Mars - from chocolate to robots

Published on November 21, 2018

Mars - from chocolate to robots

    In previous articles we have already talked about some aspects of IT automation in Mars (chat bots, service management automation, machine learning, etc.). Mars Digital Technologies is not only trying to provide high-quality service, but also to introduce new technologies and solutions that allow our business to solve complex business problems in the shortest possible time, use machine learning for long-term forecasting, not be distracted by the routine and focus on solving basic problems.

    Some two or three years ago, when mentioning the word “robotization”, the first thing that came to mind were classic robots from the worlds of Isaac Asimov or images from Terminator with its SkyNet and T-800. Science fiction, which is getting closer every year. We want to talk about the unique experience of introducing robotic business processes (Robotics Process Automation) at Mars.

    We decided to ask Cheshirskiy Roman , the architect of RPA solutions at Mars Digital Technologies , how the introduction of Robotics at Mars began .



    Novel, tell me, what is this RPA and how does it differ from other means and methods of automation?



    Imagine a person doing the same type of work every day. It works with 5-10 programs that are not integrated with each other, uses various Internet portals, internal software, software that is no longer supported, self-written programs, etc. I think it is clear what this is about. So, with the help of RPA it is possible to record the order of actions in such a way that all of the above actions can be performed by a program (robot). You can use it as a fairly smart front-end interface, and integrate with other platforms by means (for example, via API, REST, RFC). Moreover, the possibilities are almost endless, I will list only a part of them: Active Directory, Apps, Citrix, Clipboard, DB, Email, Excel, Files / Folders, OCR, Web. Of course, all this can be customized using logical and mathematical operators. Turns out

    So does it make sense to forget about the already known methods of automation and switch to RPA?



    Not really. Still, traditionally, the area Robotics is positioned as a tactical decision. More traditional (and therefore reliable) automation methods will always remain preferable. Plus RPA is that we can receive tactically benefits from automating processes within 8-10 weeks from the moment the request is received. This allows the organization to simultaneously implement larger projects, which often last several years.

    Another undeniable benefit from the implementation of RPA is the automation of outdated, local, small and other similar applications, when the cost of integration becomes higher than the potential benefits derived from the automation of such processes. Here Robotics is a great solution.

    Tell us, how did the introduction of Robotics in Mars begin?



    Well, in this sense, everything is simple. It began with one of the publications of Gartner. Like many of my colleagues, I wondered what is this RPA? Why is Gartner paying so much attention to this? How is this different from the already familiar automation methods? I admit that Gartner’s words that companies will quickly understand and feel the benefits of RPA implementation have hurt me the most, which will entail not only a more rational use of the company's funds, but also a total organizational restructuring of the necessary business functions.

    And it started… It’s not just words, indeed, Mars’s culture is built in such a way that it always supports and encourages employees ’initiative, so the idea of ​​introducing Robotics Process Automation into Mars was met with a bang by my line manager. It remains for the small to find a business case.

    How did this happen?



    As it often happens, the case helped. In one of our business units, the idea arose to automate part of the routine work. Imagine, every morning, a group of employees should go to the bank portal, extract certain information from there, save it in pdf (unfortunately, as a picture), open SAP, start a certain transaction based on the pdf-file of the bank. We will not comment on the methods of the bank (for security reasons, not all banks provide opportunities for direct integrations), but the task itself looks like ... how to say it ... a bit unsuitable for the 21st century.

    Just at that moment, one of our contractors made a proposal for piloting RPA at Mars, which, in fact, we took advantage of.

    How was the process of robotization of this proposal?



    From the point of view of the formation of the team, there were no difficulties. Mars employees are always happy to take on such innovations. Quite quickly, there were initiative people on the IT side, people were identified on the business side (Subject Matter Experts).

    In terms of methodology, we, like many recently at Mars, have moved away from traditional project management models and tried to be as flexible as possible. The task (demand) was described in detail, divided into stages and divided into segments. The main difficulties at that time were the construction of infrastructure and the distribution of clear areas of responsibility among the team members.

    Was it hard to stick with agile methodology?



    Yes and no. Of course, getting rid of old habits is always difficult. At the same time, all team members were focused on the result, which helped. You know, it was probably hard to say no, because in the course of development, SMEs came in with new and new ideas.

    What was the result?



    Awesome, not afraid of the word. Now these employees are no longer engaged in this daily routine and are focused on solving more important tasks for the company. Kind of, it was the best advertisement for us, because others learned about this success and an avalanche of new ideas and requests rushed to us.

