Robotic process automation is one of the fastest-growing technologies in the world. According to Gartner, spending on RPA skyrocketed by 62% in 2019, and it was one of the few investment areas to maintain double-digit growth figures during the disruption caused by the pandemic. By the time you’re reading this article, almost nine in ten organizations worldwide will have adopted RPA in one form or another.
It touches all aspects of business, automating trivial processes and freeing up valuable labor hours, but is that where RPA’s role ends? The truth is that RPA still holds huge untapped potential that we’re yet to explore. But before we go there, let’s take a look at what RPA is and how it’s currently helping businesses.
What Is Robotic Process Automation Anyway?
In the world of sci-fi, robots are usually depicted as autonomous man-made humanoid machines that follow rule-based routines in order to get something done. The more advanced and complex those rules, the more “intelligent” the robot. This may lead you to think of sci-fi portrayals like C-3PO as a super intelligent robot that acts like a neurotic human being, and this is actually pretty accurate. Except, RPA robots are invisible helpers that exist only in the digital realm without a physical manifestation, so don’t expect them to follow you into battle with the dark side.
RPA is an emerging technology that uses artificial intelligence to automate processes such as opening programs, moving files and folders, cutting and pasting data, filling in forms, performing calculations and extracting data from documents. Basically, any ‘trivial’ task that you can think of that can be broken down into simple “if, then” statements can be performed using RPA.
These “if, then” statements can become layered and complex. For instance, a bank could utilize RPA software to manage a credit card application. The ‘robot’ collates documents from applicants, extracts the necessary form data, undertakes background/credit checks, and makes the final decision of whether the applicant is eligible. If the application is approved, the robot then issues a new card and closes the case on the system. This saves the bank a lot of time and resources, allowing customers to practically serve themselves while staff members get on with more nuanced tasks that require their human expertise. But is simple task automation all that RPA has to offer?
More Than Meets the Eye
RPA is more than a cost-saver, or a way to improve efficiency by doing more with the same amount of resources. It can add value to a business and open up new revenue streams too. For instance, automatic reporting can help to remove administrative friction between departments, improve response times, and speed up decision-making. Significant improvements can also be made to revenue enablement and revenue cycle times, using automatic invoicing to reduce human error and minimize the risk of incorrect or missed payments.
The above use-cases are fine, but simply automating individual processes without any overall strategy in place will limit the benefit to your business. For instance, you might automate one process, but not consider how it affects other dependent processes. What if it ends up creating net inefficiencies? Or, worse, what if there are missed opportunities for increased streamlining and automation that you miss because you’re not looking at your organization as a whole? Most importantly, how does your business demonstrate a return on its investment in RPA?
A New Era of Robotic Transformation
Making a business case for RPA may seem easy, in theory at least. The cost of the robot will very quickly be covered by the number of staff hours that it saves. However, in reality it’s more complex than that. Its success will depend entirely on the nature of its deployment and which processes it can assist with. It will also depend on how well it is implemented to achieve the specific goals set out. Invariably, there will be more factors at play than you might at first realize.
By modeling typical business processes, such as supply chain procurement or the onboarding of new customers, and putting those models under strain through simulations, you’ll be able to see what weak spots are likely to emerge. Modeling can also play a role in how RPA is deployed, predicting the return on investment from automating certain processes or departments. In other words, you can test endless possibilities and configurations with zero risk to productivity, allowing you maximize the potential of RPA.
There’s no doubt that RPA will soon reach near-universal adoption, but merely adopting RPA isn’t enough. It’s businesses that take the time to understand RPA and test its capabilities that will get the most out of the technology.
By Frances Sneddon, CTO, Simul8.