Robotic Process Automation: What You Need to Know
Despite declarations that RPA is dead, robot process automation has its place in the digital transformation. Here's what the experts have to say:
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Robotic Process Automation and its Implications for Business Today
In 2015, Deloitte Touche released a report entitled, “The Robots are Coming”. The robots they were referencing are not the scary metal-encased mechanical robots of science fiction, nor do they serve as a threat to humankind. These robots are software-based and reside on desktop computers and servers.
This new generation of robots make up a technology known as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a term coined back in 2001 by a startup company called Blue Prism that set out to understand the notion of automating mundane business processes.
In 2016, McKinsey Digital called RPA, “the next acronym you need to know. According to Gartner, RPA was the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market in 2018 when its revenue grew more than 63% to $846 million.
Forester Research predicts the RPA market will hit $6.5 billion by 2025. By 2030, the RPA market is expected to reach nearly $24 billion with a CAGR of more than 38%. Other estimates have it as much as $30 billion. Whatever the number is, the growth of RPA is staggering and its impact on businesses and the economy cannot yet be fully comprehended.
RPA is but one small part of the larger AI automation movement that is helping companies digitally transform themselves. The emphasis on greater AI automation is summed up by a quote by Mark Cuban in which he states:
“Whatever you are studying right now, if you are not getting up to speed on deep learning, neural networks, etc., you lose. We are going through the process where software will automate software, automation will automate automation.”
While many larger corporate enterprises currently utilize RPA, many SMBs either are unfamiliar with the technology or consider themselves too small to take advantage of it. The fact is, however, that RPA solutions are readily available for any size company. If you are unaware of the transformational power of RPA, it's time you find out.
What is RPA
RPA is a software technology that utilizes robotic programming to simulate the digital work of a human. It involves breaking down repetitive tasks into a series of small, deterministic steps and then automating them using software robots. While just about anything that a human can perform digitally can be emulated by a bot, not all work processes are a good match for RPA.
Office processes that can most benefit from RPA involve structured, repeatable computer-based tasks that make up "mindless" work. Think about all the front and back-office processes that require repetitive, routine tasks that prove boring and highly uninteresting for people. RPA can take responsibility for these types of mundane tasks and perform them faster and more accurately.
If you were to observe the work performed by an RPA bot on a computer workstation, the only distinguishing difference would be the absence of a person sitting in front of the device. The software robot can not only move the mouse, input keystrokes, open and navigate applications, it can also understand what is on the screen. It can identify, interpret, and extract data from an open document to transfer it over to another document or application file.
No one likes paperwork and companies don’t like the costs it takes to generate it. Think about the multiple forms that must be filled out during the onboarding process of a new employee. Each document requires the same personal and contact information. The process is pure drudgery for both the new employee as well as the HR staff. Now imagine a software robot that retrieved the information from the person and filled out all of the documents in real-time, prompting the eager new hire to only add their signature.
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The Human Side of RPA
It may seem strange to discuss the human element in a dialog about technology but to understand the full benefit of RPA it is important to appreciate its correlation to the human experience. Many people associate robots with job displacement, and while there are instances of robots replacing human workers in industrial and manufacturing environments, RPA is not about taking over the job roles of human in mass. To the contrary, RPA is about augmenting the work capabilities of a human by delegating dull mundane tasks to a bot, thus allowing the human to focus on more meaningful work.
It is estimated that between ten to twenty percent of human work hours are spent on mind-numbing repetitive computer tasks. According to a 2021 office worker survey, respondents on average said they wasted 4.5 hours a week on tasks they think can be automated. The study also showed that 68% of respondents stated a desire to have more time to explore and incorporate new responsibilities into their daily routines. People, after all, want to do work that has a sense of purpose.
It is said that RPA takes the robot out of the human. Let’s face it. Many of the tasks performed by office workers are mundane and sometimes pure drudgery. Ken Galbraith, a Canadian-America economist, and best-selling author of books on economic topics before passing away in 2006 said this about tedious jobs of monotony:
“Clearly the most unfortunate people are those who must do the same thing over and over again, every minute, or perhaps twenty to the minute. They deserve the shortest hours and the highest pay.”
The truth is that no one likes to perform repetitive, mundane work, a phenomenon referred to now as ‘boredom’. Studies have been conducted that show the damaging effects of coping to combat a mind-numbing job. People want to perform work that they feel has meaning.
For the typical office worker, RPA represents the hope to take on more meaningful work that leverages human strengths and characteristics such as emotional intelligence, reason, and judgment. Says Leslie Willcocks, professor of technology, work, and globalization at the London School of Economics:
“The relationship between technology and people has to change in the future for the better, and I think RPA is one of the great tools to enable that change”.
While RPA certainly has the proven of taking business productivity to new heights, it's important to consider the liberating effect it instills on the modern workforce. To use another popular line, RPA takes the work you hate off your plate.
A Classic Example of RPA
Let’s start with a personal example to illustrate just how RPA can accentuate and streamline the work experience. The editor who assigned me this paper asked that I include multiple quotes about RPA from experts in the field. This requires an internet search to find relevant quotes and copy/paste them into a compiled document to later sort and select from. Conducting a web search for quotes isn’t the most proficient way to spend my time. My strengths lie in formulating thoughts onto paper and creating a story that navigates the reader through a framework of informative and instructive content and hopefully influences them to arrive at a destined conclusion. Tedious tasks such as simple web queries take me off that purpose.
But what if I had my own RPA robot on my laptop? The robot could open the web browser and type in the URL of my preferred search engine. It could then query phrases such as “industry quotes about RPA” and assess them in some manner such as how many times the RPA acronym or the phrase “robotic process automation” appeared. It would then go about copying and pasting them into a Word document. I could even have the robot do it remotely from another machine and later email the document to me.
