Robotic process automation – the marriage of man and machine
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a technology whose time has come. The idea of robots supplementing the human workforce has been around since automation entered manufacturing on the production line, but today robotics is reaching whole new levels of maturity.
What is RPA? It is a highly interesting new development in business automation that enables companies to create software robots that are able to automate any business process. More specifically, RPA enables companies to overhaul back-office processes and take routine, repetitive processes out of the hands of knowledge workers, so they can work in more profitable areas. Essentially, RPA copies the task that a human carries out within a process and performs it automatically.
Why and how is RPA happening?
The objective of RPA it is greater efficiency. There are supplementary benefits, which I will come to, but ultimately RPA exists to help companies make better use of resources.
This is done by setting up bots and configuring them to carry out the tasks you assign to them and that you control. You effectively show your bots what to do, ‘explain’ the tasks within the process to them, and then let them get to work.
Most back-office processes in an organization are mundane and do not require a great deal of cognitive work. But in many companies many of them are still carried out by humans, who typically sit in front of computers copying and pasting big amounts of data. To me, RPA represents a way to revolutionize and carry on day to day work in a typical organization – think of RPA bots as your “digital” workforce.
Focus on the simple tasks
This is important however – understand the limitations of RPA and do not expect it to operate like cognitive intelligence or AI does. RPA has been designed to deal with simpler tasks, those that do not need knowledge or insight to perform – tasks that can be done by programming rules and telling the software what to do. Tasks that do not require any imagination or creativity.
RPA is focused on tasks that do not invade the knowledge base that your human workforce possesses, in the ways that AI and cognitive automation does. They can both utilize natural language programming (NLP) and “learning” to perform more inventive undertakings, but this does risk undermining your human workforce – something CEOs continue to be loath to do.
Changing CEO perspectives
CEOs still need people. According to the 20th PwC CEO Survey, only 16 percent of CEOs said they plan to reduce their company’s headcount over the next 12 months – and only a quarter of them said that was primarily because of technology.
The same research revealed that the top two CEO priorities are now innovation and human capital. So in terms of effective use of talent and technology, I believe a lot of CEOs recognize the potential in technologically empowering their workforce. There is real value in marrying technology with uniquely human capabilities, those skills that cannot be replicated by machines. And this is where RPA can help.
The potential outcomes
RPA has been evaluated to offer a potential return on investment (ROI) of between 30 and 200 percent in the first year. According to Everest Group, the RPA vendor market has been experiencing tremendous growth, with CAGR of between 70 and 90 percent in 2016 expected to increase as high as 800 percent in 2018. The signs are highly encouraging.
I see this growth continuing and eventually driving the workplace towards a digital workforce as a service, deployed from the cloud. This would allow organizations to configure and deploy RPA bots on demand to be even more efficient. The potential for improving a company’s back-office effectiveness without damaging the overall organization and for enhancing customer experience and satisfaction is huge.
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