Organizations are plugging real-world processes into the digital realm. Though software frequently delivers more efficiency, a net-positive outcome isn't guaranteed.
New York Foundling, a 150-year-old child welfare agency serving hundreds of families a year, adopted data tracking tools. As they typed data in up to five separate systems, clinicians spent more time with computers than with the families they were tasked with serving.
In 2017, the organization hit 42% turnover among clinician staff, and departing staff pointed to the data entry tasks as their main reason for leaving.
"We had to figure out something to do," said Sylvia Rowlands, SVP of evidence-based community programs at New York Foundling, in an interview with CIO Dive. The level of attrition marked "a low point" for the organization.
The nonprofit turned to robotic process automation (RPA) provider UiPath, which took the client under its charity-focused initiative, the UiPath Bridge program. New York Foundling expects to shave 100,000 hours of repetitive work a year.
While deploying RPA, the organization's strategic goals should shape where the technology comes into play, but experts caution against plugging automation into processes that were inefficient at the outset.
Software can go to waste without proper implementation. Arik Hill, CIO of New York Foundling, told CIO Dive deploying the technology successfully started by identifying the bottlenecks, then infusing the technology in the organization's process. Service excellence and stakeholder alignment were the goal.
The pitfalls of RPA
When decision makers turn to RPA, they're drawn to a promise to save time.
"In the best cases, [RPA] changes people's sense of agency so they're in a position to do more meaningful work," said Amy Loomis, research director, Future of Work at IDC, in an interview with CIO Dive.
To get the most value out of RPA, organizations must first spend time and resources in the groundwork to identify which processes will be automated.
"Automating something that doesn't work well just makes it not work well faster," Loomis said.
RPA can let ground-level staffers move from repetitive tasks to exception-handling — a transition "from order taker to problem-solver."
Strategic planning as guidance
New York Foundling can trace its use of RPA back to a strategic planning effort.
Rowlands took a page from the tech playbook and championed the agile mindset throughout the organization, with methodology such as sprints shaping how work got done.
In 2018, the agency hosted interns from the Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY) program from Cornell University. The interns helped New York Foundling revamp its processes by using process mining software to spot inconsistencies in the flow of information.
RPA emerged as a way to streamline the information flow, which took routine work out of clinicians' to-do lists.
"It made perfect sense to us," Rowlands said. "We didn't even really have to think about it because we already knew that our problem was our folks doing repeat manual processes that were not bringing them closer to the mission but further away from it."
Successful RPA adoption also carries an important communication component, with tech leaders called to engage employees, letting their experiences and needs shape adoption.
At New York Foundling, the technology's value was an easy sell for the ground-level staffers. But, for the executive team, seeing the upside was a bit harder. It required direct feedback from those using the technology in the front lines.
Executive team was "far enough away from actually experiencing the benefits," Rowlands said. "And it was such a new concept that it did take a little bit of convincing. Having the staff themselves pilot it and report back on the benefits really was helpful."