February 27, 2020 / All Stories

How Bert the Bot helps patients

Here’s how AbbVie’s data pros – and a group of college students – invented bots that give our employees time to focus on more complex tasks.

Last summer, college students from the AbbVie Innovation Center worked with AbbVie’s technologists to create bots for our development clinical operations teams.

Why innovation and creativity go hand in hand

All throughout AbbVie, there are employees who celebrate birthdays but never eat any cake. Employees who have email addresses and ID numbers, but you won’t ever see them in the cafeteria lunch lines.

AbbVie’s Business Technology Solutions team have begun building and deploying robotic process automation bots, or technology that mimics human actions to take on some of the time-consuming busywork and give humans more time to focus on complex work. Even though they’re not physical robots, that doesn’t mean teams don’t get attached. AbbVie bots are known to have their own names, bot-themed birthday parties and sometimes, a personality outside of work.

“While it’s important for us to implement solutions like RPA (robotic process automation) that allow us to invest more resources in critical areas, fun is also part of our culture,” said Mike Carlin, vice president of Business Technology Solutions at AbbVie. “Naming bots may seem trivial, but it’s actually a great, creative way to drive collaboration and adoption of the technology.”

This summer AbbVie technologists worked with 20 students at the AbbVie Innovation Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to create bots for our development clinical operations teams. The Innovation Center pairs up students with AbbVie mentors to provide opportunities for students to get hands-on experience figuring out solutions to real-world business problems.

The result? Bots named Blizzard, Bert, Fred CeSaR and St.Bot, who all play different roles to make sure information across our systems and documents are aligned, data is accurate and up to date. Blizzard will eliminate a variety of manual tasks performed on a variety of documents in the trial master file. Fred double checks financial disclosure document forms. Bert ensures that our internal colleagues and external clinical research partners have access to the relevant clinical trial systems that they need to use during the clinical trials. CeSaR will supporting the medical writing functions and St. Bot will align training documents with AbbVie’s internal databases.

“We began evaluating building bots to support the development organization in early 2019, and have built a number of use cases where this technology could help reduce manual, repeatable, time intensive tasks that exist in the organization,” said Bryan Feldman, whose team in information research supports the development business.

Given the enormous potential in this technology space, Brian Martin, who heads up the Information Research Artificial Intelligence team, proposed a summer long hackathon to see how students could support the growing need for process automation solutions.

This program is centered around returning the precious gift of time back to colleagues in the organization.

“Quantifying the expected time savings helps us target use cases that can return the most to the organization,” said Feldman. “Our 2020 projections are in the 100,000 person-hours of savings range across our bots.”

“When we started this project, we didn’t give the students a set of guide rails for how to solve these challenges. We gave them insight into the opportunity to solve, and partnered them with technical and business subject matter experts to help guide the bot development” said Feldman, “This started as an experiment to understand the capabilities within the innovation center and has now moved to our new normal. Students embrace the challenge of automating processes and gain valuable real-world experience working with teams in Lake County through the process.”

While checking a document can be simple, building a bot to check a document is more complicated. According to Feldman, building a bot is like explaining how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It sounds straightforward until you break down all the steps involved. Not only does the sandwich maker have to buy and set out all the ingredients, but there are multiple steps involved that all must be done in order. Developers also teach the bots what do when things go wrong and how to solve those issues – all in bot language.

Here’s what Feldman found out: Students approach problems differently. You could say students “Think outside the box” but they would come up with a much more creative term.

Timothy Lin is a University of Illinois senior and a Robot Process Automation Developer at the Innovation Center and was on the team that developed Bert. Before working on the technology, the team spent a lot of time talking to people who were manually doing the work. Once that process was set, Bert had to learn how to solve problems like what to do when like fields are missing in a spreadsheet or the document isn’t loading, according to Lin.

“Once it works, it works,” Lin said. “These bots can run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, freeing up people to do other projects.”

And Timothy knows how Bert thinks. If Bert were a person, he’d be into the details. He is transparent and focused and will get the job done right the first time, but he may not be the life of the party.

Naming and even giving the bots personality traits is not new to AbbVie teams. The Regulatory, Quality and Safety (RQS) team spent years developing Ditto, Cliff, Cassie, Webster and Sue. These bots help RQS manage growing case volume by automating routine case processing tasks such as checking for duplicate cases, reviewing and routing email messages and attachments, and assigning cases to medical safety analysts. These bots were built by our technologists and have user IDs, birthdays, and they change their own passwords. Users talk about the bots like they are regular co-workers.

As technology evolves to keep up with an exponential increase in data, Mike Carlin recognizes the opportunity to make a difference.

“Our business and technology landscape are constantly changing. This propels us to keep learning, and it puts us in a position to find and accelerate innovative solutions that ultimately help patients. For our technology teams to be able to make this kind of impact is extremely rewarding.”

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Sheila Galloro
Email: sheila.galloro@abbvie.com
Call: +1 847-937-2700
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