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A Primer on Robotic Process Automation

You're not likely to have a metallic office mate any time soon, but a certain type of robotics could revolutionize shared services

Robotic process automation is a hot topic among shared services professionals, even if many of them are yet to explore what it can do.

Although it may sound like the introduction of humanoids like I, Robot or Wall-E into a shared services center, it’s actually an umbrella term for advanced software systems that can be programmed to perform a series of tasks that it previously required a human to do.

The routine, rules-based tasks and basic operations that employees find repetitive and mundane could be ideal for robotic process automation (RPA). RPA software applications are commonly referred to as “digital FTEs” or “human proxies” since they can work with and interact with existing systems as a person would.

Firms that make this software say it usually costs about a third of an offshore employee or one-fifth of an onshore employee, but it can work around the clock, with minimal errors if programmed correctly.

Picking Up Steam

With such promise, it’s no wonder it has caught the attention of shared services organizations, that are designed to provide consistent back-office processes and business support, and save money while doing so.

CEB surveyed its network of shared services professionals on the topic twice in 2015; first in April and again in late November. There was a big change in that six months, with almost double the number of shared services executives reporting that they were evaluating RPA, and a few early adopters are already implementing RPA (see chart 1).

The rise of RPA

Chart 1: The rise of RPA  April n=67; Nov n=54  Source: CEB analysis

Standard Automation Versus RPA

Vendors and consulting firms use numerous terms to describe RPA, such as “smart automation” and “intelligent automation,” but the key distinction is between standard automation – doing the same thing again and again – and RPA which is more like other robotic solutions, such as cognitive computing and artificial intelligence.

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation uses the analogy that traditional automation is like cruise control on a car and RPA is more like a driverless car. Cruise control will keep the driver’s vehicle moving at one speed but can’t adapt to shifts in the environment. RPA identifies different conditions based on a given set of rules and adjusts for those changes by following the rules. RPA, as a driverless car, would stop at a red light — if given that rule to follow.

So when people think of automation now, they may think of optical character recognition, workflow technology, and automatic data feeds from one system to another. But RPA software systems can interact with multiple, existing applications such as enterprise resource planning software or customer relationship management systems, just as a person would by moving a computer mouse.

RPA software can manipulate data, set off responses, and “talk” to other computer systems. An RPA solution might also be able to “review” reports and flag problems. It has the same level of security and access as a person, but it can – at least in theory – work without interruption.

More to Keep in Mind

  1. RPA is not one particular product or tool: There are multiple RPA solutions in the marketplace and each RPA solution is designed to perform in different ways (just as certain computers come with programs that are better for movie and music editing, while others are better equipped for office work).

    If you decide to adopt RPA, you need to evaluate various products to identify which offering best fits your company.

  2. RPA runs separately from applications and underlying systems: RPA software runs separately from a company’s underlying systems (like SAP or Oracle), and can be implemented and altered relatively easily. It does require human work for quality control and maintenance.

    For example, if your IT team makes updates to your ERP system, which your RPA software uses, your RPA software may also need to be adjusted in order to ensure that the process or task it is performing works correctly.

  3. RPA is faster, cheaper, and easier to program: RPA doesn’t require the same level of involvement from IT; business analysts with a clear understanding of relevant processes and workflows can program RPA technologies.

    For example, macros require training and coding knowledge but RPA software solutions do not.

  4. RPA is scalable: There is no limit to the number of human activities or processes that are candidates for robotic process automation. The only limit to RPA’s scalability is a company’s ability to keep pace with the change management needed to sustain it.


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