffic between users and all the other corporate applications on the server. That lets WorkiQ accurately capture activity data, and do so with the highest quality.

What Citrix Ready means

Citrix put our Citrix-specific WorkiQ agent through a uniform set of compatibility tests. In Citrix’s analysis, the agent installed seamlessly and implemented proper modifications to the server’s registry. WorkiQ also passed other Citrix compatibility checks, including memory handling within the Citrix server. As a result, Citrix certified WorkiQ as Citrix Ready.

A number of large sites — including one with over 100 Citrix servers — have successfully taken advantage of WorkiQ. Through the Citrix Ready program, OpenConnect also receives partner-level access to Citrix technical resources. This enables us to resolve any Citrix-related technical challenges our WorkiQ customers may have. In short, you can be confident in not only OpenConnect’s technology but also our ability to handle any challenges that may occur.

Note: Citrix is a registered trademark of Citrix Systems, Inc.

AutoiQ: Our newest, best automation solution

AutoiQ robotic process automation software by OpenConnect

It’s a busy time at OpenConnect, and big things are happening. In that vein, we’re pleased to announce the introduction of AutoiQ, the latest generation of our robotic process automation (RPA) solution.

What makes AutoiQ better?

As you may know, RPA uses software robots to perform tasks with tremendous speed and complete accuracy. Of course, not all RPA solutions are equal. AutoiQ offers a variety of key benefits:

  • Our approach to RPA puts the robots on one or more servers, rather than on individual PCs. This provides three key advantages. First, it enables AutoiQ to work at vastly greater speed. Second, its robots can share rules and logic from a single source. And, third, it can “scale” almost infinitely, so it can handle the automation needs of the largest enterprise.
  • Another automation product would use an emulator to “talk” to a company’s mainframe. This introduces inaccuracies. It also results in a more limited product. By contrast, AutoiQ needs no emulator. It seamlessly communicates with the mainframe, capturing every bit of data required. In fact, AutoiQ accesses all processes with which it comes in contact — desktop-based, server-based, or mainframe-based — through their native interfaces.
  • Many RPA solutions can take over only the most basic tasks. AutoiQ can automate processes from the simplest to the most complex.
  • AutoiQ may be new, but it benefits from the fact that we’ve put RPA to work for global enterprises for more than a decade. During that time, our RPA solutions have operated with 99.999% uptime.

We’ve talked with companies around the world about their automation needs. We know they seek a solution that can automate tasks of varying complexity, as quickly as possible, while working at maximum efficiency with devices from the desktop to the mainframe. AutoiQ is that solution.

We know there are many companies offering process automation software. But OpenConnect long ago solved the limitations that our competitors are just now encountering. On the other hand, we’ve moved on to providing even greater value — in products such as AutoiQ. We look forward to putting it to work for our customers, now and in the future.

Want to learn more? Contact us at sales@openconnect.com or 800.551.5881.

Website changes for OpenConnect

OpenConnect website

“This is about the website?!” you may be asking. It’s a fair question.

After all, this blog normally is about analytics, automation, and mainframe integration — OpenConnect’s core competencies. However, this time, we decided to discuss recent major changes in our presence on the Web, to give you a little peek behind the scenes.

OpenConnect has redesigned its website, openconnect.com (formerly oc.com). We launched these changes on April 1, 2016. Yes, that may have been an odd date for it, but rest assured it was no “April foolery.”

Our site now is built on what’s known as responsive design. This enables it to work smoothly on multiple screen sizes, from large desktop monitors to the smallest smartphones. This is a big deal, to put it mildly. We made this change for two reasons:

  1. We wanted to enhance our visitors’ convenience.
  2. Major search engines give lower scores to websites that aren’t “mobile-friendly.” (If you’re into Web design and are curious, we used the popular Bootstrap framework to make this redesign.)

OpenConnect website

The home page of the thoroughly redesigned OpenConnect website (openconnect.com).

Improvements to website navigation

The revamped website also solves long-standing navigational problems. The openconnect.com site now hosts all OpenConnect Web content, which previously had been split between openconnect.com and workiq.com. We also simplified the content links to make them more easily repeatable when our team gives them out on phone calls. For example, openconnect.com/automation goes to a page about OpenConnect’s robotic process automation (RPA) solution.

By the way: in case you’re wondering about old links suddenly going nowhere, don’t worry. We made sure all old links do what are called “301 redirects” to their new counterparts. That means what used to be the WorkiQ product page, workiq.com/wiq_analytics.jsp, now instantly goes to openconnect.com/workiq — and tells any search engines that still “remember” the old link to do the same.

Blog-related changes to go with the revamped website

In addition, this blog, formerly located at blog.workiq.com, has moved to its new location here at blog.openconnect.com. (OpenConnect’s password-protected customer support site remains at support.oc.com. It still is linked from every page on the public OpenConnect site.)

