What is robotic process automation?
Robotic process automation (RPA) is an application of technology, governed by business logic and structured inputs, aimed at automating business processes. Using RPA tools, a company can configure software, or a “robot,” to capture and interpret applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses, and communicating with other digital systems. RPA scenarios range from generating an automatic response to an email to deploying thousands of bots, each programmed to automate jobs in an ERP system.
Many CIOs are turning to RPA to streamline enterprise operations and reduce costs. Businesses can automate mundane rules-based business processes, enabling business users to devote more time to serving customers or other higher-value work. Others see RPA as a stopgap en route to intelligent automation (IA) via machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools, which can be trained to make judgments about future outputs.
What are the benefits of RPA?
RPA provides organizations with the ability to reduce staffing costs and human error. Intelligent automation specialist Kofax says the principle is simple: Let human employees work on what humans excel at while using robots to handle tasks that get in the way.
Bots are typically low-cost and easy to implement, requiring no custom software or deep systems integration. Such characteristics are crucial as organizations pursue growth without adding significant expenditures or friction among workers.
When properly configured, software robots can increase a team’s capacity for work by 35% to 50%, according to Kofax. For example, simple, repetitive tasks such as copying and pasting information between business systems can be accelerated by 30% to 50% when completed using robots. Automating such tasks can also improve accuracy by eliminating opportunities for human error, such as transposing numbers during data entry.
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).
For a deeper look at the benefits of RPA, see “Why bots are poised to disrupt the enterprise” and “Robotic process automation is a killer app for cognitive computing.”
The RPA market consists of a mix of new, purpose-built tools and older tools that have added new features to support automation. Some were originally business process management (BPM) tools. Some vendors position their tools as “workflow automation” or “work process management.” Overall, the RPA software market is expected to grow from $2.4 billion in 2021 to $6.5 billion by 2025, according to Forrester research.
Some of the top RPA tools vendors include:
- Automation Anywhere
- Blue Prism
- Cyclone Robotics
- EdgeVerve Systems
- Samsung SDS
For a closer look at these vendors’ RPA offerings, see “Top 21 RPA tools today.”
There are 10 key factors to consider when choosing RPA tools:
- Ease of bot setup
- Low-code capabilities
- Attended vs. unattended
- Machine learning capabilities
- Exception handling and human review
- Integration with enterprise applications
- Orchestration and administration
- Cloud bots
- Process and task discovery and mining
For a more in-depth look at these selection criteria, see “How to choose RPA software: 10 key factors to consider.”
What are the top RPA certifications?
As organizations increasingly adopt RPA, they also need individuals with expertise in RPA tools and implementations. Many of the most popular RPA certifications are offered by vendors, including:
- Automation Anywhere
- Blue Prism
10 tips for effective robotic process automation
Implementing RPA can be challenging, given both the potential complexity of legacy business processes and the level of change management that can be required for RPA to succeed. The following tips can help your organization on its way:
1. Set and manage expectations
Quick wins are possible with RPA, but propelling RPA to run at scale is a different animal. 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.
2. Consider business impact
RPA is often touted as a mechanism to bolster return on investment or reduce costs. But it can also be used 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.
3. Involve IT early and often
COOs were some of the earliest adopters of RPA. In many cases, they bought RPA and hit a wall during implementation, prompting them to ask for IT’s help (and forgiveness). Now “citizen developers” without technical expertise are using cloud software to implement RPA right in their business units Often, the CIO tends to step in and block them. Business leaders 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, 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.
6. Project governance is paramount
Another problem that pops up in RPA is the failure to plan for certain roadblocks, Srivastava says. An employee at a Genpact client changed the company’s password policy but no one programmed the bots to adjust, resulting in lost data. CIOs must constantly check for chokepoints where their RPA solution can bog down, or at least, install a monitoring and alert system to watch for hiccups impacting performance. “You can’t just set them free and let them run around; you need command and control,” Srivastava says.
7. Control maintains compliance
There are lot of governance challenges related to instantiating a single bot let alone thousands. One Deloitte client spent several meetings trying to determine whether its bot was male or female, a valid gender question but one that must take into account human resources, ethics, and other areas of compliance for the business.
8. Build an RPA center of excellence
The most successful RPA implementations include a center of excellence staffed by people who are responsible for making efficiency programs a success within the organization. Not every enterprise, however, has the budget for this. The RPA center of excellence develops business cases, calculating potential cost optimization and ROI, and measures progress against those goals.
9. Don’t forget the impact on people
Wooed by shiny new solutions, some organizations are so focused on implementation that they neglect to loop in HR, which can create some nightmare scenarios for employees who find their daily processes and workflows disrupted.
10. Put RPA into your whole development lifecycle
CIOs must automate the entire development lifecycle or they may kill their bots during a big launch.
Ultimately, there is no magic bullet for implementing RPA, but Srivastava says that it requires an intelligent automation ethos that must be part of the long-term journey for enterprises. “Automation needs to get to an answer — all of the ifs, thens, and whats — to complete business processes faster, with better quality and at scale,” Srivastava says.
More on robotic process automation: