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Application Development

What is RPA? Here's What You Need to Know

Posted: May 10, 2018

Robotic process automation has generated a lot of buzz recently thanks to its potential to increase employee productivity, streamline workflows and reduce costly errors. Like many other advanced, emerging technologies, however, there remains a great deal of confusion regarding RPA and its applications.

What is RPA? This primer will give you a rundown of everything you need to know, from the underlying technology to its most readily viable use cases.

Defining RPA: Taking the robot out of the human

At first glance, RPA may sound like theoretical tech along the lines of self-aware artificial intelligence, but the actual mechanics are much more mundane and connected to modern business operations.

RPA involves the use of automated “bots” to manage a wide variety of internal processes that would otherwise require manual operation. These tasks can include anything from processing insurance claims to opening new bank accounts, but RPA solutions are often used for time-consuming and arduous jobs that don’t take advantage of knowledge workers’ specialized expertise and skill sets. As TechTarget explained, record management, handling transactions and running database queries are all viable candidates for RPA implementation.

When used in the right environments, RPA tools can replace thousands of manhours handling repetitive tasks, freeing up staff members to tackle more value-driven projects.

What are RPA robots?

When we talk about robots as they pertain to RPA, what we really mean is software. Bots in this sense refer to programs that simulate a human activity, like crawling data repositories for information, for instance. By automating bots to respond to particular events with a predefined set of actions, businesses can dramatically increase the speed of their internal workflows, while also minimizing the potential for costly mistakes like data entry errors.

The important criteria to keep in mind when discussing RPA and its potential applications is structure and repeatability. RPA bots are not “intelligent” or “thinking” the same way machine learning and AI tools are. At their most fundamental capabilities, RPA solutions are not able to self-improve or think critically about the task at hand. They just do what they’re told.

In this way, RPA is a very different form of technology than ML or AI. It is arguably more beneficial and relevant to modern-day business, especially among organizations that rely on numerous repetitive workflows to operate. While RPA isn’t a self-learning asset, it can be configured to spot errors and mistakes in internal processes and flag them accordingly. With the combined benefits of accelerated business speed, increased workflow accuracy and employee productivity, it’s easy to see why this technology has generated a lot of interest.

Attended versus unattended RPA

Robotic process automation is broadly split into two functional categories:

  1. Attended RPA: Frontend bots complete repetitive functions in response to human-induced workflow triggers. Employees still need to launch the task and may be required to take action as the process is carried out.
  2. Unattended RPA: Back-office bots function unprompted by human workers and require little to no human intervention.

Attended and unattended RPA share the same broad purpose, which is to offload time-consuming, repetitive tasks onto robots that can perform them faster and more accurately. This in turn liberates human workers to focus on judgement-based workloads.

That said, the two are not in competition with one another. They fill different operational niches within the enterprise and often complement one another. Attended software bots run on local workstations, meaning their action or inaction is dependent on the human user associated with that particular machine. This is why attended RPA is sometimes referred to as desktop RPA, and why attended bots are sometimes called cooperative bots or personal assistant bots.

In contrast, unattended software bots run on servers or virtual machines. They can be scheduled to run at specific times or continue functioning for the enterprise 24/7/365.

To learn more about attended vs. unattended RPA, take a look at this blog.

Stages of RPA maturity

Most organizations that leverage RPA focus on one of four stages of RPA maturity:

  1. Personal assistant bots.
  2. Personal multiplication bots.
  3. Organizational scaling.
  4. Innovation enablement.

Stages one and two are more in alignment with attended RPA, while the latter phases involve larger-scale instances of unattended RPA.

For more information about the RPA maturity curve, click here.

Major RPA software applications

When vetting potential RPA platforms, decision-makers should look for solutions that can be applied to workflows specific to their industry. RPA software may not necessarily be custom designed with a certain vertical in mind, but it should be able to support common processes and the most beneficial applications.

With that in mind, there are three RPA software leaders that can support most automation use cases. They are:

  • UiPath.
  • Automation Anywhere.
  • Blue Prism.

All are powerful tools that simplify the creation and deployment of RPA bots. Choosing between them will come down to several factors, including your projected course along the RPA maturity curve and the specific nature of your implementation. You can learn more about the different RPA platforms in our vendor comparison white paper, available here.

