Robotic Process Automation

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required humans to perform. These tasks can include queries, calculations and maintenance of records and transactions. RPA is a form of business process automation technology based on the notion of software robots or artificial intelligence (AI) workers.

RPA technology, sometimes called a software robot or bot, mimics a human worker, logging into applications, entering data, calculating and completing tasks, and logging out. RPA software is not part of an organization's IT infrastructure. Instead, it sits on top of it, enabling a company to implement the technology quickly and efficiently -- all without changing the existing infrastructure and systems.

RPA software is particularly useful for organizations that have many different and complicated systems that need to interact together fluidly. For instance, if an electronic form from a human resource system is missing a zip code, traditional automation software would flag the form as having an exception and an employee would handle the exception by looking up the correct zip code and entering it on the form. Once the form is complete, the employee might send it on to payroll so the information can be entered into the organization's payroll system. With RPA technology, however, software that has the ability to adapt, self-learn and self-correct would handle the exception and interact with the payroll system without human assistance.

RPA tools have strong technical similarities to graphical user interface testing tools. These tools also automate interactions with the GUI, and often do so by repeating a set of demonstration actions performed by a user. RPA tools differ from such systems including features that allow data to be handled in and between multiple applications, for instance, receiving email containing an invoice, extracting the data, and then typing that into a bookkeeping system.

Although the term ‘robotic process automation’ can be traced to the early 2000s, it had been developing for a number of years previously. RPA evolved from three key technologies: screen scraping, workflow automation and artificial intelligence. Screen scraping is the process of collecting screen display data from a legacy application so that the data can be displayed by a more modern user interface. The advantages of workflow automation software, which eliminates the need for manual data entry and increases order fulfillment rates, include increased speed, efficiency and accuracy. Lastly, artificial intelligence involves the ability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intervention and intelligence.

RPA technology can help organizations on their digital transformation journeys in several ways, viz; (1) by enabling better customer service, (2) by ensuring business operations and processes comply with regulations and standards, (3) by allowing processes to be completed much more rapidly, (4) by providing improved efficiency by digitizing and auditing process data, (5) by creating cost savings for manual and repetitive tasks, (6) by enabling employees to be more productive

The applications of RPA are consistently on the increase. Let us have a look at some of the major among them.

  1. Customer service: RPA can help companies offer better customer service by automating contact center tasks, including verifying e-signatures, uploading scanned documents and verifying information for automatic approvals or rejections.
  2. Accounting: Organizations can use RPA for general accounting, operational accounting, transactional reporting and budgeting.
  3. Financial services: Companies in the financial services industry can use RPA for foreign exchange payments, automating account openings and closings, managing audit requests and processing insurance claims.
  4. Healthcare: Medical organizations can use RPA for handling patient records, claims, customer support, account management, billing, reporting and analytics.
  5. Human resources: RPA can automate HR tasks, including onboarding and offboarding, updating employee information and timesheet submission processes.
  6. Supply chain management: RPA can be used for procurement, automating order processing and payments, monitoring inventory levels and tracking shipments.

Thus the benefits of successful RPA are many – cost savings, freeing up staff for work that requires a higher skill-set, improving customer experience and the bottom-line etc. RPA also helps companies operate with very few people or when there is a shortage of labour.

What distinguishes RPA from traditional IT automation is the ability of the RPA software to be aware and adapt to changing circumstances, exceptions and new situations. Once RPA software has been trained to capture and interpret the actions of specific processes in existing software applications, it can then manipulate data, trigger responses, initiate new actions and communicate with other systems autonomously. In traditional workflow automation tools, a software developer produces a list of actions to automate a task and interface to the back-end system using internal application programming interfaces (APIs) or dedicated scripting language. In contrast, RPA systems develop the action list by watching the user perform that task in the application's graphical user interface (GUI), and then perform the automation by repeating those tasks directly in the GUI. This can lower the barrier to use of automation in products that might not otherwise feature APIs for this purpose.

 

Most operations groups adopting RPA have promised their employees that automation would not result in layoffs according to Harvard Business Review. On the contrary, workers have been redeployed to do more interesting work. One academic study highlighted that knowledge workers instead of feeling threatened by automation embraced it and viewed the robots as team-mates. The study highlighted that, rather than resulting in a lower ‘headcount’, the technology was deployed in such a way as to achieve more work and greater productivity with the same number of people.

Some analysts however point out that RPA represents a threat to the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. Their reasoning is that RPA will enable enterprises to ‘repatriate’ processes from offshore locations into local data centers, with the benefit of this new technology. The effect, if true, will be to create high value jobs for skilled process designers in onshore locations (and within the associated supply chain of IT hardware, data center management, etc.) but to decrease the available opportunity to low skilled workers offshore.

Academic studies project that RPA, among other technological trends, is expected to drive a new wave of productivity and efficiency gains in the global labour market. Although not directly attributable to RPA alone, Oxford University conjectures that up to 35% of all jobs may have been automated by 2035. World's leading enterprises and the fastest growing midsize companies – from banking, financial services, insurance, to telco, logistics, pharma and healthcare – are on the path of adoption of RPA. As RPA continues to bloom, India is in a fantastic position to emerge a front-runner in the establishment of the industry and benefit greatly from this opportunity. Two lakh RPA related jobs are estimated to be created in India by 2021 as companies begin to embrace automation in a big way.

An ISG Survey indicates that RPA take-up is expected to reach 92% of European enterprises by 2020. A survey of 500 European businesses by ISG found the core drivers to be improving customer experience and streamlining the internal finance operations. A Global Market Insights Inc. report expects the RPA market to reach $5 billion by 2024. The increased adoption of RPA technologies by organizations to enhance their capabilities and performance and boost cost savings will reportedly drive the growth of the RPA market most during that time.

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