Case study: Directing change management in automation projects

Roche's director of finance and operations in Hong Kong shares the billion-dollar company's challenges during its RPA journey and how it overcame them.

The human side of change remains the most challenging element in managing any digital transformation. Employees’ focus on their day-to-day tasks, rather than taking a broad view of the entire enterprise, and resistance to change often result in slow technology adoption, internal bottlenecks, and low return on investment.

Companies in the first half of this year had already realised the absolute necessity of digitalisation to ensure business continuity during a crisis and, looking ahead, to secure a competitive edge in their respective industries.

At Roche’s Asia Pacific innovation hub in Hong Kong, the leaders of its finance and operation team faced myriad challenges in its robotic process automation (RPA) implementation that began in 2018. One of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, the Swiss-headquartered company discovered that automating some of its finance and operation processes proved to be more difficult than expected, and challenges were mainly people-related.

This article explores the people aspect in Roche Hong Kong’s RPA project. Tin Ha, CPA (Australia), the director of finance and operations overseeing the RPA project, shares challenges he faced and strategies employed to overcome those challenges that will serve to be useful for companies on the same journey.

Introducing RPA

Roche Hong Kong’s RPA project began in mid-2018 as part of a companywide digital transformation to free employees from repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on value-added work. The Hong Kong team decided to build a cloud-based robot named AIDA.

The finance and operation team that Ha oversees is one of the few functions driving RPA adoption and the company’s digital transformation because the function has many repetitive processes.

RPA was one of the technologies that Roche implemented to build AIDA, he said. The robot is also equipped with capabilities including natural language processing, text-based chatbot, and image recognition.

Accessible via smartphones and laptops, AIDA currently processes multiple tasks ranging from daily sales reconciliation between multiple channels, monthly payroll, supply chain’s inbound documents, purchase request preparations, and others for multiple functions within the company.

Before AIDA, employees had to handle various processes manually. For instance, employees manually checked for differences between data in the enterprise resource planning system and those in the various channels and resolved the issues, Ha shared.

Now AIDA handles those duties, saving many employee hours. The robot also reads contracts, validates prices, and automates the processing of orders from customers.

As Roche Hong Kong automates repetitive processes, the company sees its RPA implementation as a journey rather than a project that has clear start and end dates, Ha noted.

“We want employees to see having automated processes — which will also eventually become autonomous — as the new way of working,” he said. “This change in mindset is an important part of the RPA journey, where employees develop a new set of capabilities for the future.”

The company had anticipated employee resistance even before implementation because each person sees the values brought by changes differently, Ha said.

“Employees wondered whether RPA would replace their jobs,” he said. “Even those who were less sceptical doubted what opportunities the technology could offer.”

Though there is now a lot more traction and commitment to the RPA journey, resistance was strong at the initial stage because the company did not sufficiently focus on these three areas: communicating a context and a narrative, breaking down silos, and enabling enterprise thinking.

These issues are all people-related, he said, adding that the company tackled them with different solutions while understanding that it needs to take a long-term view for change to happen.

Communicating a context and a narrative. Ha said that RPA adoption was slower than expected in the office, and one key evidence of this is the amount of time freed up by RPA.

Although Roche has seen time freed up by RPA, the amount is half of what the company had anticipated, he said, adding that RPA altogether has freed up 2.5 full-time equivalents (FTE) of workload in the past 16 months in the Hong Kong office of 120 people.

FTE is a unit that indicates the workload of a full-time employee where an FTE of 1.0 is equivalent to the workload of one full-timer.

“That is an aggregate number. We still haven’t gained enough support from individual employees,” he added.

And behind the slow adoption is the low levels of employee motivation and commitment at the beginning, he said.

“We have a ‘fail fast and learn fast’ culture, and we don’t come across many technical problems,” Ha noted. “However, we didn’t do a good enough job communicating the context of this RPA journey to motivate people to participate and be committed to the project.”

If employees are not motivated, they would not see RPA as a new way of working, which is Roche’s intended outcome and is much more important than the amount of time that a technology has freed up, he added.

The higher goal of an RPA journey, he said, is to shift employees to the new way of working — having a human-robot partnership to unleash humans’ creative and innovative strengths.

What can be a solution to increase employee motivation? The management soon recognised the need to provide a narrative to help employees see the types of talent they can become during this transformation and that the organisation will help staff develop new skills required for their new roles.

