Astonishing workplace changes are underway thanks to process robotics
There’s been loads of hype and speculation about the impact of process robotics on jobs and on offshoring and outsourcing. But is real progress being made for organisations? Is return on investment (ROI) being achieved by the early adopters?
Process robotics or RPA (Robotic Process Automation) is in fact well underway across many industry sectors, whether in financial services, capital markets, utilities or government.
Take-up of RPA is accelerating, with many of the outcomes living up to the hype. The promise of robotics is basically to deliver a business solution that rapidly automates manual back office and customer-facing processes, making them faster, significantly more cost effective, and improving consistency and regulatory compliance, all with an ROI of typically less than a year. Indeed many real world examples are already achieving ROI on a quarterly basis.
Such software ‘robots’ are best thought of as a complementary workforce, working hand-in-hand with people to help them improve their performance and focus their time on other, higher priority tasks, strategy and innovation. The robots can enable people to work better, smarter and more creatively, expanding the ‘art of the possible’.
So what exactly is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Also known as software robotics, RPA is the use of a new class of software to automate business processes at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions, without the need to change current IT systems. It’s a form of business process automation technology that:
- Is different to standard workflow automation
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.
- Maps, links and schedules processes
So RPA works by replicating the activities that people currently undertake, using existing core systems, legacy applications, accessing websites, and manipulating spreadsheets, documents and email to complete tasks. Using RPA software involves mapping out current or new processes, linking it to existing applications, and then scheduling them to run on one or more robots whenever required. There are now many vendors in the market and more arriving all the time. As well as the more well-known vendors, there is a constant stream of new entrants and the addition of RPA features to traditional business process management (BPM) solutions.
RPA has several distinguishing features
RPA can be distinguished from other software initiatives by the following 5 features:
- Purpose – It’s designed to carry out business processes, replacing manual activity.
- Approach – It has a usual or “code free” interface to define automated process, linking to one or more systems through user interfaces. No (or limited) technical integration is required.
- Usability – It’s suitable for IT-literate business users and operations teams, rather than IT development or integration teams.
- Scalability – It runs in a data-centre, and can support high-volume, 24×7 operations, with scheduling, monitoring and reporting.
- Compliance – Full audit of both process definitions and individual tasks is executed and full security model supporting segregation of duties.
Spelling out some of the benefits
It’s the combination of all these above features of RPA into a single, mature package that works with existing systems that also, in many cases, creates a compelling alternative to core-platform integration or replacement. And not only can RPA reduce manual operations costs by 25% to 40% or more, it does this while improving service and compliance, and typically can provide a remarkable return on investment in less than a year.
Because the RPA software replicates human activity, it can be thought of as a set of software “robots,” forming a virtual workforce available 24 hours per day, with full audit and 100% accuracy. So in a banking workplace, for example, RPA has the potential for multiple benefits including reducing the number of operational errors, increasing efficiency as robots can operate 24*7, reducing costs as all the people involved in the manual processes can be replaced by a single programmed bot, adding scalability, as the number of bots can be increased or decreased based on operational volume needs, increasing customer satisfaction due to a faster turnaround and finally, improving accountability as the audit logs of robot operations would be constantly available.
What does the robot future hold?
Does this really mean that in the future all humans will be replaced by machines and that robots will eventually try to take over the world in the style of the Terminator movies?
In reality, the answer is no.
The intention behind RPA implementation is to ensure organisations are able to better utilise their employees in areas that add value to a firm’s operations and delegate the repetitive tasks to automated machines. The ‘bots’ need to be programmed to replicate the human actions required in the process, while humans are also required to provide support and supervision to ensure any issues which may impact the process, such as network failure, a ‘bot’ crash due to error, or exceptions in the operations, can be dealt with.
In a recent TEDx talk at UCL in London, entrepreneur David Moss explained that digital labour in the form of RPA is not only likely to revolutionise 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 personalisation of services.
It sounds like real progress to us!
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