Robotic Process Automation (RPA): robots that automate routine and complex work
What’s all the chatter about bots? It seems like 10-20% of my daily e-mail spam pertains to robots and chatbots– this kind of bot, that kind of bot, everywhere a bot. So, you might be wondering if you should pay attention to robots for business process automation or if this new product category–robotic process automation (RPA)–is just more noise in a crowded marketplace. (For more about the topic, see Why Bots Should Matter To Customer Experience Professionals.)
The simple answer is, yes, you should pay attention to robotic process automation (RPA) because it is a simple, affordable and viable way to streamline and simplify routine (or “mindless”) work. However, I do admit to being quite sceptical when I first learned about RPA. It seemed to be 1) yet another tool in the overhyped AI bandwagon, 2) not even really AI, and 3) something that could easily get out of control as business people throughout an enterprise use it to take on a plethora of development activities. But it turns out that RPA is being used by early adopters to get additional ROI and value from their internal and customer-centric processes in a short period of time and with a small team, so it’s worth considering.
RPA is an important tool in process automation because this software tackles repetitive work that bogs workers down and chips away at their productivity. Repetitive work is so insidious and so routine that workers don’t even think about all the repetitive, manuals steps they are required to do every day or every hour within and between business applications. Workers just do their manual steps as a matter of course and then move on to the next piece of work. But, when you stop to think about it, no one enjoys the mundane, repetitive aspects of their job. Most people say, if a robot can do this for me so I can focus on other stuff, then bring it on.
Today’s RPA products use static rules, objects and scripting to tackle manual or semi-automated activities that are part of virtually every job. Business teams are using RPA without IT’s involvement because it’s simple to use. For example, integrating RPA products doesn’t require an API. Instead, RPA software uses the worker’s log-in(s) and then mimics a person’s behavior and keystrokes. Here are some examples of the human activities that RPA software can automate through scripting:
- automating repetitive typing
- logging on to different business applications
- manually copying information from one application to another
- scanning, reading and composing e-mails
- manipulating spreadsheets and moving data
- automating aspects of on-boarding, customer service activities, compliance, and document capture
By adding more robotic automation into an already streamlined and automated business process, companies can tackle activities such as:
- integrating manual work that is shared across multiple applications: this could include logging into one automated system, copying information from it, then logging into another automated system, and inputing the copied information into the second system (say ERP). This use case supports limited integration between systems.
- automating repetitive activities within applications: this could involve looking up customer or product data within an application, and then entering that data into a purchase order, invoice or e-mail. Today, these activities are often still manual because the software vendor or internal developer did not address all the steps needed to fully complete the task.
At first blush, one could argue that companies should ditch the idea of robots and instead fix these data integration lapses, and finish automating its poorly or incompletely automated processes. But often there is no budget for that work, no appetite for tinkering with processes in order to automate a few manual steps, or no interest in changing large-scale business processes. As a result, business people have learned to live with the monotony of routine work and have grown so accustomed to it that the repetitiveness just fades into the background. Then, along comes RPA providing a fast, inexpensive and easy way to automate manual steps that involve people, data and integration. No wonder business people are attracted to it. (Stay tuned for more on how to manage RPA inititives within large enterprises.)
If RPA software is combined with business process management (BPM) software, the end-to-end process automation can be quite powerful. The combination of BPM and RPA allows organizations to tackle simple integration and manual steps while also improving and automating redesigned, customer-centric business processes. (For more information, see Tackle Complex Processes With Dynamic BPM Suites and Business-Ready Apps and Business Process Management: An Emerging Core Competency for Customer Experience Management.) Combining the two types of software is a more complete way to automate processes than just using BPM software alone. For example, many companies in the financial services and insurance markets now combine RPA, BPM software, and predictive analytics to identify the next best actions for call center reps to discuss with customers — ultimately leading to better results and higher net promoter scores.
So let’s put RPA into perspective. It’s not a pancea and it doesn’t currently use AI (although that is coming), but RPA is still worth considering, either as a standalone product for improving brittle or hard to use applications, and/or as a key technology to combine with BPM software.