What is robotic process automation?
Depending on your industry or specialism, you have may have heard businesses, or professionals in your network, mention Robotic Process Automation (or RPA) as a means of reducing costs and improving organisational performance.
As the title implies, the discipline to a large degree involves process automation – the procedure by which routine business tasks can be performed automatically with computing technology and specialised software designed to perform processes perfectly from initiation through execution and completion.
Where does robotics come in?
Another term for ‘robot’ in this context could be, simply, ‘computer software’. RPA describes an emerging discipline that allows knowledgeable employees to configure a piece of software so that it can effectively mimic a human being’s actions during the performance of certain tasks.
Sometimes known as software robots, or artificial intelligence workers, these purpose-built “robots” are remarkable largely because they can interact directly with user interfaces the same way that a person would. Furthermore, their internal logic can be as simple or as sophisticated as the business requires. They are able to capture, interpret and manipulate data, for example – performing a data entry role for resource planning systems or end-to-end business-critical processes. With the right parameters designed, the robot can also handle exceptions and trigger communications with staff when manual intervention is required.
This represents a significant departure from formerly hallowed IT initiatives, which made heavy use of machine-to-machine communication (e.g. Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs) working within the architectural data layers beneath the User Interface. In comparison, a software robot acts much like a person or an employee, with only a small amount of software set-up required to map its tasks and objectives.
Robotic process automation software
There are a number of characteristics by which RPA software is defined.
One of the first principles of RPA is that creation of a software robot should not require any specialist programming skills. By using simple visual interfaces, drag-and-drop or flowchart-style design tools, RPA platforms allow all employees with relevant subject matter and process expertise to automate multiple procedures. At most, only a few weeks’ training should be needed.
A traditional challenge facing businesses and IT departments in particular is complexity and risk associated with altering IT systems or trying new solutions. Many large organisations are extraordinarily resistant to change as a result. RPA tools attempt to redress the balance by simulating the simple inputs and outputs a person would make through the User Interface (a software robot logs in just like you would, using an ID and password). This way, underlying computer systems are rarely disturbed, reducing the need for extensive testing and extra security measures associated with creating new APIs.
Friendly to business users
Due to the simplicity of RPA tools and the diminished need for technical support, business users are encouraged to adopt them sooner than IT departments. Reducing the need for expensive, specialist IT skills and risky investment initiatives helps to empower the business and its staff, in the process lowering the threshold staff members need to reach in order to make an economical business case.
Applications of robotic process automation
Implementation of RPA could deliver value to your organisation in a range of ways which are only expanding as technology, as well as successful instances of its integration into business, drives the invention of new methods of cutting costs, ensuring quality and improving efficiency.
By mimicking the steps of rules-based processes – without compromising existing IT systems – software robots are able to carry out their prescribed functions consistently in a way that can be easily scaled, up or down, according to requirements. Automation of tasks can extend to numerous critical areas of the business: accounting, customer service, data entry, finance, human resources, procurement, supply chain management, and even multi-system processes.
IT management and support
Remote management of IT systems is made easier through automated processes, which provide rapid throughput as a result of their rules-based investigations of, and solutions for, problems that arise during the day-to-day. Network devices can be monitored more efficiently, improving service desk performance significantly. By creating greater capacity for handling IT issues – without typical problems arising around scalability and human resources – businesses are better able to handle short-term spikes in demand without worrying about recruitment and training.
With increasing advancements in how computers are able to handle structured information and language, RPA allows for robots to act as automated online assistants with the capability for voice recognition and more. With this technology, robots can answer queries from customers or employees in natural language, reducing the need for heavy resource investment into call centres or help desks.
Think of all the processes in your business currently performed by humans. In most cases, a robot involved in the same process can perform the same duty twice as effectively. Humans involved in data entry may have to use a notepad or cut-and-paste functionality to move between applications, where a bot can – in the blink of an eye – automatically capture each step of its job for later auditing. In another example, where human workers are subject to the natural limitations of needing to eat, sleep, work within certain hours, etc., a robot is able to works 24 hours a day, at great speed and all without rest.
Origins of RPA
The story of robotic process automation, in essence, finds its origins in a process called screen scraping. RPA is seen to be a significant evolution of this old method, which involved various technical procedures in order to read text data from a display terminal by connecting various ports to other external computer systems.
Things have progressed a fair way since then, with new RPA tools seen to be sufficiently resilient, scalable and code-free to be readily integrated in major enterprises, where screen scraping solutions are now relatively expensive and complex to design from scratch.
A famous illustration of the distance RPA has travelled as a technology is in the example of UK-based data company Xchanging, who gave their robot co-worker a name – Poppy – and even invited “her” to the office Christmas party. Because software robots require hosting, they often gets their own virtual workstation and, just like any other staff member, use a keyboard and mouse to execute their functions (although they don’t usually require a monitor). This goes some way to demonstrating the level of engagement and investment that RPA technology can facilitate, leading the users and creators of robotic staff to see them as “beings” of a sort – an extension of the faculty, rather than merely a software service.
How does RPA compare to other process automation
Software robots are intended to differ from other traditional forms of process automation, largely as a result of the way they are configured using demonstrative step-by-step tasks as opposed to receiving instructions via technical code. Rather than providing yet another code platform for business users, RPA tools intend to deliver configurable capability to non-technical teams, in the process empowering the creation of agile “virtual workers”.
When ideally implemented, RPA should enable operational departments to create tailored solutions to everyday issues. It should also free up IT departments to focus on complex and strategic operations, leaving RPA to focus on operational effectiveness, quality assurance and cost efficiency in the short term. In many ways, it is perfectly complementary to existing automation and process management initiatives.
What are the benefits of RPA to my organisation?
Before asking this question, you should first ask if RPA is the right thing for your organisation to pursue by examining your processes on a case-by-case basis.
- Is the process rule-based, requiring little human judgment?
- Can the process by initiated and completed using digital means?
- Is the process stable, uniformly performed, and uniform in its execution?
- Does the process involve handling high volumes of data or activities?
- Will your processes’ existing systems synergise with robotic automation?
If any of the above applies directly to your business, RPA may well be worth considering. Recent academic studies cite RPA, amongst other technological trends, as a key global driver of gains in productivity and efficiency. Furthermore, studies by the Harvard Business Review have shown that – rather than resulting in redundancies and resentment – robotic automation has freed up time for staff members to focus on more challenging work, simultaneously allowing businesses to achieve more work with the same employee headcount.
In the same that way industrial machines have reshaped the manufacturing industry by delivering consistency of quality and production rates, RPA offers a way to revolutionise business processes, workflows, remote infrastructure management and much more.
Any company that requires large-scale human labour for knowledge work, or high-volume and transactional functions, can benefit from the boosted capability that RPA delivers while offering improved services with massive savings in time and money. Adoption rates within financial services, for example, are notably higher than in other sectors.
Want to know more about improving efficiency and freeing up resources by pursuing digitisation in your business? Get in touch today and we’ll see what we can do to help.