Robotic Process Automation (RPA):

Written by Derek Nachimow

February 7, 2020

Is it Artificial Intelligence or something different? Though sometimes excluded from the AI umbrella, Robotic Process Automation is an important driver of business value and something that can help make a company run more smoothly. Projected by Forrester Research to reach $2.1 billion by 2021, IBM considers this to be one of the lowest cost and lowest-risk ways to introduce automation into a business.

As we continue our series on the definitions and benefits of AI software, we are today going to explore RPA and discuss how it can help business leaders run their businesses more efficiently.

What is Robotic Process Automation?

As defined in our glossary of business technology terms, Robotic Process Automation refers to “the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required humans to perform.”

The concept is simple: a software “robot” replicates routine human-computer interaction, automating what would otherwise be tedious, repetitive tasks. RPA thus bridges the gap between manual interaction and full automation.

Put simply, RPA applies Artificial intelligence to integration and workflow automation, and could be considered the precursor to AI. In fact, if you’ve used Excel, you’ve probably used a form of RPA already—Macros. Macros fit the definition of RPA, a specific input will trigger a script, and the script will run. RPA has evolved since that point to incorporate more systems, handle increasingly complex tasks, and often run without human input.

Benefits of RPA for the Enterprise

Though benefits often differ across organizations, the main goal of RPA is to free people from repetitive, routine tasks, allowing employees to focus on higher-value activities while reducing the likelihood for mistake. Among the reasons companies opt to implement RPA:

  • Time and Cost Savings: The most obvious of the benefits is the time and cost savings that can come. For example, hours of data retrieval and entry could be completed in minutes. Invoices could be matched and processed in seconds, not days.
  • Increase the Utilization of Your Workforce: If you’ve heard of the Pareto Principle, you know that 80 percent of time is spent on low-value activities. With RPA, you’re taking over tasks that still need to be completed. In a low unemployment world, this helps your staff to focus more on high-value activities and can help you avoid an unnecessary hire.
  • Improve Workforce Satisfaction: No one wants to do Scutwork. With 90% of employees spending less than a quarter of their day on ‘creative’ business ideas and many of the daily work being taken up by easily automated tasks, applying RPA to your organization will give your people more time to focus on rewarding activities.
  • It Won’t Replace Workers: Many people fear the robot takeover. But that’s not what RPA is for. For the same reason that it’s occasionally excluded from the AI spectrum (it’s not meant to learn), RPA is only meant for simple, repetitive tasks.
  • Increased Accuracy: Typos happen. Say you’re trying to process an invoice and miskey an invoice number. Now what? Exception. Say the same thing happens but with an extra zero on a payment. With RPA, you can virtually eliminate copy-and-paste mistakes from entering the same data into multiple systems.
  • Low Risk: When applied to simple, specific, and repetitive use cases, RPA is incredibly easy to implement and carries low risks. Implementation can be done in days or weeks for low flexibility applications.

Types of RPA

RPA varies in maturity and levels of automation, ranging from human-reliant to humanless, depending on the complexity of the task being automated and the need for automation. SAPCLE notes three levels—attended, unattended, and hybrid.

Attended Automation

Attended Automation refers to the kind of automation where the bot or the agent passively resides on the user’s machine and is invoked by the user at certain instances. The triggering has to actively happen by the user’s action since the points of triggering are programmatically hard to detect.

As the precise moment of launch is not able to be determined, the user decides when a task is automated (i.e. click a button and the process runs). For example, say a sales manager wants to generate a quote. He or she will click a button and the robot will collect data from databases. Results are generated, the employee then would turn the writing process over to the robot.

Unattended Automation

Alternatively, unattended automation refers to the bot being able to initiate a task and then process data. For example, if a specific trigger occurs, the bot will get to work, potentially launching another bot, initiating a workflow, or processing the data.

Hybrid Automation

Naturally, the most likely scenario is that some processes can be triggered without human input when others aren’t timed as easily. This results in the existence of a hybrid automation environment where triggers vary.

How to Implement RPA

The reason that RPA is considered so incredibly low-risk is because it’s so simple. First, look at your everyday tasks. Which are the most time consuming? Which are the most error prone? RPA-ready tasks are defined as:

  • Simple, consistent and repeatable.
  • Repetitive low-skill tasks that create human issues such as high error rates and low worker morale.
  • Existing or planned processes where “stripping off” routine tasks can free humans and deliver a significant productivity, efficiency and/or cost benefit.
  • Tasks that offer meaningful opportunities to improve customer and worker experiences by speeding up existing processes.

According to IBM, a task is performed by a human as usual and “recorded” for the software. The resulting script is fine-tuned to ensure that all potential task variations are accounted for. The resulting robot is tested to ensure that it works.

What RPA Is Not

As an automation process designed for simple tasks, RPA is not equivalent to business process automation. Though it can have multiple levels of operation and could work in multiple systems, it doesn’t take on full processes.

Often the reason RPA is excluded from the AI umbrella is because RPA doesn’t learn in the same way that an AI application would. RPA is rules-based and if something changes in the automated task – a field in a web form moves, for example – the RPA bot typically won’t be able to figure that out on its own.

However, AI can improve RPA. For example, an RFP is inputted into a system. AI would be able to read and comprehend the document, then trigger automated tasks like proposal generation or the like.

Business Is Moving Faster, Are You?

As AI improves in maturity and grows, you can expect it to have a much larger footprint. Regardless of where you start, it pays to get started. We invite you to learn more about evolving competitively by reading our most recent guides, The Glossary of IT Terms, and the Ten Worst Digital Transformation Mistakes.

Over the next few months, we will dig much, much deeper into the world of AI, and invite you to subscribe to BizSoft News for all the latest.

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