Part 1: How automation bots spread quickly throughout AT&T

  • Hundreds of millions of dollars in annualized value
  • 16.9 million minutes of manual effort saved each year
  • 20X return on investment

What’s behind those impressive numbers? Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. It’s a technology my colleagues and I began working with in its infancy back in 2015. Since then, we’ve helped bring this technology to nearly every work group in AT&T. Along the way, employees themselves have become RPA’s biggest champion.

So what is RPA?

Suppose once a week you have to stop everything, locate several dozen scattered emails, copy a dollar figure out of each, paste them into a spreadsheet and send it to colleagues in another department.

Now suppose a little software tool – or RPA bot – could follow all those steps, doing what you considered drudgery quickly, precisely and right on time.

Multiply that simple example by thousands, and you get an idea of how RPA saves AT&T significant time and money by automating business processes and operations.

Counting the advantages

This transformative technology makes it easy to build, deploy and manage software bots to automate a wide range of manual, repetitive and high-volume tasks.

The result is that employees — from entry level to the C-suite — can offload routine activities to robot co-workers so the people can focus on more valuable work, like interacting with customers and collaborating on innovative projects.

Plus, RPA bots can handle tedious tasks faster, more consistently and often more accurately than humans and at all hours of the day.

Starting on a strong footing

When the technology first hit the market, business leaders were intrigued but unclear on how to use bots to help their companies and industries. They also questioned whether the bots could consistently and securely do business-critical work.

That was not the case with our team in the AT&T Chief Data Office. Right off the bat, we thought of countless ways automation could help streamline day-to-day tasks, saving time and money.

To realize this potential, we turned to AT&T’s compliance and security experts for direction on governing RPA. Their early guidance helped make our automation tools stable and secure – an important first step on the way to becoming a leader in this space.

Still, many in AT&T were skeptical about the hype surrounding RPA. To win over skeptics, we knew we had to demonstrate how automation can make life better for employees.

Winning hearts and minds

Our team aimed to create a proof of concept relatable to a cross section of employees. After examining a number of use cases, we settled on addressing a common pain point – handling monotonous, unpopular tasks, like order entry.

So our team started by creating RPA bots to serve as digital helpers to take over routine tasks. For example, in finance we automated repetitive processes for purchase orders and contracts. See Part 2 for a close look at actual use cases.

Proving ROI and generating momentum

These pilots made it easier for everyone at AT&T to visualize how to put automation technology to work in their operations and daily workflows. And that built early momentum.

But we had to do more than win over employees. We also had to demonstrate real-world benefits to soften the ground for enterprise-wide adoption of and investment in automation. And that we did. Without exception, the trial projects succeeded: The bots accurately performed their tasks and achieved all the results we were hoping for, while consistently delivering a 20X return on investment.

So interest grew, and so did demand. Even while initial proof-of-concept projects were still under way, business unit leaders began asking about automation for their own teams and operations. Within months, our team was helping to develop hundreds of bot solutions.

By 2016 – just a year after our first trials – RPA was scaling across the company, with more than 500 bots already at work. Employees’ enthusiasm was exciting, especially considering the challenges we often face when launching a new technology in a business as large as AT&T.

RPA Center of Excellence

We had reached a pivotal point, looking at seemingly limitless opportunities to deploy RPA. So the question was, “How to drive broad adoption and maximize the potential of the technology within AT&T?”

Our team determined the best approach was to create an RPA Center of Excellence, bringing together the right technologies, people, processes and policies to accelerate implementation. 

The Center of Excellence cuts across organizations and teams to help develop, deploy, manage, measure and enable automation projects at all levels of the enterprise. It also provides the expertise and training to seed subject matter experts and advocates all over AT&T. This was a break with the past, when only data engineers and technologists were assigned to create solutions like these.

Citizen developers

This new approach gives frontline business owners the training, tools and infrastructure to leverage RPA in their day-to-day work. This empowers what we call citizen developers with the coding skills to build their own bot solutions.

So far, we’ve trained an army of more than 2,000 citizen RPA developers, who together have built more than 90% of the more than 3,000 bots deployed in AT&T. It’s been great to see them eagerly tackle the challenge — developing their proficiency and demonstrating the skills, confidence and desire to create and benefit from automation.

Bot Marketplace

This concept requires that we supply our citizen developers ready-to-use tools and easy-to-access support. That drove our decision to take the next step and build the Bot Marketplace. We envisioned it as a friendly online store where users could “shop” for everything they need to get automation solutions up and running quickly throughout AT&T.

And that’s just what our proprietary, enterprise-wide Bot Marketplace does. It catalogs, stores and shares low-code and no-code automation solutions and tools with the entire organization.

From the most technical IT developer to the least technical business executive, users have self-service access to thousands of ready-built bots as well as reusable automation components. On average, the Marketplace adds 75 new blueprints every month.

The Bot Marketplace enables employees to create automation solutions from scratch – without even needing the assistance of a data scientist or IT professional. In fact, it’s easy enough that some of our best citizen developers began with no technical knowledge yet soon developed into AT&T titans of RPA.

Leading the pack

Since first trialing RPA 6 years ago, we’ve deployed more than 3,000 RPA bots across AT&T. That’s one of the most robust portfolios in the industry. This work has made a measurable impact on nearly every area of the company. Today, RPA technologies deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in annualized value by offloading 16.9 million minutes of manual effort each year, freeing up our workforce to do more productive and strategic work.

“What is additionally exciting is that the bots Dhru’s team enables others to create are now getting smarter, as our AI as a Service fabric is now exposed, enabling them not only to automate a process but to do it on predicted need, or to access recommendations along the way”, says Mark Austin, VP of Data Science.  “This was even why we named our annual Automation Summit, “the year of Cognitive Bots.”

As employees keep acquiring development experience and software becomes even easier to use, the fly wheel will pick up speed. That’s why we expect automation to continue to scale – and AT&T to remain a global automation leader well into the future.

Next Time: RPA in Action

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Dhru Shah
Dhru Shah Head of AT&T’s Robotics Center of Excellence

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