What is Robotic Process Automation?

How does RPA work, how is it used and what are the pros and cons?

Robotic and human hands meeting

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) encompasses software tools that partially or fully automate human activities; usually those which are manual, rule-based and monotonously repetitive. This variant of automation must not be confused with AI, which differs as it can learn and grow without human input.

Although automation within industry was initially resisted, capitalist values have gradually eroded opinion and in the present day RPA is thoroughly ingrained in the workplace. It began with factories and their chugging contraptions replacing the family abode and hand looms, and now systematic programmes are replacing people.

Or at least, that's what the detractors say. In fact, RPA is there to assist workforces rather than replace them. It liberates employees to focus on either more intuitive tasks or those that lead to greater business benefits.

Seeing these benefits come to fruition is encouraging greater adoption of RPA throughout industry, with Dimension Data's 2019 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report finding that 62% of businesses surveyed stating they would have RPA capabilities within the following two years (statistic sourced from Frost & Sullivan's Diversity in the digital workplace).

How it works

In the last decade automation has been a staple of business, however in recent years RPA technology has reached a level of sophistication high enough for it to be deployed with minimum disruption to workflows while, crucially, retaining ease-of-use.

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By pulling data from the relevant location, RPA can enter the same applications, traverse the same interfaces, and populate the same data-fields as a human worker. Employees working on computers who were previously clicking, copy and pasting or filling in databases mainly administration and data-manipulation tasks find themselves unshackled. RPA now looks at the screen for them, endlessly completing these time-intensive tasks and increasing overall work output.

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The maturation of RPA is seeing it converge with other technologies, namely AI and machine learning, opening up a wealth of further possibilities and allowing it to enter the mainstream. It is versatile enough to be used in a business of any size, from startups to global enterprises.

Common use cases

The automation trend originated with the industrial revolution and is presently leading towards "near universal adoption" of RPA across businesses in the next five years, according to Deloitte. This coincides with a societal shift towards the widespread acceptance of automation. As we lean more heavily on RPA and related technologies, its usage will only increase.

From the same global survey, Deloitte also found that 53% of respondents were found to have already started their RPA journey, with this figure predicted to rise to 72% over the next two years.

One case study which catches the eye is the healthcare industry. In the UK, the NHS employs over 200,000 staff to support their infrastructure, the bulk of this figure stationed at a computer to complete repetitive tasks at least a portion of the time. That's a monumental 200,000 employees in one organisation alone who will be supported by RPA, permitting them to pursue other tasks.

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Regarding clinical staff specifically, a recent study found that 43% of a physician's time is spent on data entry. With RPA able to handle this menial task, physicians can instead focus their energy on the medical element of their job, the one which provides most benefits to patients.

Pros and cons

The potential for RPA has IT decision makers across the globe running to their CEO's office, or better still, picking up the phone to vendors. The principal motivator is that the technology works.

Set-up costs may be a tough pill to swallow initially, but it won't be long until businesses begin seeing a decent return on their investment, due to increased productivity and reduced errors. RPA also frees labour, allowing employees to prioritise and devote more time to serving customers or other high-value work, which brings about further efficiencies. Regarding employees themselves, increased job satisfaction is reported as the automaton is separated from the human.

A big relief for IT departments will be that existing tools and IT infrastructure aren't altered by introducing RPA. As RPA only addresses the presentation layer, it doesn't have to delve into the complex murk of underlying systems, making it simple and relatively quick to implement. Still, that isn't to say that expert knowledge isn't needed for the set-up.

Further limitations do restrain RPA. If anything changes with the interface, or in fact, any aspect of the legacy application that the automation software is navigating, it can break. Unless the interface itself is modern and flexible, RPA will likely harbour a certain brittleness.

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Another drawback is that RPA, for all the genius in the simplicity of its processes, can only deal with a restricted range of tasks. As it isn't self-learning, it needs rules to follow, and therefore, as rules and systems are updated, RPA has a shelf-life.

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To this, it must be said that deploying RPA is merely the first step towards change. Automating a process solves only the problem at hand, rather than the fundamental method. Using RPA alongside other digitisation tools can form better processes which have a lasting effect. Here, vendors are beginning to do the hard work for us by integrating RPA with AI and machine learning to open up new possibilities.

It is difficult to say what the future holds for RPA. Integration with other technologies can literally lead in any direction. But one thing we know for sure is that it isn't going away anytime soon.

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