What Is Robotic Process Automation?
Robotic process automation (RPA) uses software to make it easier to perform repetitive automated digital tasks. This software enables anyone to build, deploy and manage software robots (bots) to perform repetitive and less valuable work — such as logging applications, moving files and folders, copying data and completing routine analyses and reports. Anyone who wants to use RPA needs to show these bots what to do and let them do their work.
RPA bots mirror human actions as they interact with digital systems and other forms of software and can interact with any system application like a regular employee. However, unlike regular employees, these digital employees work 24/7, with 100% reliability and precision and no need for coffee or bathroom breaks.
With RPA, companies automate routine, mundane rules-based processes. Releasing employees from performing these everyday tasks allows them to devote time to critical, higher value tasks such as serving customers who have more complex problems.
What Are RPA Bots?
Companies using robotic process automation create software robots (bots) that execute rules-based business procedures. These bots can interact with any system or application as a human employee would. As we mentioned above, they can do this all day and night, every day of the week, without the fear of human error.
Data About the Use of RPA
As companies have become interested in using RPA, research firms have surveyed businesses and employees about the technology.
- More than 60% of global executives say that RPA is a major component in their digital transformations. It was named as the most important component by 23% of those surveyed.
- Firms surveyed by Forrester in 2019 reported that the use of RPA increased efficiency (86%), created deeper insights into customers (67%) and improved customer service (57%).
- A 2020 survey by UiPath of 4,500 global employees found that 58% of these workers believe that automation will improve their productivity.
- The Forrester survey mentioned above found that 60% of executives think RPA allows their employees to focus on more crucial, strategic work. Meanwhile, 57% of these executives believe that it makes employees more engaged in their work.
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The Business Benefits of RPA
Robotic process automation offers numerous benefits for any size business.
Less "Swivel Chair Work" for Employees
Swivel chair work describes the manual, repetitive, tedious manual processes that employees have been performing. These are tasks such as data entry or checking forms to make sure they’re complete. Also, these processes include filing reports or fixing errors made by other employees while trying not to make similar errors. RPA performs these repetitive tasks faster, with fewer errors and around-the-clock attention. As noted above, this frees employees to focus on more important work.
Reduced Staffing Costs
A story about a bank's experience using RPA, as told by David Schatsky, a managing director at Deloitte LP, illustrates these cost savings. The bank redesigned its claim process by deploying bots to handle 13 different functions. By using bots to handle these mundane tasks, the bank had, in essence, hired the equivalent of more than 200 full-time employees at 30% of the cost.
Quick and Easy to Implement
A business could have a simple pilot RPA up and running within four to eight weeks. More complicated RPA bots take longer. It varies according to a company's doctrine practices. It often depends on the availability of digital data. Companies that have realized the importance of good data will find it much easier to create RPA bots than those that don't have this data. Some companies may realize that RPA automation is not suitable for them and need to improve their processes.
Less Coding Required
Robotic process automation doesn't require a developer. While working with your IT team when designing RPA bots is a good idea, it's not necessary. Nontechnical staff can create RPA bots using drag-and-drop features.
Greater Accuracy and Compliance
RPA bots follow specific rules and workflows. This reduces human error. This is critical for work that requires accuracy and compliance, such as HIPAA or GDPR standards. RPA provides audit trails which makes it easier to monitor and fix problems.
One of the great things about using RPA bots is that they work with legacy systems. The software doesn't disrupt any underlying system since the bots operate on an application's presentation layer. You can use bots in cases where you don't have an API or deep integrations.
Better Employee Morale
Employees can focus on more creative and strategic work. By removing repetitive, high volume work from your teams, you can assign them to more critical tasks. Allow employees to be more creative, and it creates greater job satisfaction.
Greater Customer Satisfaction
When your customers can get their questions answered while not waiting until a 9-to-5 workday to ask it, they will be much happier.
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Do I Need to Know How to Code?
Neither you nor your employees need to be code masters to use RPA. It's easy to learn. You can find videos online that can teach you how to create RPA bots in about an hour. You can obtain official certification in building RPA bots in about 10 hours of in-class time.
However, most experts recommend including your IT team in creating bots. It will result in fewer mistakes and better bots as the IT team will help you focus on creating bots where you need them the most.
Where Can RPA Be Used?
Robotic process automation has proliferated because it is broadly applicable. Any high volume, rules-driven business that uses repeatable processes can employ RPA bots.
Financial Services and Banking
Statista reports that RPA market revenues will reach $10.4 billion by 2023. It estimates that about 36% of companies using RPA will be in the banking or financial sector. About 33% of all bots in use today are in this industry. It's unsurprising as the financial industry was one of the first sectors to realize the importance of RPA. Banks and financial services use RPA bots to deal with many automated tasks, including opening an account, inquiry processing, anti-money laundering and customer research.
Insurance is another industry replete with repetitive processes, making it an ideal candidate for RPA. Operations such as claims processing, policy management, underwriting and regulatory compliance of repetitive tasks are handled by RPA bots instead of human employees.
