PEX Guide: What is robotic process automation (RPA)?

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Robotic process automation (RPA) is a software-based technology utilizing software robots to emulate human execution of a business process. This means that it performs the task on a computer, uses the same interface a human worker would, clicks, types, opens applications and uses keyboard shortcuts.

Source: PEX Network channel, YouTube

Gartner defines RPA as a productivity tool that allows a user to configure one or more scripts, often referred to as ‘bots’, to perform certain tasks in an automated fashion. As a result, bots mimic or emulate selected tasks within an overall business or IT process. RPA uses a combination of user interface interaction and descriptor technologies to allow automatic completion of mundane and repetitive tasks.

UiPath defines RPA as software robots that mimic and integrate human actions within digital systems to optimize business processes. RPA captures data, runs applications, triggers responses, and communicates with other systems to perform a variety of tasks.

Rob King, author of Digital Workforce Reduce Costs and Improve Efficiency using Robotic Process Automation, says: “RPA is the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.”

RPA is predominantly used to automate business processes and tasks, resulting in reductions in spending and giving businesses a competitive edge, all considered of which proved crucial since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How does RPA work? 

RPA is versatile and flexible enough to be used in a business of all sizes, from start-ups to enterprise organizations. RPA is a broad field and there are a wide array of technologies in the market that greatly differ from one another. However, most RPA products will comprise of RPA developer tools, a controller and the robot itself.

Unlike other forms of automation, RPA has the intelligence to decide if a process should occur. It can analyze data presented to it and make a decision based on the logic parameters set in place by the developer. In comparison to other forms of automation, it does not require system integration.

There are two common types available in the market: programmable and intelligent bots.

Programmable bots 

A programmable robot is defined by set rules and instructions, and parameters need to be defined by programmers before the bot can get to work. Ultimately, this involves mapping out a process step-by-step, which can be very time-consuming for more complex tasks.

Intelligent bots 

Bots with artificial intelligence can analyze data – both historical and current – to learn how employees perform a process. The robot will follow their clicks, mouse movements and actions. After a period of time when enough data has been analyzed, the bot will be able to complete the process itself. Intelligent and self-learning bots are better suited to perform processes involving unstructured data and ones that involve fluctuating parameters. 

To understand some of the unique and powerful applications of RPA, to Angela Johnson, head of risk for IT change and new technologies at Lloyds Banking Group, as she discusses why financial services are adopting RPA and IA.

Source: RPA & IA Live 2020

Benefits of robotic process automation

RPA enables automatable work

One of the predominant draws of RPA is that it enables automatable work, relieving human workers from repetitive clerical processes such as data entry and data manipulation. It allows human workers to focus on complex value-adding tasks that elevate a business.

It reduces human error and costs

Foibles to which human workers are prone – particularly during long repetitive tasks – caused by tiredness and boredom are completely mitigated with RPA. This results in work that is more accurate, timely and consistent, ensuring that time and money is not lost correcting old work or creating duplicates.

It works on existing IT infrastructure and is non-invasive

RPA works alongside existing IT infrastructure and it just needs to be trained on how to use it. This is a major benefit for organizations using legacy systems. It interfaces with front-end infrastructure and uses the same graphic user interface (GUI) that human workers would use to complete a task, ensuring that the IT landscape does not have to be changed to accommodate RPA – keeping costs to a minimum.


How to implement RPA

While RPA is great at driving operational excellence, some processes are more viable for automation than others. It is always a good practice to roll out RPA slowly to mitigate teething issues that often come with technology implementation. Lee Glazier, head of service integrity at Rolls-Royce, notes that the broad-based power group has selected repetitive business processes as the focus for automation as these are the most viable candidates and operate in a way that is simple and easy to define. They include contract administration and recruitment processes.

King writes that “most modern automation vendors are the natural evolution of end-user computing (EUC); they provide simple business tools that allow consistent, repetitive tasks to be automated across an increasing number of different underlying applications”.

Examples include automating a large list of files that need to be renamed; copying information from core customer system into a policy administration system; collating information from several websites into a summary report.

The risk is that with any new technology, it will not be thoroughly understood, and projects will not make the best use of the approach. In PEX Network’s Intelligent Automation: RPA and AI Report 2021, Laxmikant Pukale, director of intelligent automation at Fortune 500 banking company USAA notes that it is wise to understand what the final outcome will be before attempting to implement automation.

SEE ALSO: The role of process mining and RPA in helping organizations pick automation battles

Stephan Blasilli, lean director at EDP Renewables, advises against implementing technology for the sake of it in PEX Network’s Intelligent Automation: RPA and AI report 2020. He says: “It is always problematic if you think you need to have this technology just because everybody else is doing it. You have to have a business problem or specific business problems that you want to solve. If you think about call center environments, we are talking about a significant transaction volume. These are not just small implementations.”

Although the instinct is to start small and scale, it may be necessary to demonstrate enthusiasm for a new approach by making a bold move, particularly if it tackles a large problem such as a change in the regulatory landscape or an influx of data from digitization elsewhere in the organization.

SEE ALSO: The importance of unlocking process automation’s potential 

What’s next for RPA?

Automation technology has been a staple of business for the last decade but in recent years, RPA has reached a high level of sophistication while retaining ease-of-use. Its benefits took a stronger significance during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is no longer a tool solely used to facilitate the automation of simple and repetitive IT tasks. We are already seeing signs that RPA is being used beyond data input and for other time-consuming processes such as email recognition and file conversion.

SEE ALSO: The impact of Covid-19 on RPA implementation and deployment

RPA is maturing, and with the convergence of other technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML), we are beginning to explore new possibilities. RPA will incorporate machine learning and cognitive algorithms to apply increasingly accurate judgement and learn how to perform processes at a faster rate.

We will also likely begin to see reductions in cost and effort as RPA implementation becomes easier due to advancements in techniques such as low-code automation. Low-code allows less skilled workers to complete complex automation tasks through drag-and-drop features, significantly reducing the cost of sourcing and training staff for this purpose.

One of the major discussions in the technology world is how human jobs will be affected by RPA. Critics argue that the widespread elimination of jobs will occur and that working environments will be turned on their heads.

There is no denying that some jobs will be replaced by RPA – the most likely candidate being data entry keyers. However, this would be ignoring the wider picture as there are a wide array of job roles that may emerge as a result of RPA. Historically, new technology has almost always resulted in the creation of more jobs, and the widespread incorporation of RPA will be no different. For example, RPA engineering and RPA developers are roles that would not exist without the technology.

It will not just create new jobs. It also has the ability to enhance current jobs, by providing human workers with the necessary robotic process automation tools to focus on high-value tasks.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Is RPA expensive?

RPA is often cheaper to compliment than traditional automation thanks to its ability to work alongside IT infrastructure that is already in place. With RPA, business leaders will not have to endure headaches of thinking about the costs of infrastructure remodeling, outsourcing or offshore/onshore manual processing.

Is RPA a cybersecurity risk?

Like many new technologies, the potential downsides often get overlooked in comparison to the excitement generated by the benefits. The misuse of data – the kind of sensitive data software robots are privy to – is a major security concern. Issues may come in the form of rouge developers who programmed software robots maliciously,…

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