Robotic process automation: A no-hype buyer’s guide

Where does RPA fit into the automation landscape?

Deploying RPA software isn’t the same as building fully automated processes and platforms from the ground up. With basic RPA, a software robot literally does what a human would do. This includes routine tasks such as data retrieval and entry, button clicks, file uploads and downloads, or invoice processing. While this is an important limitation, basic RPA is nevertheless advantageous because it can improve the speed and accuracy of task completion while freeing humans to focus on higher-return work.

Full automation, on the other hand, employs systems, processes and even third-party services that are purpose-built for automation from the outset. For this reason, the potential benefit of full automation is much higher — but so is the commitment.

There’s a middle ground, however. When integrated with other automation software to enhance its base capability, RPA can be used in more situations and become a valuable component of an automation strategy that includes technologies such as process mining, artificial intelligence (AI), data capture, business rules and workflow.

For example, when RPA is integrated with AI, AI insights can be acted on by sending instructions directly to bots that complete tasks via other systems, such as an automation platform:

- With no lag time or human intervention.

- For improved efficiency as well as improved customer and employee experiences.

Today, many AI insights are directed to human employees to take action. As an example, many Procure to Pay workflows still involve invoice processors at some point, usually at the point where you need to approve an invoice for payment. When RPA is combined with AI, it’s possible to easily identify the manual steps, quickly build an aligned RPA robot, and then add it to the pool of invoice processors. A workflow engine would gradually determine that the best way to handle certain types of invoices is to route them to the bot, sending recommendations directly to it. This automatic routing reduces response time, saves time for the invoice processor to focus on other work, and enables end-to-end automation of the process.

RPA: What it is, and what it isn’t

Basic RPA is a way to easily automate individual, relatively simple tasks that would otherwise be handled manually. It doesn’t automate entire business processes or workflows on its own.

Basic RPA pros and cons

Pros

– Basic RPA can automate repetitive back-office tasks, such as invoice or claims processing, that don’t require human judgment.

– It is easy to implement in the right use cases and carries low risk, because it replicates manual tasks that already exist.

– There is no need to retrain employees or alter existing processes.

– It liberates humans from routine, repetitive tasks which can lead to improved job satisfaction, morale and productivity.

Cons

– Basic RPA is not well suited to more complicated tasks that depend on complex decisions or have multiple paths.

– It can’t fix processes that are poorly designed or inherently inefficient, so any current bottlenecks may still exist.

– It is inherently limited in scope and potential benefit, and isn’t a substitute for purpose-built, fully automated processes.

– It is hard to scale from pilot projects.

Robots: Opportunity or threat?

Understandably, automation may be seen as a threat to job security. When deployed properly, however, it becomes a source of opportunity both for the business and its workforce:

– RPA replaces tasks, not humans, by automating highly repetitive functions to help workers do their jobs better.

– Worker knowledge becomes more valuable because they now have the time to apply it to benefit the business and its customers.

– RPA can help achieve gains in accuracy and speed.