The Business-Related Benefits of RPA
We are all familiar with the phrase, “nobody’s perfect”. That doesn’t necessarily ring true for an RPA, however. Just think how many times you’ve made a typo while creating a document or fat fingered an accounting figure into a spreadsheet. Some of those slipups you catch, some you don’t. Now consider all the errors made by everyone in an office that go undetected. What’s more, people are more inclined to make errors when work becomes monotonous and boring. All those micro errors add up over time and end up costing real money to the organization.
RPA technology is easy to scale. This can be a huge advantage during tight labor markets in which it is difficult to find available workers. Once an RPA system is in place and the robots have been programmed, there is no risk of a turnover or excessive sick days. Software bots never take a vacation and can work tirelessly to complete a task and operate through nights, weekends, and holidays, giving companies maximum flexibility when needed. Furthermore, bots only need to be trained once and they are good to go unless the workflow changes. As a result, companies can attain greater resiliency and agility through stable workflows and a highly elastic robotic workforce.
Another of the realms where RPA can excel is in customer service. Office staff and customer service representatives shouldn’t be spending time interacting with their digital systems. They shouldn’t be laboriously navigating through data cells encased within spreadsheets or inputting contact information for new customers. Instead, they should be interacting with customers to foster relationships or interface with teammates to create new innovative value for the company. (Read: How will AI technology affect the workplace?)
You cannot assess any type of technology implementation without considering its ROI. While implementing an RPA solution involves an upfront development cost, that investment over time is far less than the accumulated overhead and fixed costs of housing and employing a person to do the job. The Institute of RPA estimates that an RPA implementation can quickly reduce labor costs by 25% to 40%. McKinsey in their studies found that automating business processes with RPA can result in an ROI of between 30% and 200% in the first year alone. Besides the ROI of the technology itself, companies can more effectively monetize the talents and skills of their employees by stripping their human workers of non-value generating work.
The fact is that streamlining a company’s office processes with RPA technology results in enhanced productivity and greater operational efficiencies. According to the Institute of Robotic Process Automation:
“Any company that uses labor on a large scale for general knowledge process work, where people are performing high-volume, highly transactional process functions, will boost their capabilities and save money and time with robotic process automation software”.
RPA Replaces Outsourcing
It wasn’t that long ago that companies relied on outsourcing high volume repetitive business processes to other regions of the globe that had cheaper labor in order to reduce costs. While there are definite cost savings to the practice, there are multiple challenges, such as potential communication issues with customers, gaps in operational oversight, economic instability, and issues with data sovereignty.
RPA is beginning to reverse the outsourcing trend that has proved popular for a while as it is estimated that RPA implementations cost one-third of the price of off-shoring labor.
Attended vs Unattended RPA
Attended RPA: The software robots involved in RPA fall into two basic categories: attended and unattended. Think of an attended bot as one that acts as a digital assistant that performs tasks such as searching for quotations on the internet for an assigned business employee. Attended bots reside on workstations or servers and await to be summoned by a single individual or multiple team members. They perform individual front and back-office tasks under human supervision to help boost productivity and eliminate redundant work tasks.
Unattended RPA: Unassigned bots on the other hand independently with little human intervention and often perform jobs that are highly scaled. They aren’t assigned to any users and typically reside on large private servers or in the cloud. While attended bots work during business hours, unattended bots can work on a 24/7 basis. Unattended bots are used for business processes that often rely on end-to-end automation. One example is a chat bot that interacts with an online user to help assist them with things such as opening or creating an account or helping them find a documented answer to a problem.
How RPA and AI Differ
Due to the apparent "smartness" of RPA, it is often categorized as an entry-level form of artificial intelligence. While they may seem alike, there are distinct differences between the two. RPA is process centric. Its purpose is to execute rule-based processes where workflows are clearly defined and rarely change over time.
The software robot must be instructed or trained on how to do something and relies on structured data to complete its assignments. Some of the typical processes that RPA exceeds include logging into applications, opening emails and attachments, stripping data from the web, and extracting structured content from available documents. Think of RPA as the labor that does the heavy lifting.
While RPA is a technology that emulates human tasks, AI aims to emulate the human thought process. AI can work with both structured and unstructured data to complete data-centric processes. The captured data may then trigger judgement-based responses and actions. AI doesn’t need workflows to be clearly defined. It can comprehend conversations through natural language processing and can understand the documents it is working with.
Using machine learning, AI can learn how to do a job better over time while RPA gets the job in the same instructed manner. While RPA can take over certain aspects of a human’s job, it is still dependent on human guidance, which is why it often cannot completely replace a human worker. AI on the other hand is not dependent on humans and can operate freely without human intervention as it can make cognitive decisions and predict multiple outcomes by interpreting large volumes of data. (Read: Is Automation the Future of Data Science and Machine Learning?)
Just as RPA can work in junction with people, RPA and AI can work in tandem with one another, one of them taking the on tasks involving structured inputs and logic while the other performs jobs that involve less clarity and require precepting thinking. For instance, a hospital can use RPA technology to examine vital signs, lab results or patient symptoms to assemble and sort the captured data. AI technology can then examine the collected data to find medical correlations or predict illnesses.
RPA Adaption Continues to Grow
According to a recent report, 20% of all organizations adopted some sort of RPA solution in 2021. That compares to 13% adoption rate the year prior. RPA systems can result in quick returns for companies of all sizes and with the growing number of RPA developers, even small businesses are beginning to embrace the technology and realize its benefits.
Thus far, RPA is a win-win across the board for businesses and employees alike as office workers find some reprieve from work that offers little satisfaction. Humans shouldn’t have to just go through the motions. That should be done by a robot, and it is what they do best. For RPA, the question is when the new era of automation will start impacting organizations. It is already happening.