“RPA can do repetitive work more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, freeing them to do other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer.”
At Eficode, automation is written in our DNA. Therefore it's no wonder that over the past years many of our customers are asking our opinion on the topic of RPA, or Robotic Process Automation, one of the current hot trends in the ICT world. So, sit back and get ready to indulge in some food for thought.
What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
RPA – also known as smart or intelligent automation – in general refers to capturing previously human-driven tasks as small, self-contained software applications outside the ICT systems a corporation needs for its daily work. These tasks that operate on said ICT systems can be run on-demand and chained up to complex series of actions. They focus on the business decision needed to be made in the company. For example, a back-office process like checking personnel information from one system while creating an invoice with another system would be ideal candidate to automate partly (or even fully with little AI).
The benefits of RPA
Robotics and automation is having a profound effect on business today, and in our view only increasing in the future.
RPA is a form of business automation which typically offers a potential return of investment in the scale of 30% to 200% within the first 12 months. All thanks to increased productivity and reduced errors.
Increased job satisfaction
In addition to the savings for the bottom line, we have also witnessed gains for the top line. Despite the negative connotation about automation in certain circles, employees seem to achieve increasing job satisfaction, instead of detriment.
It’s easy to implement (for experts)
Although the whole idea of automating existing processes is "business as usual", RPA provides an easy start for companies due to the fact that it’s lightweight to implement – one doesn't need a lot of ICT involvement to get it up and running, meaning your business stakeholders can learn quite quickly how to configure and apply the robots.
The reason behind this is that RPA only addresses the presentation layer of information systems and it doesn’t have to address the business logic or the data access layer of the underlying system at all. A company is no longer dependent on the vendor of the underlying system to provide further functionality with a software update to get something done. Instead, an RPA solution can be developed in-house to answer pressing business needs.
It takes the robot out of the human
In other words, it can be said that RPA takes the robot out of the human. This holds true for all white collar workers today who are working with back-office processes and have a lot of repetitive, routine tasks that are dreary and uninteresting. This is the typical scenario where RPA is at its best and can reap immediate benefits as a type of software that mimics the activity of a human being in carrying out a task within a predefined process. It can do repetitive work more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, freeing them to do other tasks requiring skills humans do best such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer.
The negatives of RPA
Digitizing current processes may be shortsighted
However, many corporates fail to understand that setting up RPA is just the first step in the right direction. Digitizing the current process to be efficiently carried out by the robot only solves the problem at hand, but it isn't going to change the process itself if that process is unable to help the business in the first place. It just repeats the actions as dictated and modelled, but does not go any deeper than that.
In automating, our goal is to fundamentally change the process itself to better match the short- and long-term targets. By not only digitizing, but using all tools in a digital transformation toolkit, we are able to make a new, better, and more efficient process possible. The aim is to really think about the input and output in question and design something new, which will give unfair competitive advantage for our clients. RPA alone does not necessarily do that.
RPA solutions could lead to more human work
RPA has been lambasted for increasing unemployment rates in giving jobs that were typically held by humans to robots. However, there is also a way in which RPA may increase the workload at companies. That’s because settling only for the first step in automation that RPA provides might accrue you unexpected debt.
ICT systems are (and should be) always evolving entities; anything other than that would indicate the business is not changing. This also means that employed RPA solutions needs to be eventually updated as well – usually hastily to keep the accumulated benefits instead of them turning into hindrances. In other words, are you then not updating your ICT environment in two places? That would mean you are actually doing more human work, not less.
The right way to use RPA
What is RPA good for then, if not being the silver bullet to all our business woes? Well, digitizing – the evolution of the current process – must start with understanding what the nuts and bolts of the business are. Only then can you innovate.
Being able to record the routine human decisions as an automatic robot provides an ideal first step in the further (DevOps) transformation journey of a company which will eventually lead to changing the ICT systems themselves. This is precisely what RPA is great for – it provides clear and non-negotiable requirements for further development and evolution to make ICT work for your business, not against it. It also doesn't hurt that on the route to better business we also reap the above-mentioned ROIs, now does it?
Don’t throw the RPA baby out with the bathwater
Based on discussion with different experts in the field, we here at Eficode hold the opinion that just employing RPA without a more deep-rooted vision about the role of automation as a business driver is frankly throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is crucial for companies hoping to benefit from RPA to see it as a tool towards something greater and not as an end in itself. Otherwise, one might end up in the proverbial upstream with a software robot instead of a paddle.
Robot Framework: RPA meets open source
In 2019, we’re seeing the open source world taking note of the continuously increasing demand for RPA. As has happened with other innovations, relying solely on commercial tool vendors is a barrier and a hindrance to experiment-driven and innovation-hungry business needs. In answer to those needs, we’re starting to see the rise of freely available open source tooling that in the near future will have caught up with their commercial brethren. Case in point: an old test automation tool veteran (and one of our favourites) Robot Framework has recently evolved into an RPA tool as well.
Although already functionally equal to commercial tools vis-à-vis what can be automated, the technical expertise currently needed to pick Robot Framework up is still a bit steep without the help of automation experts. As one of the founding members of the Robot Framework Foundation, at Eficode we are following closely as the vibrant ecosystem around the tool leads to developments which will make it easier to use for a broader audience.
This blog post was originally published in May 2017. It was updated in February 2019 by Jari P. Ängeslevä and Tatu Kairi.