Some of the most prominent industry-specific applications of RPA are listed below.

  • Insurance: RPA can streamline time-intensive tasks like claims processing that are both relatively simple to conduct and repeatable.
  • Human resources: Many HR tasks are ripe for RPA implementation. Employee onboarding, for example, includes a number of processes that could easily be handled by automated bots.
  • Health care: There are a wide variety of internal tasks that can be enhanced through RPA, including processing medical insurance claims, managing patient records while complying with industry regulations and executing billing jobs.
  • Financial services: Banks and other financial institutions can automate account openings, financial transactions and comply with audit requests.
  • Customer service: Contact center operations can be drastically improved by using RPA to integrate information from various databases and place it in the hands of customer service representatives.

How RPA improves operational efficiency

The beauty of RPA is that it can be applied to any process that can be repeated without requiring any critical thinking skills. For many organizations, that describes a number of backdoor tasks and internal workflows that take up a lot of time to complete.

Even simple, straightforward tasks prove to be troublesome when scaled up to accommodate more requests. Manual operators are prone to errors and productivity slowdowns and can only work during established office hours or shifts. RPA bots are not confined by such human concerns. Working within confines of rule-based tasks, bots can execute with 100-percent accuracy at all times and run as much as needed to accomplish a specific job.

All told, the number of manhours saved by deploying RPA solutions translates into 90 percent cost savings, according to Kinetic Consulting Services. Every deployment will be different and the total efficiency and productivity benefits experienced through RPA will vary, but companies can expect to save a lot money when this technology is properly implemented.

Digital transformation potential

Robotic process automation clearly has cost-saving and efficiency-boosting potential. But it can also act as an enabler of enterprise innovation on a grander scale.

Software robots can bridge legacy IT systems with newer applications thanks to their unparalleled integration capabilities. Bots mimic the behavior of human users, meaning they interface with the frontend of applications. As API-agnostic software entities, they can easily push and pull data between otherwise non-interoperable systems.

Organizations that seek to evolve their processes without completely uprooting their technological underpinnings can therefore evolve gradually, and buy themselves some time as they plan their next phase of digital transformation.

Robotic process automation can also assist with application development. Software bots have already been used in quality-assurance automation for software development for more than a decade. Today, bots can also reduce testing surfaces should an enterprise choose to develop custom APIs. They can also evaluate new automation uses cases to ensure compliance with existing quality assurance and, if applicable, regulations.

These and other innovation-enablement opportunities extend RPA’s utility from productivity powerhouse to facilitator of longer-term digital transformation.

What to know about deploying RPA solutions

Not all RPA tools are created equal. Leveraging one of three leading platforms – UiPath, Automation Anywhere or Blue Prism – will almost certainly put your business on a sure path to value.

But whether your organization chooses among one of the leading platforms or goes in a different direction, all decision-makers should vet potential candidates by the following criteria:

  • Reliability: One of the key benefits RPA offers is bringing the rate of processing errors down significantly, if not eliminating them in particular workflows altogether. RPA solutions need to be reliable, performing as expected at all times to ensure accuracy. Monitoring capabilities allow IT teams to keep a watchful eye over RPA activity to maintain performance levels.
  • Scalability: Although applying RPA solutions to a single process is a good way to get acclimated with this technology and create a viable use case to show to key stakeholders, RPA works best when expanded to cover numerous time-consuming tasks. RPA tools must be able to scale up at large quantities to tackle more demanding work over time.
  • Speed: The best RPA solutions will allow for fast, easy customization to create new bots designed for specific front- and back-office tasks. IT teams need to be able to quickly and easily design RPA bots that address the most critical pain points when they emerge.

The initial deployment of RPA tools can make or break this technology for an organization. Project stakeholders need to demonstrate quick ROI to get key decision-makers on board and approve further expansion. Working with a highly qualified service provider that has years of experience executing RPA solutions is a guaranteed to hit the ground running. It’s ill-advised to attempt to implement such sophisticated technology without an expert team to guide things along.

Arrow Digital can help streamline RPA deployment, from initial launch and configuration to day-to-day management. By embracing this technology today, companies can eliminate costly manual workflows and give their knowledge workers more time to devote to strategic and value-driven projects. It’s the definition of a win-win situation.