There’s a lot being said about robots these days and about Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA describes a software development toolkit that allows non-engineers to quickly create software robots (commonly known as “bots”) to automate rules-driven business processes by replacing human effort to complete tasks. Since RPA is trending, it’s given business audiences reason to think – is this new and emerging type of automation replacing other “gold standard” types of automation such as Business Process Automation?
Software bots mimic human activities such as logging into IT systems, and copying and pasting data across systems, and unlike other automation solutions, RPA generally requires minimum integration with the existing IT setup. It’s been posited that organizations with labor-intensive processes -- where people are performing high-volume, highly transactional process functions -- can potentially boost productivity and save time and money with RPA.
Some even go as far as to say there’s a chance we could see the rebirth of reengineering driven by RPA – enabling the attainment process efficiencies we dreamed about in the 90s but never achieved. But others say it’s basically glorified screen scraping and a “YAMP” (Yet Another Marketing Ploy). In reality, the promise and potential of RPA likely falls somewhere in between these two scenarios.
One factor muddying the waters and making it difficult to understand the role of RPA is that RPA vendors are flooding the airwaves with a good amount of hype. As the old adage goes: If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When looking at automation, it’s important to understand that there is a wide variety of technologies and offerings to meet a broad spectrum of business needs and requirements.
Each business has a series of tasks, events, and decisions that move work from start to completion through business processes. To date RPA has been mainly focused on tactical applications; it’s found its place in automating tasks, but not in automating processes. To some degree, an image capture system which is used to minimize data entry and let the software find the data on documents and input it into a form or system, can seen as a type of RPA. But automatic data entry in and of itself is not a process -- it's only the beginning of a process.
While there is optimism that RPA solutions will mature moving forward to incorporate artificial intelligence and robust analytics functionality to handle incredibly complex workflows, this seems difficult to envision, as today many organizations struggle with even the most basic RPA implementations.
“RPA promises to transform the cost, efficiency and quality of executing many of the back office and customer-facing processes that businesses rely on people to perform … But, RPA is not without its challenges,” reports Ernst & Young, which says it has seen as many as 30% to 50% of initial RPA projects fail.
Says industry analyst firm Horses for Sources, “…we've been covering the emergence of RPA for nearly five years and this space is still at a very early phase of (sometimes) painful RPA experimentation, as enterprises figure out how to scale these tools, govern them and learn how to integrate them with other applications using scarce technical skills, while dealing with very challenging change issues.”
Automation is about reducing effort and improving outcomes; in today’s customer-centric enterprise, where improving customer responsiveness and collaboration is key, improved outcomes involve bringing together the work of humans and technology – rather than relegating them to their separate organizational corners. RPA is just one automation tool that can play a role in a larger automation / improvement strategy, where technologies such as Business Process Automation or Business Process Management (BPM) also play a role.
So, while RPA might be used to kick off a process; however when an exception rears its ugly head, it may necessitate a handover to humans when a cognitive decision needs to be made. These more complex business processes also require a deeper level of integration with IT systems -- there are generally about 12 basic business systems in any organization -- and this level of integration can grow over time.
And there’s one more area where BPM tops RPA. By uniting content, human intervention and workflows, BPM streamlines the backend workings of an organization to support better employee experiences, which in turn enables those employees to support smarter, more responsive customer interactions. Bots may best humans in faster and cheaper task completion, but until further notice, the human and technology equation is still essential to support the modern customer-centric enterprise.
About the Author: Tom Franceski is vice president and general manager of DocStar, a division of Epicor Software Corporation. DocStar proven business process automation technology and workflow expertise empowers organizations to operate at peak performance, navigate change, and grow.
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