Photo: UN RSCE

UN RSCE Robotic Process Automation Telephone Billing Consolidation

The future digital work force is here

The UN Regional Service Centre in Entebbe, Uganda (UN RSCE), has among its many missions the consolidation of administrative and support functions previously located in its field missions. This streamlining of administration provides less volatile, more business-friendly regional locations, with the goal of providing efficient, client-oriented and scalable services while reducing the missions’ footprints to UN field missions across Africa. Robotic Process Automation (RPA), through the UNICC Robotic Process Automation Centre (RPA+) was there to help develop and deploy a telephone billing consolidation system.

Robotic Process Automation is the use of software that can be easily programmed to do sequenced, high volume, repetitive tasks across applications. It creates and deploys a software robot that works like a digital assistant, doing routine, complex, rule-based, time-bound tasks that would otherwise eat up employees’ time.

RPA and hyperautomation technologies – what UNICC calls ‘RPA+’ – allow us to call on a digital workforce to help us gain immediate operational efficiencies and get closer to business stakeholders and beneficiaries on the ground. Ultimately, RPA+ helps Clients and Partner Organizations build better to deliver on their mandates.

Nagesh Vepa, Head, Hyperautomation Solutions, UNICC

The Regional Project and Implementations Unit in the Field Technology Services of the Regional Service Centre in Entebbe (RSCE) has now successfully deployed two Robotic Process Automation (RPA) projects in the past three years, both of which have been in the Regional Telephone Billing Unit (RTBU).

In African peacekeeping missions, RPA was pioneered in RTBU through a Proof of Concept in 2018, followed by a full-fledged deployment in March 2021. RTBU was a logical place to start, given that it processes massive amounts of data: over 100,000 bills in FY2018/2019, translating into over 9,000,000 rows of data.

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Photo: UN RSCE

Before embarking on any automation, all of the complex process steps have to be identified at a granular level. Fortunately, RTBU had their internal processes well documented with sufficient detail. One aspect that was not captured in the process maps, however, was offline tasks. In particular, there is the requirement to handle, process and standardise documents received in different formats into a standard template, which used to take significant effort, time and resources on the part of the units.

With the RTBU processes clearly defined, the Regional Project and Implementations Unit partnered with UNICC for the development and deployment of an automated bot. The bot accesses the target files for processing from an input folder in SharePoint. Upon processing, successful files are moved to an output folder with exceptions, audit logs and performance reports being maintained in separate folders.

UNICC was responsible for process assessment, development, testing, Production deployment, associated license procurement, onboarding Orchestrator service for relevant bot, infrastructure hosting, administer and support for the RPA Process candidates and agile project management in the United Nations Regional Telephone Billing Unit (RTBU) of the Regional Service Centre in Entebbe (UN RSCE).

RPA has allowed for automated multiple, time-consuming offline processes by converting telephone bills received from over 16 missions in over 25 formats into a single standard format that is compatible with the Unit’s telephone billing platform. This means that there is now visibility for every single row of every single bill that has gone through RPA, which is projected to generate thousands of dollars a month in savings through enhanced recoveries.

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Photo: Zanders

The result is greater speed and accuracy in performing repetitive, high-volume tasks, freeing time for staff to focus on more productive, analytical tasks. In addition, there are additional benefits like time stamps and an audit trail for previously offline actions that are performed outside the telephone billing platform.

RPA efficiency gains:

  • Significant cost recoveries during the first year of operation
  • Formats over half a million rows of data per hour
  • Fully compatible with Microsoft 365
  • 50 staff hours a month saved on manually formatting documents
  • 100% accuracy in converting/formatting bills
  • Supports 24 document formats
  • Generates a real-time audit trail in MS SharePoint for a process that was previously undocumented
  • Improves staff morale
  • Easily scalable to handle larger volumes and formats of data
  • The concept is transferable to offices using structured data.

UNICC’s RPA and hyperautomation technologies have allowed the UN RSCE to call on a digital workforce to help deliver administrative and operational efficiencies, allowing regional staff to get closer to the business and deliver more efficiently on their work packages, thus helping the RSCE to best to deliver on its mission and mandates.

