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Robotic Process Automation: What Is RPA Really?
On November 3, 2017 / By Mary Critelli

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Futuristic helper. Low angle of serious middle-aged businessman sitting at table in office while big robot is passing him important documents

Remember the movie Wall-E? Wall-E is instantly loveable as an innocent and hard-working robot who just wants a friend. Arguably the cutest protagonist ever, he ends up saving planet Earth and all the humans who have no idea they need to be saved.

However, cute as he may be, he does not distract from the chilling depiction of future humans — big, fat blobs practically glued to hovering chairs who rarely look away from the floating screens in front of their faces.

It is a little eerie to see what could happen once technology progresses to a point where humans are rendered completely useless. Self-driving cars, automated customer service representatives… And let us not forget actual robots — such as the ones at Amazon that fulfill orders — are becoming more common.

“Robotic Process Automation” (RPA) is one of the latest crazes that claims to revolutionize the way companies operate, with promises to slash company’s overhead costs while instantly increasing efficiency. RPA uses technology as a substitute for human behavior within an organization’s business processes, or more simply a “robot” that can do a human’s job. It sure sounds cool, but after further digging, unfortunately, it is unworthy of all the hype.

RPA’s roots can be traced back to Business Process Management (BPM) software. Originating about twenty years ago, BPM’s focus was to improve and optimize a company’s business processes. BPM software companies essentially were classified into two groups:

  • A larger group focused the business process in its entirety with the intent to optimize, standardize and streamline from beginning to end.
  • A smaller group looked to differentiate themselves by automating business processes using technology to cut out the human element.

Unfortunately for the smaller group, their innovation did not catch on. They could not compete, and were gobbled up by the larger companies.

Why did BPM automation fail? One would think most companies would jump at the chance to replace a human with a robot, instantly cutting overhead costs and increasing efficiency. Truth is, the automation was nothing more than software that recorded an employee’s clicks and keystrokes as they performed a task in their system and then mimicked those clicks when prompted.

Now, we look at RPA. Is it new? Is it different? No. The software vendor Blue Prism invented the term Robotic Process Automation recently with the intent to eliminate the need for Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). However, all they really did is slap a new name on the same old BPM automation to make it sound innovative and new.

What RPA Is…

  • “Software robot” that mimics clicks within a system
  • Automation of repetitive tasks
  • Set of rules applied to a business process

What RPA Is Not…

  • A physical robot that actively completes a series of tasks
  • A revolutionary way to cut overhead costs and increase efficiency
  • Smart enough to use human reasoning to determine patterns and analyze data

RPA in Business

It is not to say that automation does not have its place in a business. For example:

  • Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS), aka most companies’ customer service help desk automated recording
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for converting scanned docs into editable data within a system
  • Amazon’s physical warehouse robots used to fulfill orders

Think about a company’s back-office functions: accounts payable, accounts receivable, quality and claims, accounting, etc. Based on what RPA really is can a robot actually perform the tasks required from those functions? Consider the accounts payable (AP) process. An invoice comes in, must be matched to the purchase order and goods receipt document, and then it can be entered/posted as a transaction that hits the accounting books. It seems easy enough to automate unless you have seen an AP clerk actually perform this task.

Back-office functions cannot be fully automated, because exceptions are common and mistakes made on the front-end would be missed.

There is the rare but perfect scenario where a company makes a purchase and receives the exact items and quantities they purchased with no shortages or damages. But wait, there’s more. When the company receives the invoice, the vendor has billed for exactly what was purchased and received, and even the taxes were calculated correctly.

But let’s get real. Typically, goods are received in partial or multiple shipments and differences in price and quantity are frequent. Not to mention all the rules that apply when calculating tax depending on how a company plans to use a product, who and where they purchase from, where they ship the product, etc. Also, do not discount the fact that a lot of back-office employees often catch mistakes made on the front-end. Bottom line: if business processes were always executed in their perfect scenario, they probably could be automated easily. But in reality it would be too complex and therefore pointless to mechanize functions with various exceptions and one-off scenarios.

As for a company’s business processes, rather than trying to automate them, spend the time to evaluate why each step is necessary. If a process is so repetitive, easy and mindless, why would it take a significant amount of time to complete? Is there a better way? A good rule of thumb is to always evaluate the business process first before adding or implementing any sort of technology. Just because a company could pay for a robot to do a task, why should they if the task is stupid in the first place?

Despite all the articles and rumors flying around that robots are the new humans, have no fear. Even if a robot could do your job, it is unlikely that you would be completely replaced. Fortunately, the prophecy of future humans as shown in Wall-E is not something to lose sleep over just yet.

 

This article has been adapted from a chapter from Trenegy’s book: Jar(gone)

Trenegy is a non-traditional consulting, dedicated to help companies evaluate the efficiencies of their business processes and integrate time-saving automations when practical. Find out more: info@trenegy.com