Your global business services (GBS) or transactional shared service center can achieve a new level of value through automation.
To drive efficiency and standardization, many businesses implemented “shared service” models that consolidate finance and other services across multiple locations and business units. To go one step further, businesses have implemented GBS models that infuse those services with higher-value analysis, advice, innovation and more. That makes the GBS the central resource for end-to-end process expertise and formal continuous improvement.
The next step to achieving greater value is to start to automate those shared services. GBS automation, or “touchless services,” can help leaders lower cost, while building business continuity and scalability. The GBS is ultimately positioned to be an automation center of excellence that drives and standardizes automation across the enterprise, once it learns how to achieve those benefits of automation.
“Lowering cost is an obvious benefit, but two others have become much more important to leaders recently,” said Grant Thornton Transformation Director Greg Handley.
“During the pandemic, a lot of companies had to struggle to figure out how to help people work remotely, and then they had the great resignation. So, business continuity has become front and center, and automation can directly address that.” In addition, many GBS organizations have been struggling with turnover well before the pandemic. Building automation, or “digital workers,” has become a great way to permanently address the challenges related to constantly hiring, training, retaining and engaging employees.
“The other piece is about economies of scale, because some companies have experienced hypergrowth — if they grow 100%, they can't double their staff. They just can't do it. So, they need scalable solutions and automation,” Handley said. Resource constraints have put stress on both business continuity and scalability. “That’s why the biggest thing is resource constraints,” said Grant Thornton Transformation Senior Manager Mahreen Khan. “Many leaders are having to deal with that issue now.”
So, how can you automate your GBS effectively? Where is the best place to start?
Decide what to automate
Start with high-impact use cases that have a high likelihood of success and quick returns. “The work that can be sent to an offshore central location is the same work that can be automated,” Handley said.
Compile lessons learned from any prior automation projects in your organization, or in similar organizations, and look for use cases with:
- A large staff
- Repetitive tasks
- Tight cycle time requirements
- Significant manual work and multi-tasking
- High likelihood of human error
“Look for areas that have a lot of people in a function where it's standard, repeatable, predictable,” Handley said. “Look for things that are transactional in nature, completely driven by business rules and policies.”
“For most companies, accounts payable is the best initial use case,” Handley said. “You don't have to do as much customization. You can use a combination of technology and then the proper business rules and policy.” Khan added, “You can often find use cases in finance, HR and payroll as well.”
Plan how to automate
As you identify processes to automate, consider using a benchmark service to establish goals and ensure your benefit estimates are realistic up front. Also, engage the experts who know the processes in each use case, to understand the user buy-in, the health of the process, the dependencies, the potential benefits and the indirect benefits or other impacts. These factors are important to the automation project’s success.
“Often, where it breaks down is people underestimating the variation in the process, and the exceptions,” said Grant Thornton Transformation Principal Jeff Nourie.
“The number one error is that companies will just buy a robotic process automation (RPA) license, hand it to their IT department and say, ‘Go automate,’” Handley said. “That's a recipe for failure, for a number of reasons. One is that, if you go to a process owner and say, ‘We’re going to automate your work,’ they're going to be on the defensive.”
“More importantly, you need to understand the process — not just the tech stack, like the RPA and the optical character recognition (OCR),” Handley said. That’s why the path to automation is better owned by a global process owner who understands what the technology can and should do in each area. “The owners need to merge all of that knowledge. Companies that have IT handle the automation might only get to 20% automation. If you get it right, and merge all that knowledge into a cohesive group or person that knows everything and can drive it, then you can get up to 80% touchless in some cases.”
Process owners can also help optimize the processes as you plan automation. “We often have people optimizing the processes and prioritizing areas that need to be automated based on cost, savings, risk and other factors,” Khan said. “Then, in parallel, we have people who are developing automation for processes.”
“You also need to understand what can and should be automated inside your ERP, and what should be automated through integrating between systems,” Handley said. That’s why it is important to consider the level of automation that best matches your process, data and business factors.
Map to the four levels of automation
Not all automation needs to be individual projects, or individual solutions. “A lot of automation is just managing data — most of it is,” Handley said, and he sees four levels of automation:
- Automate within your ERP ERP solutions often have rules and workflows built into them. You can use these to move and evaluate data. “The best form of automation is often to optimize the deployment of your ERP,” Handley said.
