There’s been plenty of buzz in the press lately about robotic process automation. Is it the “next new thing”? Can it really help my business? In general, there are still lots of opportunities to improve processes and eliminate costs in businesses today. But it remains to be seen just exactly how effective robotic process automation might be. In particular, one needs to understand the costs to implement, configure, and maintain these tools. And here, the market remains very immature, with little empirical data to justify investments.
First, what is robotic process automation? The definition from the Institute Robotic Process Automation (IRPA.com), a profession association, is as follows: “Robotic process automation (RPA) is the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a “robot” to capture and interpret [data from] existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.” (I added “data from” to help clarify that these robots (which, very simplistically, are similar in nature to “macros” in Excel), move data from one system to the next.
Here are some common use cases:
- “Swivel-chair” integration or screen-scraping – taking data from one user interface and pasting it into another
- Task list management – keeping track of progress through a process; literally looking for data or query results or email responses, and then assembling the information into a task status list
- Non-subjective task automation – within an application, determine whether an amount is over a dollar threshold or whether a task has been completed before a specified date, then automatically move to the next task in the process
I.e. all the remedial stuff that everyone human hates to do.
RPA can be used in many support functions, for instance finance, procurement, and audit. In particular, RPA is well suited for support functions in these areas because historically, the appetite to automate these processes with formal workflow tools has been low. (Companies want to spend their IT dollars on customer-facing functions, not on the back office.) So RPA is well positioned to fill that gap. And when we have front-line staff – relationship managers, sales folks, call center staff – spending time on similar tasks, the business case can become very attractive.
As always, a healthy dose of “Mosourism” (the “show me” state) is warranted. Time will tell how effective this new class of capabilities can be. But we at Doculabs are monitoring it closely.