How RPA Can Advance Your Sustainability Agenda
Sustainability is on everyone’s mind. The increasingly grim warnings coming from scientists and global organizations such as the United Nations (UN) with its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), coupled with our own real experiences of extreme weather and disappearing coastal lands, has caused individuals and businesses to become aware of the environmental impact they are having on the planet.
Enterprises are motivated to be more ecologically friendly not just because it’s “the right thing to do.” It also makes business sense. You simply can’t afford to avoid being concerned about the planet and taking action. Your customers demand your involvement. According to Nielsen, 81% of respondents say that it’s either “extremely important” or “very important” that the businesses they patronize are environmentally responsible.
And the fact is, deploying Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has the potential to transform your company into a more sustainable, environmentally friendly business.
What is sustainability?
Let’s start with the basics. What is sustainability within a business context? What are the ways your organization can take actions, measure the results of your actions (very important), and transpose those results into something that’s good for (or at least doesn’t harm) the environment?
It might help to go back a few decades to get this context. In 1983, the UN asked Norway’s ex-prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, to head “The World Commission on Environment and Development.” The problem the commission hoped to solve was that, for many years, the strategy for trying to raise living standards in impoverished parts of the world had been aggressive industrialization.
Establishing more businesses, more factories in such areas was supposed to raise the standard of living for the local populations. But the strategy wasn’t working. Poverty was increasing. Life was getting more difficult for people in affected areas, not easier—in part because the natural resources people depended on to live were being destroyed. It became obvious that economic development at the cost of ecological health was not the right way to achieve prosperity.
After four years, what became known as the “Brundtland Commission” released its report, Our Common Future. This is how it notably defined sustainability: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. With this as our definition, it becomes easier to see how RPA can contribute to sustainability.
Ways that RPA can contribute to sustainable practices
There are many factors to consider as you get started. For example, you should think about energy consumption levels, supply chain efficiencies, error and rework rates, the impact on employees and company culture, and much more.
Think of what RPA does, at its most basic:
- It analyzes existing processes for opportunities to improve efficiency and accuracy
- It devises an automated or semi-automated process that eliminates waste in those areas
- It takes the saved resources and applies them to the business’ higher-level, strategic ends—whether that’s cutting costs, fueling growth, or both.
Here are the things you need to do at each step to make RPA part of the sustainability solution.
Include sustainability goals in your initial pre-automation analysis
Since you’re already examining processes with a fine-toothed comb, this is the ideal opportunity to cross-check them against your overall corporation sustainability goals.
These could include everything from conserving energy (lighting, heating, cooling) to avoiding the use of paper documents, to streamlining supply chain operations, minimizing shipping requirements, and encouraging employees to work from home several days a week to reduce carbon emissions from commuting.
RPA can help in all those areas and others as well. The main point is, however, that to achieve true sustainability you would have to reinvent your processes and squeeze the waste out of them anyway. Simply deploying RPA means you have the perfect opportunity to do this throughout all levels of the organization, as a natural part of the automation process.
As you begin automating, collect and analyze data continuously
One of the most exciting yet under-appreciated aspects of RPA is the data it generates. Using advanced analytics to parse this data means you can quantify things such as:
- How much paper you’ve saved by completely digitizing your order-to-cash process
- How much energy you’ve saved by eliminating the need for a large warehouse due to streamlining and automating inventory management
- How much CO2 emissions have been eliminated by automatically consolidating shipments from suppliers
- How much employee time has been saved by automating the customer support center
- Any other waste reduction in the organization due to automation
How much waste (time and materials) you’ve eradicated by eliminating errors and the need to do rework to fix them.
Don’t forget the human angle
Remember the UN’s definition of sustainability we’re using: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Despite the dystopian prophecies that echoed throughout the press about what the coming of the robots would mean, in fact, companies that have deployed RPA “bots” (software robots) have found that employee satisfaction has increased, not lessened. It’s theorized that this is because RPA eliminates the dreary repetitive work that no one wants to do anyway. This frees up employees to do higher-value work that contributes more to the business’ long-term strategic goals.
This is important for two reasons. First and foremost, it has been argued that to be fulfilled, humans need to be engaged in meaningful activities. That a world with no work—of any kind—to be done would not be a happy place for many people. In fact, in experiments with guaranteed incomes—where members of a community were given livable wages without having to do anything in return—most individuals still chose to work. So meeting the needs of future generations would not necessarily mean eliminating work—but making that work more interesting, more engaging, more interesting. RPA does that.
Secondly, now that most enterprises have set sustainability goals, employees freed by RPA to have more time can use it to work on environmental issues that are aligned with the business's strategic objectives. And their input should prove to be immensely valuable. After all, line workers and managers are the ones who are closest to the company’s operations. They’re the ones that can spot waste and inefficiencies that upper-level executives might not perceive. Putting them on sustainability duty could be the smartest move your business could make.
RPA and sustainability are aligned
RPA is the perfect companion technology to accelerate sustainability in the corporate world. By its very nature, it eliminates waste. It forces an organization to navel-gaze in the best way possible: ask itself why it does things the way it does. What’s more, RPA explores whether there’s a better, more ecologically sound, way.