Further, we changed the blog’s appearance so that its typography is more like that of the revamped OpenConnect website.

It’s all for you!

We’ll be making a lot more changes in the weeks and months ahead. We’ll be frequently updating our content to keep it accurate and informative. We’ll also be orienting the content more toward our products’ abilities to solve your problems. In short, it’ll be more about you and less about us.

And, in that same vein, we know that none of this matters unless the site and this blog are what you want! They exist to inform you and help you. That’s why we invite you to take the new OpenConnect Web presence out for a spin and let us know what you think. You can contact me at webmaster@openconnect.com.

Should employees view analytics reports?

WorkiQ peer report -- allows an employee to view analytics data about his/her work performance

Operational analytics products such as OpenConnect’s WorkiQ provide insight into employee activity, helping you better understand how your employees perform their daily activities. Some solutions, including WorkiQ, also allow employees to view reports showing their activity compared to their peers’.

There is a growing debate over whether employees should have direct access to their analytics data. Some managers believe that a user who can view his own data will use it to help improve his performance. Other managers believe that employees will use the data against management, or will spend too much time looking at data instead of working.

As you would expect, there are advantages and disadvantages to letting an employee have access to her analytics data. The advantages include:

  • It makes her feel in control, and less like she’s being watched.
  • By comparing her activity with that of her peers, she’s energized to perform better and gains more pride in her work as she watches her own improvement over time.
  • It gives her control of her own destiny and allows you to better manage her expectations as an employee.

On the other hand, some of the reasons you should be cautious about allowing an employee to view his own reports are:

  • He might spend a lot of work time constantly looking at his data.
  • If the data shows that he’s performing poorly, he tends to challenge the data, which could cause a confrontation with his manager.
  • He can use the data to demand pay raises or other rewards.

As a result, you should consider these advantages and disadvantages before allowing your employees direct access to their own data. Each working environment is different; so only you, the person managing your team, can truly understand the potential impact of each approach.

Another way to provide transparency with analytics data

If you want to be transparent and allow your employees to see their data, but you’re concerned that they will spend too much time looking at reports, there’s an alternative approach you can try. Instead of giving employees direct, real-time access to the reports, use WorkiQ to create a peer report (shown below). This is a chart that shows how an employee has performed, over time, compared to her peers. In the employee’s peer report, she doesn’t see data for each of her individual peers; rather, she sees a single attribute that represents the average for all peers.

WorkiQ peer report -- allows an employee to view analytics data about his/her work performance

WorkiQ peer report
(click to view larger image)

You can share the peer report with the employee, either via an automatic emailing or by showing him the report during your weekly one-on-one meeting with him. This removes the disadvantages of allowing direct access to the reports, but still provides the feedback employees need. Some employees will still challenge the report, regardless of how and when it’s delivered to them; but most employees will welcome the feedback.

Mainframe Access – An Alternative to Java

Mainframe-Blog-Image

Mainframe users generally rely on two methods for 3270 access to applications that reside on host systems. The first method is via fat client software, installed on an end user’s desktop. The second method is by way of 3rd party libraries that are downloaded directly to the desktop, (Java for example). In both cases there is a significant amount of “Care and Feeding” required, when dealing with software upgrades or Java/ Client compatibility matching. Due to all of the changes that have taken place in the Java world over the past year, this “Care and Feeding” has been extensive. The frequent Java code changes and version upgrades, coupled with “auto expiration” of previous versions during an upgrade, has made life challenging for both software developers and end users.

In a perfect world, mainframe users want to be able to utilize an emulation client that can connect quickly to the host, independent of the methodologies outlined above. With the advent of HTML5, those days are now here. HTML5 empowers software developers who are looking for a way to design a browser based solution that integrates expanded features and functionality. With the advent of a new markup language, this is now possible.

HTML5 emulation clients utilize cascading style sheets as their method for displaying “Green Screen” imagery in the browser. Coupling these new browser types with TLS, provides for a very stable and secure connection that is encrypted all the way from the browser to the host, and back. HTML5 clients eliminate time consuming requirement for component management on the desktop. HTML5 Client connections are stateful, since they utilize Web Sockets. In addition, power user functionality can now be written into an HTML5 Client. Functions such as Copy/Paste, Key Board customization, Cursor management and Macros are now all possible. User settings are stored at the server instead of the desktop, because of a browser’s architecture.

“Keeping it Simple” can have a powerful impact in terms of reducing support calls, enjoying freedom from download/upgrade requirements. HTML5 client, upgrades are performed at the server and they are seamless. Fewer desktop problems along with expanded emulation functionality is why mainframe managers should take a close look at an HTML5 emulation client.

