Robotic process automation (RPA) explained
With all due apologies to Shakespeare:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a Bot
By any other name would work as sweetly.”
Basically, what matters is what something is, not what it is called. This is all well and good in principle, but some clarification is needed if we’re to understand the exact meaning of Robotic when associated with process automation. It’s the buzz phrase of the moment so let’s get the confusion out of the way first.
A bot is NOT a robot even though ‘bot’ was originally a shortened version of robot. Now it effectively means ‘robot without a body’. So…
Bots are software programmes that can automatically execute actions.
Robots are programmable physical machines that can automatically execute actions.
Robotics is the field of study of physical robots, including their mechanical, electrical and software engineering.
In the context of RPA, ‘robotic’ is usefully considered to be entirely digital.
What exactly is RPA?
RPA is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities to handle high-volume, repetitive tasks that typically needed humans to perform. Leslie Willcocks (Professor of Technology, Work, and Globalisation at the London School of Economics’ Department of Management) defines it perfectly:
“RPA takes the robot out of the human.”
Processes that have a traceable pattern and can be taught to a machine via a set of instructions are typical candidates for RPA; processes such as switching back and forth between applications, logging into software solutions, moving files and folders, copying and pasting data, extracting data from forms and documents and managing it, filling in forms, etc). Approximately 70-80% of these rules-based processes can be automated.
RPA requires 0% changes to IT infrastructure as RPA bots usually stay in the front-end of the system and move forward with the task without any changes in IT infrastructure, while traditional automation requires additional system updates.
There are four streams of RPA:
- A highly customised software that only works with certain types of process (e.g accounting and finance).
- ‘Screen scraping’ or ‘web scraping’ (copying data from a website) – automating as much data collection, synthesisation, and desktop documentation as possible.
- A customised self-development kit where a template is provided, and specialist programmers design the robot.
- Enterprise/enterprise-safe software that can be scaled and is reusable.
While a lot of work can be automated using RPA, some processes will need human intervention for decision making, reasoning, and/or judgment. It’s generally up to an RPA engineer to assess an organisation’s complete business process and segregate the RPA capability vs human intervention requirements.
RPA also can’t deal with exceptional scenarios within a software system. The RPA engineer must look at the exceptions and create a rule to deal with them. The good news is that gradually the RPA is educated and configured to do more and more work. Eventually it will be able to do 90 or 95% of it with very little needing human intervention.
Why every business needs RPA
RPA helps organisations consistently achieve goals faster, accelerate business growth and reduce costs as it:
- Improves workforce productivity and headcount flexibility/energy to focus on critical activities such as decision making, strategising, etc.
- Increases employee satisfaction.
- Allows greater focus on the front office as it automates the back office.
- Helps document the business processes, increasing accuracy at every step, ensuring business outcomes are achieved efficiently with minimal overruns and re-work.
- Improves the accuracy of data and its processing speed with reduction in manual errors.
- Detects revenue leakages from the organisation and reduces business risk.
- Speeds up service as bots work at lightning speed.
- Reduces service costs and improves customer service due to streamlined and automated processes.
- Enables youto match or exceed the performance of your competitors.
- Provides metrics on the impact of automation on the business.
Automation can be applied to any process, but the most beneficial business areas are those that:
- Require vigour (e.g., CAPEX requests that require accurate information before purchase orders are raised. Automation ensures all the data is present and correct before submitting for approval).
- Require consensus (e.g., project changes that must be documented, and risk assessed before being approved and scheduled for completion. An automated system will push change information to authorised individuals for comment and approval.
- Require compliance (e.g., automation can provide a true audit record to a regulatory authority of both the process definition and every process execution).
- Require collaboration – automation can speed up communication between geographically dispersed teams or different organisations, so allocated tasks can be completed.
SMEs will benefit greatly from RPA as they’re generally managed by just a handful of people who are responsible for everything, including lowering operational costs, bringing in new business, retaining existing business, improving workforce productivity, enhancing the quality of products and services, etc.
RPA has the potential to unlock real value for any business. Forrester Consulting gathered data from a variety of companies, analysing the costs, benefits, and risks of using RPA. They concluded organisations may:
- Free up hundreds of thousands of hours by year 3. Approximately 10-20% of human work hours are spent on dull and repetitive computer tasks.
- Accelerate projects by 50% or more.
- Reduce human error – catching mistakes that might otherwise have been missed.
- Drive 97% ROI over three years.
Other benefits include:
- Reduction in huge transformation investment while still achieving efficiency.
- Business growth without the proportionate spend.
- Derivation of maximum value from partners and outsourced processes.
- Support of innovation without heavy outlay for testing new ideas.
- Each piece of software can be multi-skilled and doesn’t need much IT involvement to get it up and running. However, it’s worth noting:
- Business operations people can learn how to configure and apply the robots quite quickly, but:
- A possible ROI that varies between 30% and as much as 200% in the first year (especially within highly regulated industries such as insurance and banking where automation ensures greater compliance capability).
- Better customer service – a company that receives lots of customer inquiries can free staff to deal with the more complex questions.
- Improved employee engagement – staff are released from hated tasks and rising work pressure.
- Reduction of stress caused by a massive increase in business audit regulation and bureaucracy.
- Strategy – Use RPA as a broader strategic tool as well as tactically for cost savings as you’ll get more out of it.
- Management – Get the C-suite (especially IT as they’re often in denial of RPA and its benefits) involved and appoint a good project champion/manager.
- Analysis – Some processes are better implemented with a traditional IT solution, while some will function better with a quick and easily deployable RPA solution.
- Process – Picking the right set of processes to automate is key. They must be stable, mature, optimised, repetitive, and rule based. Start with a controlled experiment on a visible bottleneck or pain point.
- Change management – Anything new attracts resistance so persuading the organisation to change and adopt automation from day one is critical.
- Infrastructure – Businesses often develop an entire infrastructure around RPA so set up a dedicated Centre of Excellence with qualified engineers and robot specialists who assess requirements and deploy RPA systems throughout the organisation regularly.
Robots and automation have, until now, allowed machines to act and work like humans.
Instead of imparting our actions to them along with our flaws and biases, we are giving bots the ability to think for themselves, learning from their surroundings, and acting on experience just as we do.
In the longer term, RPA means people will have more interesting work as it’s rejigged into different types of job. It will be disruptive but the relationship between technology and people is shifting, and RPA is a great tool to enable that change in a positive way.
The need for RPA specialists has exploded. There are 732 UK and 9,416 US open positions produced by today’s search for ‘robotic process automation’ on LinkedIn’s job site alone.
Aitemology® is the creator of the Plug and Playbook series of scale-up methodologies (Cloud, Consult, Change) that delivers effective transformational change. Consisting of a ‘how to’ primer underpinned by specific/dedicated aitems® (policies, processes, technical products, reports, templates etc.), organisations can navigate their chosen technical/non-technical transformation journey step by step from start to finish. Save time and money, retain control, maintain quality, and manage risk.
 NOT to be further confused with a build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract when an entity/organisation grants a concession to a private company to finance, build and operate a project.
 Source UIPath.com
*Source of all boxed stats: https://flobotics.io/blog/rpa-statistics/