Healthcare companies must know that their processes are accurate and comply with all industry and governmental standards and regulations. The elimination of human error is crucial. Hospitals can use automation to handle prescription management, payment options and information management.
E-commerce relies on RPA to make the customer's journey as smooth as possible. The bots can assist businesses with fraud detection, customer feedback and order management. They also improve back-office operations and the overall customer experience.
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Intelligent Automation and RPA
Many people assume that robotic process automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are similar. While they share some similarities, RPA is not AI, and AI is not RPA.
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RPA bots are process-driven. Artificial intelligence software is data-driven. An RPA can only follow the rules as defined by you or members of your staff. Artificial intelligence is just what it says it is. AI bots think and learn. They are designed to simulate human intelligence.
However, when you put the two together, you create many new possibilities. You can give RPA bots advanced AI skills such as machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) and character and image recognition. AI can help RPA perform tasks more fully and deal with more complex issues when used together. Meanwhile, RPA helps deal with AI tasks more quickly instead of waiting for human intervention.
This is known as intelligent automation. These two technologies together provide increased accuracy and efficient automation. Intelligent automation can increase productivity, reduce costs and improve the customer experience. One industry that's made good use of intelligent automation is real estate. Intelligent automation provides faster and more consistent responses when a potential customer starts a query about a property. It can engage the customer before an actual customer representative is present. Bots can look at the average sale prices in an area to create an optimal selling price.
Tips for Effective Implementation
As with any new technology, there are numerous ways that you can improve implementation in your business.
RPA promises quick wins but getting it to run at scale is different. Many problems with RPA implementation result from poor management of expectations. RPA vendors and others will make bold claims about using RPA in your business. Instead, be cautiously optimistic and set expectations from the beginning of how you want to use RPA in your company.
Make Sure You Involve Your IT Department Early
Although nontechnical people can implement RPA, involve your IT department and CIO immediately if you want to avoid problems or development snags. While business executives may drool at the thought of easy implementation, they must involve the IT team from the beginning to ensure they get the desired results.
Think About Design and Change Management
RPA implementations can fail because executives manage the design and change poorly. Executives can't overlook communication exchanges between various bots. Before beginning implementation, they must consider the overall design and how the bots work together. Part of the reason for involving the IT team from the beginning is that this allows them to plan for any disruptions to business when implementing RPA bots.
Establish an RPA Center of Excellence
Successful implementations of RPA often have one thing in common: a center of excellence staffed by people responsible for making these programs successful. While not every organization has the budget for this, it provides big bonuses for those that do. The center develops business cases that calculate potential costs and ROI. It measures progress against these goals. It helps organizations understand if RPA will help them transform their businesses.
Don't Forget Your People
Always keep staff in mind when implementing any new technology. Business executives and IT people can get so caught up in implementing new software that they forget to include HR. Employees who suddenly find their workflows disrupted and don't have any explanation why or how this will impact their jobs become disgruntled quickly. This will negate one of the key reasons for implementing RPA.
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Pitfalls of Robotic Process Automation
As with any new technology, businesses need to be aware of potential pitfalls and advantages.
Not Appropriate for Every Business
This technology is not suitable for every business. For instance, it can potentially eliminate many jobs, making managing talent difficult. If you know that RPA will have this result, try to transition as many workers as possible to new positions. Managers can help alleviate employees' concerns by clearly explaining paradigm shifts, emphasizing the value of learning new skills and giving teams time to adapt. It might also be wise to invest in counseling resources to help in the hunt for new skills or positions or psychological problems caused by stress.
RPA bots can streamline many operations. However, they can be challenging to scale because of regulatory updates or internal changes. Similar concerns are often why many businesses implement only a few bots. Planning how you want to implement RPA can eliminate many of these concerns about scaling.
Some RPA Programs Need Human Intervention
Creating an RPA bot to deal with complex tasks and letting it loose without regular inspection can create real problems. An example is the so-called "robo-signers" used by the mortgage industry in the mid-2010s. These RPA bots automatically rubber-stamped foreclosure documents, even when this was questionable or companies could avoid it. As a result, they ignored government regulations which resulted in a scandal. When publicly exposed, the government changed rules so that mortgage staff needed to examine foreclosure documents, and companies involved faced financial and disciplinary actions.
Robotic process automation promises many benefits for businesses. It's easily created and eliminates mundane and repetitive tasks. When combined with artificial intelligence, it forms a whole new way of helping customers while improving the ability of RPA bots to deal with more complex issues.
Thoughtful implementation of RPA is the secret to its successful use. If you're too small to use this technology effectively, don't rush into it just because it's bright and shiny. Take the time to decide if RPA would be beneficial for your business.
About the Author
Tom Regan has worked for several media outlets in Canada in the United States including the CBC, NPR, the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. He also served several years as the Executive Director of the Online News Association.