For more information contact OpenConnect at 800.551.5881, or email me directly at tc@oc.com.

This is what success looks like…

Last week I had an opportunity to present alongside Sally Miller (VP of Operations at CareFirst) at the Healthcare Claims & Services Conference in Las Vegas.

The basis of the presentation was to review how CareFirst is continuously improving claims operation through the usage of analytics and automation (robots). While I can’t publically detail CareFirst’s outcomes, I will say the results they are receiving are very impressive. From a broad perspective, my observation is that CareFirst has taken action in three key areas that are leading them to exponential operational improvements.

Organizational Alignment

Sally and team are aligned to identify and execute operational improvements. Utilizing OpenConnect analytics, a team evaluates and prioritizes high ROI automation projects.

This team then documents the requirements and hands off to the robot scripting team. Then an operation team pushes the robots into production. This conviction to continue process improvement allows CareFirst to maximize investment in technology and people with a high rate of return.

Focus on high value automation

Once edit codes have been ranked, the teams focus on requirements and execution on the edit codes that will increase First Pass Rates (auto-adjudication). Using this value-lens, CareFirst operations can utilize robots to guide organizational improvement across the enterprise, and ultimately deliver both financial and service-level results back to their members and providers.

Not a single platform

Many payers only consider automation within their core system. However, the CareFirst team utilizes multi-platform robotic process automation to solve enterprise-wide challenges. This approach has led them into automation that includes mainframe, web services, and other types of platforms. They are currently working to automate new opportunities such as cash receipts, member/physician look up from third party applications, and other Blue Association applications.

We appreciate CareFirst as a customer utilizing OpenConnect solutions for analytics and automation. I for one am very impressed with their organizational approach for business improvement. Well done!

Getting away from Self-Reporting

Self-Reporting-Graphic-WorkiQ-Blog

Have you ever felt very satisfied with the completion of a workday or project just to realize you still need to document your time and/or items of work completed? Looking for more productivity from your team, but still requiring them to provide mandatory self-reported time/work sheets?

Many back office operations, particularly in Health Plans, have an excessive amount of self-reporting.   Still using spreadsheets that are difficult to roll up to a group level and take a lot of time to insure individual inputs are correct is an amazing time killer.   Others use simple web based applications which rely on accuracy of the reporter,  while believe it or not some plans still use paper, pencil and stop watches.

Self-Reporting is a root cause of several common operational deficiencies:

  • Too many costly work hours spent completing forms and combining spreadsheets
  • Consistency in the definitions of work across multiple groups and individuals lead to errors
  • Accuracy of data is dependent on those inputting the information, again leading to errors or misrepresentation
  • Without real-time data; managers cannot make decisions to impact inventory quickly

Using automated capture and reporting of work streamlines operations and provides real-time data.   Take a look at WorkiQ as an example using desktop analytics.   While visiting our information take a swim through our Savings Calculator to see how much your operations might benefit from eliminating self-reporting.

CareFirst and OpenConnect to present at Health Plan Claims Conference

For Immediate Release

September 17, 2015

 

Contact: Michael Cupps

(972) 523-6690

mcupps@oc.com

 

CareFirst, OpenConnect to Discuss Improvement

of Claims Auto-Adjudication

CareFirst Vice President of Large Group Operations to serve as featured speaker at the

Health Plan Claims & Service Operations Conference

 

Michael Cupps, OpenConnect Senior Vice President, and Sally Miller, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst) Senior Vice President of Operations for Large Group Strategic Business Unit, will serve as featured speakers and panelists at this year’s Health Plan Claims & Service Operations Conference on October 26, 2015.

 

Cupps and Miller’s panel will focus on key areas in which analysis and automation can improve the claims process by reducing costs and decreasing pended claims. Miller will speak to CareFirst’s success in significantly improving operations through the identification and utilization of previously uncaptured data, and the capacity to deploy software robots to process work.

 

“The opportunity to improve operations first pass rates and to demonstrate significant savings for health plan claims is a prime target for RPA,” said Cupps. “Utilizing analytics to target the most costly claims or edit codes, then automating them allows organizations – as CareFirst has demonstrated – to optimize human capital, improve customer service and lower administrative costs in an increasingly competitive market.”

 

WHAT: Health Plan Claims & Service Operations Conference

 

WHO: Sally Miller, CareFirst Vice President of Operations, Large Group Strategic Business Unit and Michael Cupps, OpenConnect Senior Vice President.

 

WHERE: Westin Las Vegas Hotel, 160 E Flamingo Rd, Las Vegas, NV 89109.

 

WHEN: Monday, October 26 – Tuesday, October 27, 2015. Miller and Cupps will speak on October 26 at 1:10 p.m.

 

CONTACT: Michael Cupps at (972) 523-6690 or mcupps@oc.com.