Interview with Poplar HARCA

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Interview Spotlight on POPLAR HARCA.


Based in East London, Poplar HARCA are an award-winning Housing and Regeneration Community Association.  NexBotix first met with Peter and his team back in 2020 working in partnership with them to automate their invoice processing.  Since then, we’ve seen both our relationship, automation strategy and solution develop, growing from the initial need to drive efficiencies in business processes, through to implementing a value driven, automation first strategy.


As an early adopter of automation technology, I think many other businesses will be interested in understanding the drivers behind you wanting to adopt automation into your business processes.  So, I wondered if you wouldn’t mind taking us back to the beginning of your automation journey and providing some background on the issues and problems you were facing with manual invoice processing, and your ambitions for what you were looking to achieve.

We had a small finance team of four people at Poplar HARCA, and they were responsible for manually processing on average about 2,500 invoices a month from approximately 80 different local contractors and tradespeople who were servicing 10,000 homes.

These contractors tended to be local businesses, as our ethos is to support the people and trades who live in the area, who don’t really have large IT departments to assist them in their invoicing.  What this meant is that multiple invoices would be issued in various formats and contain various information – with little to no consistency.

The sheer volume and scale of managing this was taking up a significant amount of processing time for the finance team, and they found themselves struggling with manually processing them on time.  It was clear we needed to make the process more efficient to ensure that any errors or payment delays were eradicated.  We needed to decide if this meant replacing our existing systems or looking at an alternative.

The obvious solution was automation.   Being able to replace the manual processes with automation and take away from the team the repetition of laborious tasks made much more sense to us.  Automating the business process around invoicing would reduce the wastage of our talented resources and allow us to redirect the team and their time to more efficient tasks.


So, Peter, there’s a lot of hype in the marketplace about automation today and actually some scepticism of will the technology deliver benefit, or won’t it?  A lot of companies also don’t really understand how to deploy it.  Perhaps you can talk us through the solution we delivered and how it’s actually delivered some benefit inside Poplar HARCA.

Heading up the Research and Development team, I had to look at as the business as a whole and how we could drive efficiencies. So, to test the water we began with a pilot focused on a small subset of invoices.

This essentially limited the risk and allowed us to see the value before committing to the full solution.   We had a dedicated NexBotix team who worked alongside us and basically became like a new employee for Poplar HARCA.


By working so closely together with our finance team, they were able to learn the processes first hand from start to finish.  They learned how to do the job as if they were a member of the team and by spending time understanding the intricacies, made a very complex process become seamless and user friendly.  Once tested they refined the bot and the process which resulted in a process that was just right.  The newly automated process now flows so that a contractor sends an invoice via an email, that email is picked up by the intelligent software bot rather than by a human, goes through the various relevant different systems in processing and comes out the other side as a payment into someone’s account.

The team at NexBotix were always available to help which is something we really liked.  There was constant dialogue and conversations between each party to ensure that the bots worked in the way we wanted.  The joint engagement and partnership kind of approach was important in getting the solution delivered.  Because again, it’s a big change for the organisation.

The commercials that NexBotix offered also played a key role.  Being able to start small with a pay as you go finance model rather than a massive outlay, helped gain Board level sign on to this project, and ensure that the full business was supportive in the automation strategy.


We make some quite big claims about the percentage throughput we might get and some of the benefits you’ll get from our automated solution.  It would be really interesting to see what your experience has been like and if our claims are true, let’s hope they are.

Well, we started off with some scepticism.   I think the first time we ever ran the software bot, it was 50% successful, and as we said, we kept working back and forth.  We’re now up to 85%, which has exceeded what we set as the threshold when we started the project.  Initially we hoped that 70% of invoices should be processed through the robot directly without anybody intervening, and we’re now at 85% of invoices being processed without any intervention from anyone.     The remaining 15% tends to be because of a business exception rather than a problem with the bot or the automated process.  For example, an exception might have been because the value needed approval or the invoice had a mistake like the wrong amount.   As the finance team now have more time, they’re able to speak with the contractors and get any issues sorted quickly.    Work satisfaction is also much higher as not only is the backlog reduced but the team spend much less time doing repetitive data work.


And we must cover the big misconception that the bots are replacing everyone’s jobs!

We do! In nearly four years since implementing software bots and automating our process, we haven’t lost any members of staff.  For us it’s about augmenting the workforce as opposed to replacing the workforce.  Those staff have been redeployed.   So, as I said, the invoice processing was causing a bottleneck where invoices weren’t being paid on time.  But what the automation has allowed the team to do is work on more valuable and interesting bits of work, and that is what we really hope to give to people.  If we can use people’s brains in a more effective way, then they’re happy, more valuable as they build better relationships with our suppliers and want to stay in the organisation.


So, all in all, invoice processing was a really good process to automate.  I guess if we move forward then thinking about what’s next for Poplar HARCA in terms of further automation, what are your thoughts?

So, since the success of the finance project, we’ve obviously had a lot of inquiries from other parts of the organisation.   We’re currently looking at reducing our lettings time.  Homelessness within London and throughout the country is a massive issue.  We let properties, but that time to let a void or an empty property can take quite a while.  This is something we want to look at using automation for to see if it able to reduce that time, where we often have to key information in multiple systems, provide information to residents, ask residents for the same information three or four times.

We believe that automation can reduce that process and drive efficiency in multiple areas from the resident through to you as a business as well.


Well, it certainly is an exciting time as we look forward to rising to the challenge in your lettings part of the business and hopefully delivering some of the efficiencies you’re hoping to achieve through automation.


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