- Integrate your ERP with other systems This can require building integrations to move data between systems that currently require manual intervention or working in spreadsheets.
- Implement self-service processes “Self-service processes are a form of automation, and this is where HR has done a great job,” Handley said. “Employees manage a lot of their HR data on their own.”
- Implement automation software Actual RPA software helps teams directly automate an individual process. “You can do something simple, like run OCR and build an upload sheet, so you just have to hit an upload button. Then, somebody still has to go in every transaction and fix exceptions manually, but they're not doing full processing. You can take baby steps.”
Handley encourages organizations to consider the first three levels before moving directly to automation software. “Those first three things should be explored first. If you build everything in an automation tech suite outside of your architecture, you're going to have a hodgepodge of solutions — a mess.”
Plus, while process owners should be involved in automation, they need to work with developers who follow documented procedures for your organization. Disparate automation solutions can become messy if citizen developers don’t follow requirements and standards.
Automation software can also be cost-prohibitive. “When some mid-market companies look at the cost of the software, that alone eats up the savings that they'd get from automation,” Handley said. “Then, above and beyond that, they need to hire and retain the right talent to build and manage the automations. It's just not feasible. In a lot of cases, you're better off looking for automation service providers for any custom automations. Instead of buying software, you're buying an automation service.” So, before making any investments, be sure to perform a thorough build versus buy analysis.
Drive automation across your organization
“Automation is a journey,” Handley said. Organizations need to know that they will revise and update automation over time to keep increasing their “touchless” percentages. While planning and coordination are important, it’s important to balance the amount of time that your teams invest before they dive in.
“You need to have continuous improvement and exceptions management components for automation. One approach is ‘Don’t wait to automate — automate first, then you can address your exceptions as they appear,’” Handley said. “That’s an approach to rapid transformation.” On the other hand, you need some planning to help ensure that your initial automation initiatives successfully achieve their goals. Once that happens, your GBS can build upon that success to automate more of its activities and functions.
When your GBS establishes skills and standards for automation, it’s in an excellent position to help share and govern those standards for automation solutions across the enterprise. It can form an automation center of excellence (CoE) that provides guidance and a foundation for the functions that empower all of your organization’s automation solutions:
Your automation CoE can help standardize and automate data management in a few ways:
- System integration lets your automations access, edit and move data consistently across systems
- Workflows and business rules can move and otherwise manage data automatically
- AI and other high-level analysis can help find your data’s matches and relationships — or errors and inconsistencies
- Self-service functions let stakeholders input data directly, like a supplier that enters demographic data
Tech suite and skills
Your automation CoE can establish a well-configured, standardized, cloud-based automation suite (possibly within your ERP) and an integrated architecture that includes:
- Application programming interfaces
- Extract transform load tools
- Optical character recognition tools
- Robotics process automation tools
- Machine learning and other AI capabilities
- Other project enablers, like secure collaboration tools, and visualizations, dashboards and other evaluation tools
Focus on cloud-based solutions with a low cost-to-serve, scalability, agility and data security.
Leadership, investment, governance and change management
- As you design and build an automation CoE, make sure to start building the important metrics, measures and enablers that your CoE will maintain over time
- Encourage executive sponsorship that supports and funds your automation strategy, advocating for and communicating the importance of that strategy across the organization
- Combine process and tech design skills, so that the CoE can analyze and improve processes before they automate them
- Implement tech tools that integrate together now and in the future, to enable automations that employ comprehensive data access with multiple processing functions and advanced analysis and reporting
- Engage in change management that helps drive adoption and ensures success for new automation solutions, especially as the CoE is getting started
- Support governance to help drive and maintain long-term success, including governance roles, well-defined service catalogs, service coverage agreements, operating performance agreements, KPI dashboards and financial services that include budgeting and forecasting
When you automate functions within your GBS, you not only lower cost while building continuity and scalability — you also foster centralized skills, data, technology, KPIs and standards that can benefit projects throughout your organization. When you foster those resources, you can more easily amplify your global business service automation.
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