    Already in the beginning of 2018, a decision was made to form a new division within Digital Technologies that would solve similar problems - Enterprise Automation Hub.

    Is this unit entirely dedicated to automation at Mars?



    What are you, no. I would single out several commands and programs. The first and most ambitious, in my opinion, is the Automation Factory program . Why Factory? Yes, simply because the automation in this program is set to such a flow that it is comparable to the factory conveyor of Henry Ford. This is a global team that deals with almost everything: product integration with each other, automation through tasks, automation of business processes, etc. Inside this program, there are no less ambitious ones, for example, the Service Desk Automation program, which since the beginning of the year has already increased the Automation Rate from 14% to almost 36%.

    The second is Automation ServiceNow Factory, a team dedicated to automating the main ITSM / CRM platform at Mars. Colleagues are engaged in the introduction of new functionality and improvement of the current.

    The third, Enterprise Automation Hub itself, is the team that currently focuses on RPA and Chat bots. As products, we use the Automation Anywhere and BluePrism, MS chat bot framework. Both solutions are currently world leaders in the market for RPA solutions (Gartner top quadrant).

    Test Automation is another team focused on solving daily tasks of ensuring the uninterrupted operation of the main ERP systems, timely identification of problems and their prompt resolution. The set of solutions used by them differs from those described above and specialized in the field of testing.

    Let's go back to RPA. What are you working on right now?



    At the moment we are working in four main areas: Digital Technologies (IT), Finance, Commercial, P & O (HR). I mainly focus on DT, although in practice, I often have to do everything.

    The tasks on which we work are very diverse: the creation of financial cost centers, the process of dismissal / transfer of employees, the automation of various accesses, the creation of accounts, monitoring, etc. As you see, only human fantasy limits us; technically, RPA has almost no limits.

    How do you motivate users to bring you new ideas?



    An example is the best belief. Everyone has heard of the word of mouth effect, it really works. It is worth introducing one or two ideas, how it motivates people to create new proposals. Plus, colleagues, friends, people will learn about it, they will be proud. Well, if we start working with new teams that have not yet heard about our capabilities, we try to organize mini-workshops where we help teams determine their main goals, identify difficult and “narrow” places using the actual Design Thinking methodology.

    Roman, what skills do you need to become an RPA architect?



    I don’t have the perfect answer for everyone. I believe that the person involved in automation, in principle, it is necessary to have both technical experience and organizational. Even before Mars, I was able to get significant technical experience, working in various organizations as a developer and system administrator, to be certified and get the status of MCP, MCTS in various areas, even managed to work with government organizations. Then I supervised technical support for second and third levels in a large international company. After the era of Mars came, in which I improved my leadership and organizational skills, running the Mars Service Desk, then there was the era of business intelligence and support of the BI platform as the head of the BI Platform team, then several teams and tasks

    I would like to clarify why such a diverse experience is often needed by a person leading any field of automation. The fact is that we at Mars are not content with just automating the current process, it’s too easy. One of the leader’s tasks is to identify bottlenecks in the current process, assess their risks and suggest methods for solving them. Those. We not only automate, but also make changes to current business processes. In this case, knowledge of both the functionality of business processes and the interaction of IT systems supporting these processes is simply necessary.

    Another important aspect is the sufficient influence in the organization and the desire to change things for the better. So the person is arranged, that the first reaction to any changes, as a rule, is negative. Therefore, the architect has to make a significant effort to bring the decision-makers up, bring them out of the comfort zone and bring the idea of ​​automation to the end.

    What are the next RPA steps in Mars?



    If we abstract over typical automation tasks, the next big focus will be the integration of RPA with other automation tools. For example, the interaction of chat bots with Robotics bots, etc. In other words, building cross-automation processes. This is a very large and interesting area, I think that this is the future. In principle, companies that predict future trends in RPA tell us the same thing, namely: RPA as technology will become cheaper, competition in the region will become the engine of new and new technical functionality (including new modules, for example, chat bot as RPA module). Already, my manager and I are testing the chatbot interaction, automating processes using Microsoft Flow and RPA.

    What advice would you give to those who would like to develop RPA skills?



    I kindly envy those who are just discovering this new interesting area. Already, a lot of educational materials, videos, courses. It seems to me that the technology itself is quite simple, it is much more difficult to find the business sphere of its application, to think outside the box, to offer, to improve.

    Try, make mistakes, try again, make mistakes again and draw conclusions. Good luck!