What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Robotic process automation (or RPA) is a form of business process automation technology based on metaphorical software robots (bots) or on artificial intelligence (AI)/digital workers. It is sometimes referred to as software robotics (not to be confused with robot software).
In traditional workflow automation tools, a software developer produces a list of actions to automate a task and interface to the back-end system using internal application programming interfaces (APIs) or dedicated scripting language. In contrast, RPA systems develop the action list by watching the user perform that task in the application’s graphical user interface (GUI), and then perform the automation by repeating those tasks directly in the GUI. This can lower the barrier to use of automation in products that might not otherwise feature APIs for this purpose.
RPA tools have strong technical similarities to graphical user interface testing tools. These tools also automate interactions with the GUI, and often do so by repeating a set of demonstration actions performed by a user. RPA tools differ from such systems that allow data to be handled in and between multiple applications, for instance, receiving email containing an invoice, extracting the data, and then typing that into a bookkeeping system.
The hosting of RPA services also aligns with the metaphor of a software robot, with each robotic instance having its own virtual workstation, much like a human worker. The robot uses keyboard and mouse controls to take actions and execute automations. Normally all of these actions take place in a virtual environment and not on screen; the robot does not need a physical screen to operate, rather it interprets the screen display electronically. The scalability of modern solutions based on architectures such as these owes much to the advent of virtualization technology, without which the scalability of large deployments would be limited by available capacity to manage physical hardware and by the associated costs. The implementation of RPA in business enterprises has shown dramatic cost savings when compared to traditional non-RPA solutions.
There are however several risks with RPA. Criticism include risks of stifling innovation and creating a more complex maintenance environment of existing software that now needs to consider the use of graphical user interfaces in a way they weren’t intended to be used.
Benefits of RPA
RPA provides organizations with the ability to reduce staffing costs and human error. David Schatsky, a managing director at Deloitte LP, points to a bank’s experience with implementing RPA, in which the bank redesigned its claims process by deploying 85 bots to run 13 processes, handling 1.5 million requests per year. The bank added capacity equivalent to more than 200 full-time employees at approximately 30 percent of the cost of recruiting more staff, Schatsky says.
Bots are typically low-cost and easy to implement, requiring no custom software or deep systems integration. Schatsky says such characteristics are crucial as organizations pursue growth without adding significant expenditures or friction among workers. “Companies are trying to get some breathing room so they can serve their business better by automating the low-value tasks,” Schatsky says.
Enterprises can also supercharge their automation efforts by injecting RPA with cognitive technologies such as ML, speech recognition, and natural language processing, automating higher-order tasks that in the past required the perceptual and judgment capabilities of humans.
Such RPA implementations, in which upwards of 15 to 20 steps may be automated, are part of a value chain known as intelligent automation (IA), Viadro says. “If we were to segment all of the major enterprises and ask them what’s on their agenda for 2018, close to 100 percent would say intelligent automation,” Viadro says.
By 2020, automation and artificial intelligence will reduce employee requirements in business shared-service centers by 65 percent, according to Gartner, which says the RPA market will top $1 billion by 2020. By that time, 40 percent of large enterprises will have adopted an RPA software tool, up from less than 10 percent today.
Tips for effective RPA
1. Set and manage expectations: Quick wins are possible with RPA, but propelling RPA to run at scale is a different animal. Dave Kuder, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, says that many RPA hiccups stem from poor expectations management. Bold claims about RPA from vendors and implementation consultants haven’t helped. That’s why it’s crucial for CIOs to go in with a cautiously optimistic mindset. “If you go in with open eyes you’ll be a lot happier with the result,” Kuder says.
2. Consider business impact: RPA is often propped up as a mechanism to bolster return on investment or reduce costs. But Kris Fitzgerald, CTO of NTT Data Services, says more CIOs should use it to improve customer experience. For example, enterprises such as airlines employ thousands of customer service agents, yet customers are still waiting in the queue to have their call fielded. A chatbot, could help alleviate some of that wait. “You put that virtual agent in there and there is no downtime, no out sick and no bad attitude,” Fitzgerald says. “The client experience is the flag to hit.”
