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Robots to the rescue during COVID – and here for good

09:02am June 29 2021

Westpac’s head of robotics and automation, Abhi Kadian, says the number of digital workers across the bank has doubled in the past year to more than 1300. (Supplied)

If you have a dig around Westpac’s employee directory, you may notice an unusual surge of new starters in the past few years all with the same last name: Robot. 

Daisy Robot, Wayne Robot, Georgia Robot, even Pikachu Robot, Chewbacca Robot and Buffy Robot. In total, there are around 240 Robots, each with individual employee numbers, some with profile pics.

“We call them our digital workers,” says Abhi Kadian, the bank’s head of robotics and automation.

“Although they’re digital, not physical, each one has its own identity and the teams they work with often form affection towards them.

"They use their names, have little competitions to see which one performs the fastest, give them performance reviews – almost like they become an extension of the team. It’s quite a nice thing because it really does talk to the fact that we're complementing our people with this fluid digital workforce.”

When combining these so-called “unattended” robots with the bank’s “attended” automations – or “digital assistants” that sit on human employees’ computers to help them do their work – Kadian says the number of digital workers across the bank has doubled in the past year to more than 1300.

He links this burst in robotics activity to the critical role it played as the pandemic began.

“Before COVID, I’d say there was quite a bit of scepticism on robotics,” says Kadian, who joined Westpac in late 2018.

“But when internal business owners saw what it could do, that certainly helped from an awareness perspective.”

It’s a pattern that’s reportedly played out in many banks globally, robots among a swathe of technology fixes deployed at pace to manage the unexpected and urgent surge in customer interactions as the pandemic took hold. Many analysts say the acceleration in digital interactions sped up the shift by several years in just a few months, McKinsey citing a 25 times faster adoption rate than before the pandemic.

Kadian recalls the intensity in late March 2020 when his (human) team was called in soon after the major Australian banks announced extraordinary relief packages for consumers and businesses, including loan repayment deferrals. 

“Of course, the bank had the systems, but not all systems could do what we wanted them to do for so many customers as quickly as we needed them to, and we couldn’t just scale up people to do it,” he says. 

“It became this crucible: We needed automation – a digital workforce – to get it done because there was no other way.” 

Kadian swiftly repointed his entire team to the COVID response, matching robotics engineers with business operations teams to assess what was needed and “make it happen”, often coding right through the nights.

“We’d eyeball a business process – literally watch a person click through the process – and within a couple hours, we’d make a call to say whether it needed humans or bots, then go straight into build,” he says. 

“In those first three months, we delivered 23 automations – each within an average of two weeks to build – and used 120 bots to execute around 200,000 transactions for customers – or the equivalent of 700 people’s work. Over the whole 2020 year, the bots processed about 400,000 transactions for COVID relief.” 

Their work – which earned Westpac a place as a global finalist in this year’s Blue Prism robotics operating model excellence award – included processing tens of thousands of loan repayment deferrals; refunds for business customers; and the issuing of around 40,000 debit cards to customers who couldn’t visit branches. 

The pandemic-driven surge in robotic deployments around the globe has translated to a big win for the robotics automation software market, the segment holding its position as the fastest-growing in the global enterprise software market, revenue lifting almost 39 per cent last year to $US1.9 billion, according to research firm Gartner.

And banks have been among the world’s biggest adopters, just ahead of insurers, telcos and utility companies – sectors traditionally with legacy systems in need of integration functionality. 

In fact, nearly 60 per cent of financial services companies have embedded at least one AI capability, with robotic process automation the most commonly used at 36 per cent according to McKinsey’s Global AI Survey released in September. In second place was virtual assistants or conversational interfaces for customer service divisions (32 per cent); followed by machine learning techniques to detect fraud and support underwriting and risk management (25 per cent). The consultancy estimates these types of AI applications have the potential to deliver up to $US1 trillion of additional value annually for the global banking sector.

Kadian says since robotics rose to last year’s large-scale, high-stakes pandemic challenge, he’s seen a “continuous stream of work” and a “maturing” view across Westpac of how digital workers can complement the human workforce to improve customer experience. This included during the bank’s response to the five-fold spike in general insurance claims following the east coast floods and storms in March when robots helped speed up processing, freeing up the claims team to focus on customers who needed higher care; and during big one-off projects like the migration of large cohorts of customers between products.

But he says the bank’s “ethos” remains to “always strive to simplify and digitise processes” before turning to robotics. 

“Where we can't digitise or connect systems using APIs or straight-through processing for appropriate reasons – speed, time, funding – robotics is here to release that capacity and make things better right now, while those strategic digital connections are being built,” Kadian says. 

“In those moments when, as humans, we can't adequately support our customers as quickly as they need in a critical moment, augmenting our workforce with digital workers can help.” 

 

Emma Foster is deputy editor of Westpac Wire. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she was a freelance writer, after spending almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also an aspiring photographer.

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