Robots are scary, right? Science fiction has left us with a hang up about robots gone rogue, while manufacturing has taught us they’re featureless machines welding parts on a production line and taking jobs from people.
But robots, or rather robotic process automation (RPA), can also be software taking onerous tasks away from employees so they can concentrate on work that adds value to an organisation.
And now is the right time to consider RPA. The pandemic saw businesses expand their operations underpinned by manual processes that were left unchanged, or tolerated, as companies fought to stay on top of rising demand for their services.
But as the crisis recedes there is an opportunity for companies to take stock of their working practices and ask whether some of the manual tasks currently fulfilled by people would be better handled by software robots.
“People often confuse RPA with AI,” says Jim Dolan a Partner in Technology and Digital Consulting at Mazars, “and consequently become confused about the outcomes and what it can deliver. However, real innovation and transformation is achieved when RPA is combined with AI and other new and emerging technology.
“What RPA can do is free staff from repetitive processes by allocating certain tasks to a robot. That enables people to focus their efforts on analysis rather than inputting data.”
It’s worth understanding how the technology works. RPA refers to software robots that take over repetitive tasks such as a series of key strokes on a keyboard, mouse clicks, copying and pasting information from a form, retrieving data from documents or making calculations or simple decisions. RPA developers configure bots to mimic human actions based on approved process designs, documented by process analysts. RPA works well – but is not limited to finance and back-office functions and has applications in insurance, banking, telecommunications, logistics or any business engaging with a large number of customers or highly repetitive work on a computer.
The technology is sometimes not well understood. Recent research has shown some chief information officers have yet to see it at work or know little about it at all. And yet it is growing in popularity and can take on monotonous tasks that would otherwise leave workers bored and potentially demotivated.
It is, however, important to understand that it is not designed to make people redundant. It is not a “labour arbitrage”.
“We have never seen strong pushback from employees about RPA,” says Martin Váross, a Consulting Partner at Mazars, “because they quickly come to understand we are automating only part of their work, not their whole job. These are the tasks that are not interesting.
“This enables people to focus on making use of their time for other, value-added work.”
While the business environment might be right for adopting RPA, recent technology developments also add to its potential.
Where standard RPA handles only “structured” data, advances mean the tech can now handle “unstructured” data—emails, reports, images and others—through “intelligent automation”. This is important because studies suggest unstructured data could account for around 80% of all data by 2025.
The process to capture this data essentially involves adding artificial intelligence to automation robots. “It’s RPA on steroids,” says Martin Váross.
A second development is the emergence of “citizen developers”. New platforms, based on a drag and drop interface, allow staff without specialist skills to develop their own RPA: No highly trained developer required.
Both intelligent automation and citizen developers add to the flexibility of RPA.
That’s not to say there aren’t pitfalls to be avoided. First, citizen developers. “They’re a double edged sword,” according to Jim Dolan. “The possible downside is that it produces ‘shadow IT’ at the heart of a company’s processes—that’s IT outside the control of an organisation’s tech team.
“If this isn’t tightly controlled and monitored it could subvert controls or introduce automation that has not been properly thought through.”
Businesses must also tread carefully when selecting the right processes to automate. According to Martin Váross the most common complaint from companies using RPA is that they chose the wrong process. “Because we can automate doesn’t mean every process is a good candidate for automation,” he says.
A good example is financial reporting. Though it is perfectly possible to use RPA to produce a financial report, it takes place so infrequently and with so many keystrokes that the economies of scale that makes the technology cost efficient are lost.
What RPA experts look for is a process that is stable (it doesn’t change too often) and highly regular (carried out at high volumes). Brand new processes might be good options for RPA, but managers would have to be sure they would be in place for some time to come.
That means management buy-in is important. “They must understand what RPA can do and what it can’t do,” says Váross. “At the same time it is important that they do not underestimate the capabilities of RPA.”
The benefits of RPA are significant. It takes dull tasks away from people allowing them to focus on more important jobs. “It allows them more time to interpret data instead of generating the data,” says Váross.
It also enables data to be handled more effectively, through intelligent automation. For example, matching invoices to purchase orders.
Customer service can also be improved as RPA can improve data retrieval, which is turn makes for happier employees, which makes for happier customers.
But there are added benefits. RPA is not simply about replicating a process keystroke for keystroke. Implementation should involve a review so that any process given over to robots is an optimised operation, which should bring further gains.
“We always try not to automate a process as it is,” says Váross. “We always look at the end-to-end process and identify which parts can be automated and they might be changed to make them more efficient.”
Hollywood may favour robots that menace humanity but RPA and intelligent automation are a world away from machines that promise a dystopian future. RPA will support staff and make data management more efficient. As Váross says: “It will improve the employee experience by liberating them from tedious, unchanging tasks.
“It is not a solution for everything but at the same time it can bring many more opportunities than might be anticipated.”