He said mindsets and behaviours could change if employees see that the management understands the reasons behind their resistance and makes changes accordingly.

“For instance, people lack intrinsic motivation because they see that the automation of the processes they handle today will result in them being out of work,” he said.

“If an organisation understands this and starts to identify the capabilities people have and how their capabilities could contribute to the delivery of certain outcomes and not just some numbers such as time savings, people may step out of their comfort zones and bring value to the table after solid training and coaching.”

Some people might stay unmotivated and choose to leave the company. Ha said employers should focus on candidates’ mindset when hiring replacements.

“You don’t want to hire people who are competent but incompatible with your company’s culture and hope to transform them after they’re hired,” he said.

Breaking down silos. While some teams may be more excited about RPA, it is not enough to have just part of the organisation engaged, Ha said.

“That’s because many processes in today’s organisations are cross-functional. However, people from various functions have their different priorities and might work in silos without a shared purpose or common goal,” he pointed out.

According to Ha, it takes tremendous leadership to remove internal bottlenecks. Besides providing a vision, leaders have to invest time to coach employees — a way to help people to be successful in digital transformation or any type of transformation, he noted.

At the same time, leaders need to become catalysts in transforming their organisations, he added.

As Roche’s Asia Pacific innovation hub, the management team in Hong Kong saw the project as an opportunity to transform the organisation by getting people to think cross-functionally, Ha said.

One initiative was inviting technology startups that developed solutions for the company to work with the finance and operation team in the Hong Kong office.

The experience working alongside entrepreneurs helped employees gain exposure to a very different way of working, Ha said. The exposure got employees to start focusing more on the intended outcomes of an initiative for all teams involved rather than just the quantifiable goals or requirements.

Enabling enterprise thinking. Another challenge was the lack of enterprise thinking where employees only think about the functions to which they belong instead of seeing the whole enterprise when making decisions. This again is not something that the company can change overnight, he noted.

The problem with this is a potential waste of resources in the future. “When employees only see the functions to which they belong, they remain in silos, missing out on valuable opportunities to collaborate and develop themselves.” Ha said.

In addition, employees in silos may focus on the “tasks” required to be done to automate processes, without considering the intended outcomes of the entire automation journey, he noted.

Without considering the entire automation journey, employees might overlook the need for some processes to be completely redesigned, which is key to achieving the intended outcomes, Ha added.

Adopting a top-down approach may be the simplest in this case, but it is not a sustainable solution to promote a culture of enterprise thinking, he said.

“The reason we have RPA and AIDA is to decentralise decision-making and help employees realise that they can make changes and be leaders,” he explained. “Employees who have dealt with repetitive processes — rather than senior management — know the nitty-gritty of them and should be engaged in the transformation journey.”

One of the possible solutions to this challenge is servant leadership, he suggested. “With servant leadership, leaders’ roles are to empower individuals and ensure information and resources flow freely across internal boundaries to maximise outcomes and optimise human capital,” Ha said.

Roche Hong Kong also established shared goals (instead of a function’s goals) and introduced dynamic budget allocation to encourage enterprise thinking, he said.

Instead of having a forecast at the beginning of the year, Roche Hong Kong now does event-driven planning.

“We do forecast on an as-needed basis,” he said. “Traditional once-a-year target setting where people spend a lot of time debating specific baseline numbers is disconnected from the reality of a dynamic market.”

Having adopted event-driven planning, Roche Hong Kong expects that teams will focus on enterprise-level elements such as strategies and how to quickly respond to market dynamics in 90-day cycles. This will help the company to come up with the right actions and deliver value to patients and the society as a pharmaceutical company.

Challenges reflect existing problems

Asked if the human-related challenges that Roche Hong Kong experienced are avoidable, Ha said companies could face similar issues, but the magnitude of the issues varies from one organisation to another.

Organisations need to assess their culture, structure, strategy, and staff mindset to know what to expect before any RPA implementation, he advised.

In addition, leaders need to provide a clear context and a narrative to get people excited about a transformation journey, he said.

“If these are done, you will have some first movers who will champion the transformation and encourage many others to become committed,” Ha noted.

“If any organisation has similar human-related challenges, remember that they might not be anything new,” he said. “They reflect your company’s culture and the mindset that had even existed before the technology implementation”.

Teresa Leung is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at