UN Innovation Network: TechLearnTalks on RPA with UNICC and ESCWA

On Wednesday, 9 June 2021, Manuel Nunes, Senior Business Analyst at UNICC, spoke about Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in a UN Innovation Network (UNIN) TechLearnTalks segment. Manuel described the functions and benefits of RPA, followed by Carla Ziade and Kamal Al-Khatib of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) who presented a case study and demonstration of RPA in their daily operations as supported by UNICC’s Robotic Process Automation (RPA+) Centre of Excellence.

TechLearnTalks is a series of UNIN webinars dedicated towards demystifying up-and-coming technologies “without the jargon”; this was accurately reflected in the audience when a pre-webinar Zoom poll revealed that only 25% of participants had prior knowledge about RPA. This was no barrier for Manuel, who gave a brief yet comprehensive presentation on the topic, describing RPA as a self-functioning set of rules much like a self-playing piano. He continued to set out the different types of RPA and each of their specific functions: attended, unattended and citizen development. To further clarify the difference the specific RPA types have in their processes, his presentation included a visual diagram of the extent to which human oversight is needed for attended and unattended RPA bots. 

In addition, Manuel dove into the various benefits of RPA; for example, he explained that its developmental origins in the finance sector is the reason for its accuracy in compliance and audit regulations, not to mention the consistency of its precision. Other benefits were the sheer hours the organization can spare with RPA bots delivering otherwise reiterative and repetitive tasks, so employees are available to take on more meaningful duties.

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Photo: UNICC

To conclude his presentation, Manuel touched upon the broad network of organizations for whom UNICC provides RPA services.

RPA is both cross-mandate and cross-function. Since the development of the service, UNICC has built more than 50 automations through RPA bots to over 15 organizations in the UN. This equates to thousands of hours of efficiencies – thousands of hours these organizations can re-allocate towards the greater UN mission.

Manuel Nunes, Senior Business Analyst, UNICC

Following Manuel’s presentation, colleagues from ESCWA delivered a case study of RPA in action. Carla Ziade, Administrative Officer, explained that the RPA bot which UNICC had built primarily worked to automate the process of internal employees to submit travel requests within the Umoja system. She contextualised the benefits of RPA to ESCWA’s operations, stating that it boosted efficiencies, reduced turnaround times, improved accuracy and was straightforward to launch and train users in. 

The entire process of submitting a request from start to finish, when completed by a human, takes approximately 15 minutes; this process is annually completed an estimated 1200 times. Our calculations present that this RPA bot will save approximately 300 hours per year for the ESCWA.

Carla Ziade, Administrative Officer, ESCWA

Kamal Al-Khatib, Finance Innovation Group Project Coordinator, ESCWA, then delivered the technical explanation of the RPA bot, named “Adam,” as well as the specific steps of the automation. To further establish the efficiency of the bot, Kamal prepared a visual live demo of Adam 1 (refer to 46:00 in the webinar recording).


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Photo: UNICC

Anecdotally, Kamal recalled the collaboration between ESCWA and UNICC to build the bot in 2019, which was during the period of social and political unrest in Beirut, Lebanon. Employees in the surrounding ESCWA offices struggled with business continuity due to factors such as lack of Internet, electricity, etc. Though the project experienced difficulties due to these external factors, Kamal stated that colleagues at UNICC, in the process of building, implementing and deploying the bot, went “above and beyond”, successfully completing the assignment. 

Overall, the webinar was well received by the audience, with nearly 30 questions and comments from members of international organizations such as UNICEF, ICAO, UNV and PAHO. Question topics varied from timelines of RPA implementation to the price of the automation service, to which ESCWA colleagues lauded UNICC for its degree of efficiency for its affordability. 

Though the panelists and speakers were not able to address all inquiries, much of the Q&A session evolved around the potential issues that arise in the practical applications of RPA. To address this, Manuel and Carla first explained the greatest obstacle to implementing RPA was not the automation itself but the preparation to implementing the bot. Gaining accessibility to sites and applications, streamlining processes and identifying the boundaries of the administrative tasks that needed automation were all issues that needed to be aptly addressed before building the automation.

As the webinar came to a close and the speakers wrapped up their Q&A session, one participant, in response to the remaining questions on RPA and all of its capabilities, left a comment in the participant thread: “I think a good starting point is contacting UNICC.”