The Finnish Shared Services Center for Finance and HR (Palkeet) began considering the use of robotic process automation (RPA) in spring 2015. It was one of the first Finnish organizations to foresee the benefits of this new technology.
Eija Hartikainen, Head of Digitalization Development at Palkeet, has been developing software robots for Palkeet from day one. "We did a preliminary survey and immediately identified more than 60 areas where we could use robotics. At the time, the Ministry of Finance had put out a call for applications for digital funding, and we received funding to support the RPA deployment." Palkeet put the RPA solution and deployment project out to tender in spring 2016. OpusCapita was awarded the tender. In 2017, OpusCapita’s RPA business was transferred to Norian as part of the financial outsourcing deal. "In January 2017, we already had our first robot reviewing purchase invoices," Hartikainen recalls.
A dedicated team to realize the vision
For a year, work on robotics advanced across independent projects. At the beginning of 2018, the decision was made to set up a digital team, which, over the last three years, has grown into a digital implementation and maintenance services unit. 20 people are currently producing new software robots and other automations for Palkeet and its customers. During the pre-launch survey in 2015, a vision for software robotics was conceived at Palkeet. At its core was the vision for Palkeet to be a software-robotics-intensive organization by 2020.
"Both our management and process owners have been committed to realizing our vision from the very beginning. Our collaboration has been excellent. Our team effort alone would not have been enough to achieve all that we have accomplished. It has been necessary to define process owners to prioritize uses, and system experts to consider the use of robots as system users. The experts in automated tasks have been key in driving robotics forward," Hartikainen praises his colleagues.
The vision also set clear qualitative and quantitative targets for the project. "We set targets, by process area, to reduce manual work by 20-50%. Another important objective was to improve the quality of our services and reduce process costs. In this way, we are using software robotics to deliver direct benefits to our customers."
The improvement in quality is largely due to the fact that automation eliminates human error in processes. However, human skills are still needed. Not everything can be automated, as there are still invoices that cannot be handled by a robot.
The team of robot programmers was initially trained by in-house staff. Volunteers were sought to train as programmers. There was no shortage of volunteers. "We started with seven people, who either worked in our finance and HR service teams or in our IT department. They learned UIPath coding. From then on, about half of the team members came from in-house and half were recruited," says Hartikainen. New employees study independently through UIPath, the software-robotics-platform manufacturer, making extensive use of their training materials. Palkeet has not laid off any employees as a result of the software-robotics projects. The streamlining of processes has created opportunities for people to work in specialist roles, including in customer service and other areas.
Eija HartikainenDigitalization Development Manager
With software robotics, we are well on track to achieve the goals we set during the pre-study in 2015.
Working at a rate of millions of lines per year
Batch robots typically check, reconcile and compare data. The very first robot focused on reviewing purchase invoices. "The first robot had, and still has, a big impact. We had an old purchase-invoice system with no automation. This robot processed over half a million invoices a year under the old system. With the new purchase-invoice system, that amount of reviewing is no longer required", says Hartikainen. The robot that handles HR data is another hard worker. It helps with training and absence data, which previously had to be done manually, line by line. This robot still processes well over a million lines a year.
In 2020, robots accounted for a total of 33,000 hours of savings in manual labor. Advances in automation are one contributor to Palkeet's labor productivity, which has increased by around 20% since 2017. "With software robotics, we are well on track to meet the targets we set during the pre-study in 2015," says Hartikainen
Robots as co-workers
The robots work well in collaboration with Palkeet's experts. While they tick off millions of tasks, they also send data to the service provider and transfer tasks they cannot handle. For example, around 60% of purchase invoices are handled automatically by robots. Invoices that are missing data or have obvious errors, for example, go into the manual process. The software robots have had several impacts on the work of Jaana Paljakka, a service adviser. She saw the impact of RPA in her previous role as a payroll secretary and in her special duties in the payroll area.
"Software robotics has made repetitive manual tasks much easier. In the past, we had many tasks that were repeated at regular intervals, e.g. weekly or monthly, and were always the same, with instructions to press keys in a certain order. These jobs have now been largely transferred to robots," says Paljakka. Manual tasks have been replaced with new tasks from other processes. This has diversified jobs and made work more meaningful. Robots have also become partners.
"Because robots cannot think, you have to check their work. This is where the experience and abilities of our experts come into play. We need to understand what the robot has done right and what needs to be fixed," says Paljakka. The impact of robots has slowly become part of everyday work. Many employees have had the opportunity to express their wishes and ideas for the next tasks for which robots should be developed.
Jaana PaljakkaService Advisor
Software robotics has made repetitive manual tasks much easier.
A strongly involved partner
In the early stages of Palkeet's software-robotics career, Norian played a major role. Two of Norian's experts worked at Palkeet's office in Joensuu for six months. For the next year, Norian's experts continued to be closely involved in supporting the growth of Palkeet's RPA capabilities. As the expertise has been built up within the Palkeet team, the role of Norian's experts has focused on supporting urgent implementations. Programming fills the days of most of the Palkeet digitalization team. Since 2018, Palkeet has also been offering RPA services to its service-center customers, tailored to their needs. This created the need for project management and maintenance of large-scale robotic tasks. Now, part of Palkeet's digitalization team is focused on project management, project definition and maintenance of the robot farm. At the end of 2019, the team was reorganized into two scrum teams specializing in maintenance, testing and programming.
Tailor-made robots for customers
Palkeet provides customized software-robotics services to its client organizations such as the State Treasury, the Tax Administration, the Radiation Safety Center and the Prime Minister's Office, but the main focus of automation is on the implementation of Palkeet's service production. "Tailored solutions for our customers take about two person-years," says Hartikainen. Norian consultant Sampo Pessa has been closely involved in Palkeet's projects in robotic process automation for the State Treasury.
"The Palkeet team has good in-house expertise, which is growing over time. I have helped them with technical support and with the development of RPA production," says Pessa. The State Treasury projects started in late spring 2018 with a couple of pilots. Following the successful projects, production has been scaled up so that the State Treasury currently has 20 automated tasks in place. The robots run on the Palkeet service platform.
The State Treasury is currently working on a robotic-process-automation project to automate ten processes related to cost-subsidy applications. "When cost-subsidy decision messages are sent out, the robot links them to the cases being processed, so the processors can easily find the decisions," says Pessa, explaining the robot's work.
Jaana PaljakkaService Advisor
I was wondering whether I could use software robots to make my new tasks easier.
Ideas for work redesign
With the introduction of the robots, Palkeet employees had to learn new ways of working and new work routines. "Working with robots changes the workflow for the better. At the same time, however, we must calmly implement the changes for the employees so the new ways of working do not cause unnecessary pressure. We have handled these issues well with co-workers and team leaders," says Paljakka.
Working with robots also helps generate ideas for other tasks that robots could be used for. "When I moved from HR and payroll administration to service advisor, I was wondering whether I could also use software robots to make my work easier in my new role," says Paljakka.
Achievements of the Palkeet RPA project
- 28software robots running 490 automated tasks
- 93,000person-hours saved since 2016
- 33,000hours of manual-labor savings in 2020
- 1.8million invoices processed by robots -->