May 9, 2017

Robotic Process Automation 101

As organisations seek to optimise their resources to increase profits or expand into new markets, there is a growing reliance on technology to bolster efficiencies and enable more intelligent ways of working. In this environment, robotic process automation (RPA) technology has emerged to empower companies in a range of industries to achieve more in less time and with less effort.

Defining RPA

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence (IRPA AI)[1] offers the following definition for RPA:

“Robotic process automation (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.”

Put simply: a bot is a software application that is designed to automate the types of tasks that are typically performed by humans in the workplace, such as processing customer requests, scheduling meetings or finding and compiling information.

The bot operates on the user interface (UI) of a third-party application in the same way that a human would. This differs substantially from traditional forms of IT integration, which have typically been based on application programming interfaces (or APIs).

Essentially, bots are configured using demonstrative steps, rather than code-based instructions. As a result, RPA is a no-code technology that can be “trained” by business users outside of the IT department. This enables decision-makers across a wide range of disciplines to contribute to an organisation’s bot strategy and deployment. It also means that highly skilled developers are free to pursue other IT projects that require their specialised expertise.

Why are companies investing in RPA technologies?

Bots automate tasks and processes that companies are currently paying humans to do. This not only offers a direct cost saving for the employer (in terms of salaries and other HR costs), but also delivers added profitability down the line as productivity increases, human error is reduced and skilled staff members are free to focus on more complex and strategic projects. By directing human skills and talent towards value-adding tasks rather than repetitive tasks, organisations can optimise their resources and boost the bottom line.

One interesting development recently, which underscores the potential profitability of bots, is the tax on robots proposed by Benoît Hamon, a far-left presidential candidate in the 2017 French elections. This involves taxing shareholder earnings derived from roles that are delegated to bots rather than humans – and injecting this money back into society in the form of a universal basic income grant. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has also touched on this concept by suggesting a tax on robots that is redirected to initiatives that upskill people whose roles have been replaced by bots.[2]

Are bots going to take our jobs?

The jury is still out on this one, but here is a point to consider: the average back-office worker has a lot of routine tasks involving repetitive steps that can be time-consuming, mundane and even demoralising. RPA can handle these types of tasks, allowing staff to focus more fully on other tasks requiring unique human strengths and skills. A company that processes plenty of routine customer enquiries, for example, can free staff to deal with the more complex requests and questions.

In many ways, bots can serve humans by helping them to manage their expanding workloads more effortlessly and effectively. This not only enables them to be more successful in their own roles, but also reduces their chances of battling work-related stress and burnout. In some industries, like financial services and law, there is an increasing amount of data that needs to be processed, as well as mounting pressure from regulators and policymakers. RPA can help to relieve these burdens.

It’s important to note that while RPA technology plays a valuable role in streamlining the use of existing systems and processes, it is usually considered to be one element in a wider digital transformation strategy and not a complete solution. This is because bots work on existing systems just as human staff members would, relieving the manual labour load, but not transforming the underlying processes or IT infrastructure.

(Look out for our next article in this series, which will explore the benefits and limits of RPA in more detail).

What’s driving the relevance of RPA?

As the technology that powers bots grows more advanced, adoption has accelerated and many large organisations are beginning to integrate RPA solutions into their IT strategies. In 2016, the global RPA licensing market reached about USD 700 million, which is close to twice the earnings generated in 2015. At the same time, research shows that the number of new RPA adopters is doubling every 6 months.[3]

Bots are also being integrated into messaging software, giving rise to chat bots – artificial intelligence software that mimics real-time conversations with humans on digital communication platforms that they’re using. For example, Slack – the app that has taken digital workplace communication to a new level – has launched Slackbot, a virtual assistant.[4]

Where to from here?

While the RPA market is still emerging, the technology is building a reputation as a cost-effective alternative to traditional systems integration. For these reasons, RPA is forecast to become a USD 5 billion market globally by 2020, with a CAGR of over 60%.

One study discovered that a third of global enterprises are in fact already using RPA technology within their IT, finance and accounting processes; and around quarter are leveraging bots in their procurement and HR processes.[5]

 

So, as the technology continues to grow more sophisticated, how could your organisation take advantage of RPA to meet your unique business goals?

Written by Andrew Murphy, Global VP Technical Sales - K2
[1] http://irpaai.com/

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/d04a89c2-f6c8-11e6-9516-2d969e0d3b65

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/thoughts-trends-robotic-process-automation-rpa-2017-pascal-bornet

[4] http://fortune.com/2016/10/26/ibm-watson-slack-chatbot/

[5] https://dupress.deloitte.com/dup-us-en/focus/signals-for-strategists/cognitive-enterprise-robotic-process-automation.html

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