Robotic process automation (RPA) sounds futuristic, and although it doesn’t involve a talking, sentient robot a la “The Iron Giant” or even a self-aware AI like Skynet from “The Terminator” series, it is indeed a huge advance in the use of technology for solving complex problems. RPA is much more subtle than any big-screen robot, but still transformative in its effects on enterprise productivity.
It harnesses the power of automated business processes to eliminate significant portions of so-called swivel-chair work, i.e. the manual entry of the same or similar information across multiple systems. The image conjured up by this traditional workflow is a powerful one – imagine downloading an email attachment, copying and pasting some of its data into an Excel sheet, then doing that workflow all over again, except within the different context of your HR software. Even with no literal chair involved, you’re repeatedly jumping (swiveling) between systems, while wasting time and increasing the likelihood of error.
Thanks to RPA, such workflows became much more streamlined. Its robots are all software-based, so there’s no danger of them rusting like the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz,” and in fact, they’re highly resilient and self-directing, with designs based on how actual humans already complete common tasks within GUI-based applications. They’re built to scale and to handle numerous activities; the RPA possibilities run the gamut from basic screen-scraping and macros at one end of the spectrum, to sophisticated natural language processing and the sorting of unstructured data at the other.
Looking over the RPA horizon
That said, RPA is still in its infancy, and its evolution could take a lot of twists and turns before it becomes more widely accepted. Here’s what to expect in the near term, over the next year or so:
1. Increasing uptake in the insurance, communications and utilities sectors
RPA really shines in the handling of any work that includes a lot of searching, collating and updating of big datasets. Accordingly, it would seem ideal for the three industries listed above, all of which manage immense amounts of information about customer addresses, billing details and service histories.
Moreover, they need to build bridges between systems like HR and accounting, many of which are still legacy implementations, so that they can ensure their vast data repositories are properly aligned and synchronized. RPA robots can take on much of the manual activity that was previously required to maintain all of this infrastructure, from managing claims forms to processing invoices.
2. Growing popularity among large enterprises
IT research firm Gartner has forecasted robust growth in RPA over the next few years, driven in large part by companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. It expects adoption to reach 60 percent of these firms by the end of 2018 and 85 percent through 2022.
At the same time, Gartner foresees the vendor landscape evolving to meet rising demand for RPA. In addition to software vendors, companies specializing in software testing and business process will also get in on the action and thereby expand the number of RPA offerings organizations will be able to choose from.
3. More cognitive abilities within RPA
As we noted earlier, most RPA relies on mimicking how a person will navigate an app’s GUI while completing common tasks. That’s both a strength and a weakness – on the plus side, RPA can work even with older applications that lack modern APIs, but, on the downside, without APIs to draw upon RPA can easily break if there are any changes to the user interface.
To solve this problem, some vendors are looking at implementing more AI capabilities into RPA robots. Don’t expect something like the crafty HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” anytime soon, but do expect the roll-out of natural language processing, speech recognition and machine learning to build upon and extend the fundamental GUI-oriented designs of today’s RPA processes.
4. Combining RPA with conversational UI
The rise of RPA isn’t an isolated phenomenon; it’s of a piece with the growth of chatbots and conversational UI, which leverage similar automation in the handling of routine tasks such as first-line handling of customer service inquiries. Going forward, we can expect more pairings of RPA with conversational UI and automation.
For example, a company might use RPA to automate the reordering process for its wholesale buyers, while using chatbots to engage visitors to its website seeking answers to basic questions. If nothing else, the conversational UI there can efficiently direct these customers to live agents for further assistance. Overall, both RPA and chatbots greatly increase the capacity of requests and workflows an organization can handle, since additional manpower is no longer a prerequisite for proper scaling.
5. Further RPA-related enhancements to common workflow tools
The makers of solutions such as Abbyy, the popular tool for document scanning and OCR, are looking to RPA to future-proof these tools. For these platforms, RPA helps streamline both the data processing itself and the flow of information between multiple systems.
In other words, it further reduces the number of situations requiring manual intervention. That leads to increased efficiency in data management, fewer mistakes from human actions and a better user experience for workers, who no longer have to sink so much of their time into repetitive tasks and can instead focus on higher-level activities.
Where should organizations begin with RPA?
Since it’s still in its early stages, RPA can seem like a daunting hill to climb for SMBs and enterprises alike. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to feel this way. With the help of an integrated supply chain expert like Inspirage, you can create a roadmap for modernizing your key processes and systems through RPA.
Our team of experts is here to assist you from start to finish in the selection and implementation of solutions that meet your business requirements. Visit our resource center or contact us directly for additional information.