Unlocking the potential of automation

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Poppy Aston

Poppy Aston, Graduate Management Trainee, provides us with her insights into the Automation project she was involved with during her 4-month placement with IT Services – taking the reins from Kitt Holohan, our previous Graduate Trainee. Poppy was quick to get up to speed with the technology and displayed an impressive tenacity in progressing the project. Best of luck in your next placement, Poppy – we’ll miss you! 

First things first: Let’s talk about RPA – Robotic Process Automation. RPA is fundamentally changing many industries, including the Higher Education sector. It uses software ‘robots’ to automate human activities that are repetitive, manual and rule-based. This makes it an extremely powerful tool that any organisation could harness to drive efficiency.  

Common misconceptions associate RPA with the loss of jobs; but RPA is really about freeing up (human) time to focus on more value-adding tasks, such as improving the staff and student experience at the University.  

RPA: Supporting the Digital Strategy

Automation is a key theme in the first pillar of the Digital Strategy: Increasing University Efficiency. We’ve targeted many areas across the University and have multiple RPA tools at our disposal such as Leapwork, ServiceNow and Power Automate. These tools allow us to automate a variety of different processes, across different systems – whether that’s running reports or manually updating students’ data. The possibilities are endless.  

By the end of Kitt’s placement with IT Services, back in May – which was Phase 1 of the RPA project – we had 50 potential automation process submitted to consider. When I joined the Business Partnering Team, I picked up Phase 2: prioritising the automations, and working with the Quality Assurance (QA) team and wider business to implement them. Here are a few things I learnt along the way: 

6 things to consider when prioritising automations

  1. Is that process automatable?  
  1. Is it highly manual, repetitive, and rules-based? If so, then it may be a good candidate!  
  1. How many hours will prioritising this process save annually?  
  1. What’s the scale of IT Services resource needed to implement this automation?  
  1. What impact will automating this process have on the student or staff experience? 
  1. How does this strategically align to IT priority areas, the University’s Strategic Pillars, and Covid-19 recovery?  

3 things to consider when engaging with the business

The biggest thing I’ve learnt from working with the business is the importance of engagement. This plays a huge role in the success and speed that we’re able to work with the business to automate their process. 

  1. Communication is key: Questions and expectations of the process owner need to be effectively communicated on both sides at all stages.  
  1. Sometimes, there are unexpected blockers: When this happens, it’s essential to adapt, work with and keep the business informed, to maintain trust and buy-in.  
  1. Keep building new relationships: Continue to scope, meet and liaise with teams across the University to promote RPA and its capabilities. This creates a steady stream of incoming processes for the backlog and provides a unique understanding of other areas across the University. 

What we’ve achieved so far

During my placement, we were able to automate processes for areas including Human Resources, External Relations and Academic Services. These processes relied on a range of different platforms such as Excel, Core, Canvas, MOVEon, Banner, Contensis and Scientia. This has given us a broad set of case studies which we’ll be able to use in future to attract more buy-in from the business. Most importantly, it means we have achieved around 1,200 hours in efficiency savings. 

We’ve also considerably built up the RPA backlog; we have processes that are ready to automate from across the University, which – once automated – would contribute around 1,500 hours in efficiency savings.  

What’s next for automation at the University?

It’s important that we continue the momentum in seeking support for automation as we progress with the Digital Strategy.  There’s a lot of potential across the University, with many areas which we need to keep targeting – including IT Services!  

The hope is that, eventually, our automation will be widely scaled across the University – empowering teams to engage in more high value and interesting work. If you’d like to know more or submit a process for automation, contact the QA team for more information.  

Reflections on my placement in IT Services

This placement pushed me outside of my comfort zone – but in doing so, I’ve learnt so much and developed professionally. My biggest surprise, and takeaway, is that with willingness, an open mind and a touch of tenacity, anyone can understand and become an ambassador for automation.