Robotic Process Automation (RPA): What is it?

RPA uses software robots or artificial intelligence workers to automate a list of actions. It works by observing the user perform the task and then repeating directly in the GUI, accessing the application without the use of APIs.

Is RPA right for your business?

Chris Weston speaks about the practicality of RPA usage in businesses today, in his latest article.

“There are a few case studies around. In 2015 the London School of Economics produced some research around an implementation in Telefonica O2. This suggested a 650%-800% ROI in three years – who wouldn’t want that result?

It’s undoubtedly true that many back-office tasks are repetitive and costly. Where systems don’t have suitable interfaces for integration, there are many areas where data is double-keyed into various systems. How many times as consumers do we end up giving the same information about ourselves to different parts of the same organisation (especially government!) because of organisational, process and technological silos?

If this re-keying can be accomplished by an automated script, it is pretty obvious that it would be faster than a human operator and once it’s working well can be scaled more or less ‘for free’ to meet peaks in demand. This is a simplistic view, of course. Many of the things that we take for granted of human operators, the ability to notice unusual or erroneous information, translation of spelling or context errors (understanding that New Quay and Newquay could be the same place, if they’re working on data from Cornwall, but not the same place if it also includes Wales) are not present in automated processes unless very explicitly expressed. There are improvements in this area through the introduction of Machine Learning tools but it’s very early days for those.”

In his article, Chris covers the risks of IT departments failing to set expectations for certain businesses looking to use RPA.

“If we’re honest with ourselves we know that business process are often poorly documented and this can lead to a false expectation around RPA. If I had a pound for the number of times I’ve found that a field in a system is being used for different reasons by different departments I’d have, well, several pounds. This is not a problem at the time because it’s being managed by people who can recognise it. Introduce an RPA tool (especially through a third party that doesn’t know the process) and it can blow up in your face.

There are some good use cases for RPA. Legacy systems with an existing retirement plan that do not have any API or interoperability capabilities can have their lives extended or the cost of ownership reduced by a tactical introduction of RPA. These systems are unlikely to undergo changes to their UIs and the data sets are usually well understood. But again this is not a simple business case. It is not simply a matter of removing a swathe of manual operators. Governance and quality management must be introduced to ensure the robotic process is achieving its objectives.”

Chris states that the savings that businesses are making from Robotic Process Automation now, could come back to bite them in the future.

“…cost savings from RPA are quietly leveraging further technical debt that incurs much greater costs in future. They often assume a removal of a large number of operators in a very short space of time in order to build a business case. The business cases can be manipulated like the O2 example where people are reassigned with ‘zero’ cost. Wider issues such as security and business continuity are rarely considered.

You can read Chris’ conclusion, along with the full article, on LinkedIn here.