3. Involve IT early and often: COOs initially bought RPA and hit a wall during implementation, prompting them to ask IT’s help (and forgiveness), Viadro says. Now “citizen developers” without technical expertise are using cloud software to implement RPA right in their business units, Kuder says. Often, the CIO tends to step in and block them. Kuder and Viadro say that business heads must involve IT from the outset to ensure they get the resources they require.
4. Poor design, change management can wreak havoc: Many implementations fail because design and change are poorly managed, says Sanjay Srivastava, chief digital officer of Genpact. In the rush to get something deployed, some companies overlook communication exchanges, between the various bots, which can break a business process. “Before you implement, you must think about the operating model design,” Srivastava says. “You need to map out how you expect the various bots to work together.” Alternatively, some CIOs will neglect to negotiate the changes new operations will have on an organization’s business processes. CIOs must plan for this well in advance to avoid business disruption.
5. Don’t fall down the data rabbit hole: A bank deploying thousands of bots to automate manual data entry or to monitor software operations generates a ton of data. This can lure CIOs and their business peers into an unfortunate scenario where they are looking to leverage the data. Srivastava says it’s not uncommon for companies to run ML on the data their bots generate, and then throw a chatbot on the front to enable users to more easily query the data. Suddenly, the RPA project has become an ML project that hasn’t been properly scoped as an ML project. “The puck keeps moving,” and CIOs struggle to catch up to it, Srivastava says. He recommends CIOs consider RPA as a long-term arc, rather than as piecemeal projects that evolve into something unwieldy.
Impact on employment
According to Harvard Business Review, most operations groups adopting RPA have promised their employees that automation would not result in layoffs. Instead, workers have been redeployed to do more interesting work. One academic study highlighted that knowledge workers did not feel threatened by automation: they embraced it and viewed the robots as team-mates. The same study highlighted that, rather than resulting in a lower “headcount”, the technology was deployed in such a way as to achieve more work and greater productivity with the same number of people.
Conversely, however, some analysts proffer that RPA represents a threat to the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. The thesis behind this notion is that RPA will enable enterprises to “repatriate” processes from offshore locations into local data centers, with the benefit of this new technology. The effect, if true, will be to create high-value jobs for skilled process designers in onshore locations (and within the associated supply chain of IT hardware, data center management, etc.) but to decrease the available opportunity to low skilled workers offshore. On the other hand, this discussion appears to be healthy ground for debate as another academic study was at pains to counter the so-called “myth” that RPA will bring back many jobs from offshore.
Impact on society
Academic studies project that RPA, among other technological trends, is expected to drive a new wave of productivity and efficiency gains in the global labour market. Although not directly attributable to RPA alone, Oxford University conjectures that up to 35% of all jobs may have been automated by 2035.
In a TEDx talk hosted by University College London (UCL), entrepreneur David Moss explains that digital labour in the form of RPA is not only likely to revolutionize the cost model of the services industry by driving the price of products and services down, but that it is likely to drive up service levels, quality of outcomes and create increased opportunity for the personalization of services.
In a separate TEDx in 2019 talks, Japanese business executive, and former CIO of Barclays bank, Koichi Hasegawa noted that digital robots can be a positive effect on society if we start using a robot with empathy to help every person. He provides a case study of the Japanese insurance companies – Sompo Japan and Aioi – both of whom deployed bots to speed up the process of insurance pay-outs in past massive disaster incidents.
Meanwhile, Professor Willcocks, author of the LSE paper cited above, speaks of increased job satisfaction and intellectual stimulation, characterising the technology as having the ability to “take the robot out of the human”, a reference to the notion that robots will take over the mundane and repetitive portions of people’s daily workload, leaving them to be redeployed into more interpersonal roles or to concentrate on the remaining, more meaningful, portions of their day.