Many say we are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution that promises to blur the lines between the real, virtual and the biological worlds. Amongst many trends, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is also one of those buzzwords surrounding the hype of the fourth industrial revolution.
Although poised to be a $6.7 trillion industry by 2025, RPA is shrouded in just as much fear as it is brimming with potential. We have heard time and again how automation can improve productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness while conducting business in transformative ways. We have also heard how automation and machine-driven automation, in particular, can displace humans and thereby lead to a dystopian world.
As humans, we make assumptions based on what we see and understand. But sometimes those assumptions become so ingrained that they evolve into myths which many start accepting as facts.
Here is a closer look at some of the myths surrounding RPA.
RPA means robots will automate processes
The term robot evokes in our minds a picture of a metal humanoid with stiff joints that speaks in a monotone. RPA does mean robotic process automation. But the robot doing the automation is nothing like the ones we are used to seeing in the movies.
These are software robots that perform routine processes within organizations. They are often referred to as virtual workers/digital workforce complete with their own identity and credentials. They essentially consist of algorithms programmed by RPA developers with an aim to automate mundane business processes. These processes are repetitive, highly structured, fall within a well-defined workflow, consist of a finite set of tasks/steps and may often be monotonous and labor intensive.
Let us consider a real-world example here – Automating the invoice generation process. The RPA system will run through all the emails in the system, and download the pdf files containing details of the relevant transactions. Then, it would fill a spreadsheet with the details and maintain all the records therein. Later, it would log on to the enterprise system and generate appropriate invoice reports for each detail in the spreadsheet. Once the invoices are created, the system would then send a confirmation mail to the relevant stakeholders. Here, the RPA user will only specify the individual tasks that are to be automated, and the system will take care of the rest of the process.
So, yes, while it is true that RPA involves robots automating processes, it is a myth that these robots are physical entities or that they can automate all processes.
RPA is useful only in industries that rely heavily on software
“Almost anything that a human can do on a PC, the robot can take over without the need for IT department support.” – Richard Bell, former Procurement Director at Averda
RPA is a software which can be injected into a business process. Traditional industries such as banking and finance, healthcare, manufacturing etc that have significant tasks that are routine and depend on software for some of their functioning can benefit from RPA. Loan processing and patient data processing are some examples. RPA, however, cannot help with automating the assembly line in a manufacturing unit or with performing regular tests on patients. Even in industries that maintain daily essential utilities such as cooking gas, electricity, telephone services etc RPA can be put to use for generating automated bills, invoices, meter-readings etc. By adopting RPA, businesses irrespective of the industry they belong to can achieve significant cost savings, operational efficiency, and higher productivity.
To leverage the benefits of RPA, rather than understanding the SDLC process, it is important that users have a clear understanding of business workflow processes and domain knowledge. Industry professionals can be easily trained on how to put RPA into practice.
The bottom line – RPA is not limited to industries that rely heavily on software to exist. But it is true that RPA can be used only in situations where some form of software is used to perform tasks manually.
RPA will replace humans in most frontline jobs
Many organizations employ a large workforce in frontline roles to do routine tasks such as data entry operations, managing processes, customer support, IT support etc. But frontline jobs are just as diverse as the people performing them.
Take sales reps for example. They bring new business through their expert understanding of the company’s products, their potential customer base coupled with the associated soft skills. Currently, they spend significant time on administrative tasks such as developing and finalizing business contracts, updating the CRM database, making daily status reports etc. Imagine the spike in productivity if these aspects could be taken off the plates of sales reps and they could just focus on cultivating relationships and converting leads. By replacing human efforts in mundane tasks within frontline roles, RPA can help employees focus on higher value-yielding tasks.
In conclusion, RPA will not replace humans in most frontline jobs. It will, however, replace humans in a few roles that are very rule-based and narrow in scope such as simple data entry operators or basic invoice processing executives. In most frontline roles like sales or customer support, RPA is quite likely to change significantly at least in some ways how one sees their job responsibilities. Also, the adoption of RPA will generate new job opportunities around the development, maintenance, and sale of RPA based software.
Only large enterprises can afford to deploy RPA
The cost of implementing and maintaining the RPA software and training employees to use it can be quite high. This can make it an unfavorable business proposition for SMBs with fairly simple organizational processes and cross-departmental considerations. On the other hand, large organizations with higher revenue generation capacity, complex business processes, and a large army of workers can deploy an RPA system to automate high-volume tasks quite easily and recover that cost within a few months.
It is obvious that large enterprises will benefit from RPA systems due to the economies of scale offered and faster recovery of investments made. SMBs (Small to medium-sized businesses) can also benefit from RPA to automate their business processes. But this is possible only if they look at RPA as a strategic investment whose cost will be recovered over a longer time period of say 2-4 years.
RPA adoption should be owned and driven by the organization’s IT department
The RPA team handling the automation process need not be from the IT department. The main role of the IT department is providing necessary resources for the software to function smoothly. An RPA reliability team which is trained in using RPA tools does not include IT professionals but rather business operations professionals.
In simple terms, RPA is not owned by the IT department but by the whole business and is driven by the RPA team.
RPA is an AI virtual assistant specialized to do a narrow set of tasks
An RPA bot performs a narrow set of tasks based on the given data and instructions. It is a system of rule-based algorithms which can be used to capture, process and interpret streams of data, trigger appropriate responses and communicate with other processes. However, it cannot learn on its own – a key trait of an AI system.
Advanced AI concepts such as reinforcement learning and deep learning are yet to be incorporated in robotic process automation systems. Thus, an RPA bot is not an AI virtual assistant, like Apple’s Siri, for example. That said, it is not impractical to think that in the future, these systems will be able to think on their own, decide the best possible way to execute a business process and learn from its own actions to improve the system.
To use the RPA software, one needs to have basic programming skills
Surprisingly, this is not true. Associates who use the RPA system need not have any programming knowledge. They only need to understand how the software works on the front-end, and how they can assign tasks to the RPA worker for automation. On the other hand, RPA system developers do require some programming skills, such as knowledge of scripting languages. Today, there are various platforms for developing RPA tools such as UIPath, Blueprism and more, which empower RPA developers to build these systems without any hassle, reducing their coding responsibilities even more.
RPA software is fully automated and does not require human supervision
This is a big myth. RPA is often misunderstood as a completely automated system. Humans are indeed required to program the RPA bots, to feed them tasks for automation and to manage them. The automation factor here lies in aggregating and performing various tasks which otherwise would require more than one human to complete. There’s also the efficiency factor which comes into play – the RPA systems are fast, and almost completely avoid faults in the system or the process that are otherwise caused due to human error. Having a digital workforce in place is far more profitable than recruiting human workforce.
One of the most talked about areas in terms of technological innovations, RPA is clearly still in its early days and is surrounded by a lot of myths. However, there’s little doubt that its adoption will take off rapidly as RPA systems become more scalable, more accurate and deploy faster. AI, cognitive, and Analytics-driven RPA will take it up a notch or two, and help the businesses improve their processes even more by taking away dull, repetitive tasks from the people.
Hype can get ahead of the reality, as we’ve seen quite a few times – but RPA is an area definitely worth keeping an eye on despite all the hype.