Robotic Process Automation: A Guide for Humans
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the concept of automating routine business processes that are otherwise manually intensive and repetitive tasks.
The "Robot" in RPA is essentially a software routine that continuously executes some preconfigured workflow such as invoice processing or back office management. There's really no physical Robot involved as the software does all the work with the ultimate goal to automate the business process and ideally free staff for more meaningful work that benefits the business. This promise of automation and the catchy buzzword around it has gained significant popularity in the past year or so which definitely seems to be collectively positive for the technology industry and the businesses that can benefit from RPA.
The hype around RPA seems to be reinvigorating the process automation space. In technology new buzzwords like this can have a significant positive effect in creating momentum to further the underlying technology; we've seen this with Big Data and Cloud solutions and more recently with Cryptocurrencies. In the case of Crypto and Blockchain the technology has basically been off the radar for the general public for quite a while. However, now with all the hype and skyrocketing crypto prices in 2017, we've seen a huge amount of rapid innovation and a rush towards applying blockchain technologies in various use cases. The hype around RPA will have a similar effect.
RPA is essentially carving its own path from the legacy of older clunky business automation solutions and drawing people’s attention to transforming onerous processes into efficient automated routines.
What does RPA mean for humans?
There is concern that RPA will eliminate certain jobs. This does have some validity as it is expected that RPA will likely reduce headcount in certain low or minimal skill areas. The counter argument is that the types of tasks RPA is great at automating really shouldn’t be done by people in the first place and implementing RPA is not only more cost effective but can also eliminate or reduce the amount of human error that impacts routine tasks. This can ultimately have a positive impact on employee engagement and may even reduce employee turnover as people will no longer have to do robotic repetitive tasks and can focus on more engaging high skilled work. One of the better phrases I've read recently about this advantage is that "RPA takes the robot out of the human"
Setup and types of RPA bots
The RPA robots require training and some basic configuration setup before they can effectively execute a task. This ties into the various flavors of RPA. The setup process depends on the type of RPA solution you're using, some boast about the capability to actually watch repetitive tasks and learn via AI how they should be executed on the machine. This can be highly risky as the bot may end up slightly off-track with potentially critical errors in the process so it's best to monitor and audit any RPA solution that incorporates AI. There are other solutions that record actions similar to recording a macro but with a feature to integrate with disparate applications. Beyond these recording and learning RPA applications you can simply configure a workflow, in this case you'd be implementing some actions with external systems and a set of decisions to apply the workflow to the data as needed. Lastly there's programmatic implementations, which is essentially the ages old way of business process automation which requires a stronger technically ability and some coding.
What to expect?
In the RPA space, we will see more benefit in the coming years as systems integrate more AI capabilities and ideally will have greater capabilities to apply some form of expert judgement in the automated processes. This synergy between AI and RPA will help in integrating intelligent processes with companies' technology infrastructure. Right now adoption of AI is happening in some forms such as chat bots, but there does seem to be some hesitation as people not familiar with the possibilities in AI may feel it is either out of reach or too difficult to incorporate. Having the option to hook AI into an RPA bot with little or no required knowledge of AI will really help with the adoption of the technology.
When should RPA be applied?
Before you try to scientifically assess whether to apply RPA, just go with your gut. If you feel that you're doing something that's repetitive and you wish you could just automate it and be done with it, you're most likely right it should be automated and there's a good chance RPA can be applied.
In either case it's helpful to do some upfront analysis to understand how much your business can benefit from RPA. The most simplistic way to determine if you should apply RPA is to do a basic cost of ownership analysis and determine if it's less expensive to automate the process rather than manually running it. If cost of ownership analysis results in savings from RPA then it's basically a no brainer. However, this isn't really the end of the story as there's many other factors to consider and to properly assess whether RPA is applicable people should consider the Tangible and Intangible benefits. Tangible will have a direct monetary impact as noted in the prior example and intangible starts to incorporate other things. For example, if your process is subject to operational risk which could result in a significant loss due to manual error then you may have a significant intangible benefit which can save money down the line.
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