What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)? Starting with the most basic definition, RPA is a solution in which a software agent (robot) completes a series of tasks (process) in a prescribed manner utilizing one or more IT resources or systems. As RPA matures, new capabilities are beginning to emerge. Adding artificial intelligence (AI) to RPA, which is sometimes referred to as Intelligent Process Automation (IPA), can enable more complex automations.
Let’s use Excel as an example of automation we are familiar with. We all know someone who is a whiz at Excel. And if they know Excel macros, they are a highly sought-after genius. Why? Because the very first thing we seek once we identify a repetitive task is to figure out a way to make an easy button. RPA takes this a step further by increasing the scope of control over more than just one application. Excel macros work great in Excel but are very limited outside of it. RPA works across applications and systems, providing data exchange and integration of disparate systems.
Think of how many tasks involve taking information from one system, performing some action on it and then entering the result in another system. Looking at a more advanced example of automation, consider the benefit and value of being able to bring together all the information a customer service agent might need to solve a customer issue. Typically, multiple back-end systems and applications are involved (call center manager, CRM, inventory, shipping/logistics, disparate databases, billing, etc.). This requires lots of manual and repetitive labor. RPA can fill many of the front-end integration gaps in these scenarios.
Kicking it up one more notch, advanced bot solutions can be built and deployed to ask for help. Instead of just stopping at a programmed point, they can suspend the task and request human interaction. This level of interactive automation can be extremely useful as inputs can determine routing for the next task. Does the return get approved? Does shipping get notified to send a replacement? Does the credit department get notified to approve funding?
It is worth noting at this point as well that in all these examples, it did not eliminate the need for an associate; rather in all instances, it enhanced and/or improved the value of the associate’s work. This will be covered in a bit more detail later.
Another advantage, beyond automation, RPA offers over macros or scripts is centralized management and governance. Bots can be programmed with compliance in mind. Within the RPA application itself versioning control, distribution of bots and customizations are all managed centrally, a clear advantage over the Excel macro whiz mentioned previously. And outside the application, in many industries there are strict rules and regulatory requirements. Who can use the bots? What can the bots access? Bots can be programmed and given permissions only to essential systems while providing audit trails. And they don’t themselves hold intellectual property. So if Bob, the Excel macro whiz, leaves the company, the automations do not leave with him. Most organizations have poorly documented processes. If they do have documentation, it only reflects the process when the document was created—not how users do it now. Complete RPA solutions will include or have options for tools to document and capture processes.
So, what defines a good RPA strategy? As with most IT solutions, the possibilities are limitless. That is not to say every IT solution should be implemented and similarly not every task should be automated. The best targets for automation are standardized, rule-based processes that are repetitive, high volume and have low exception rates. These tasks will typically be the easiest to automate and provide significant ROI. Additionally, tasks currently performed by over-skilled associates are great targets for automation as this frees up time to work on more valuable processes.
Major benefits most cited from successful RPA implementation are reduced error rates, cost reduction, and associate and customer satisfaction.
Let’s start with the most sensitive of these, cost reduction. One could quickly conclude that automation of any kind is an attempt to reduce headcount. After all, simple math shows a bot running 24/7 could eliminate 3 full-time equivalent associates working 8 hours/day. While cost savings is certainly a benefit, it turns out it’s not the main motivator behind RPA. Case studies show most organizations who have implemented RPA note increased efficiency and effectiveness of their workforce as key factors. The associates relieved of routine tasks are re-focused toward more valuable or rewarding activities. Furthermore, with more advanced and complex automation comes not only increased efficiency, but also an increased dependency on the accuracy and skill of the human operators. More efficient, more effective, and more optimal use of the workforce often leads to increased associate and customer satisfaction. Associate burnout and fatigue are reduced while customers receive faster, error-free service.
How is successful RPA measured? In its simplest form, ROI is often directly associated with financial benefits divided by cost. To get a true picture you must define “benefits.” Certainly, benefits can come in the form of increased revenue. If only it were all that simple. With RPA, an organization must consider the value of increased hours back to the business, the cost of improved customer experience, decreased time to market, business agility and ability to scale up/down, and employee delight. Of course, each of these areas has their own ROI calculation, but now the simple formula becomes complex and perhaps ROI is no longer a simple math function. Organizations who have successfully implemented RPA enter the initiative with clear objectives and a picture of the desired outcomes across multiple functional areas such as those listed.
We’ve covered the definition of robotic process automation. We also touched on some examples of how RPA bots perform functions, add accuracy, add efficiency, and help with management and compliance. And we poked around RPA strategy, benefits and ROI. You might ask what’s next. Look no further than artificial intelligence and machine learning, both of which will play a bigger role in RPA. While AI/ML is expanding the scope of what tasks we consider automatable, the biggest impact is on the type of information RPA can ingest. Integrating AI and ML capabilities into RPA solutions can unleash powerful new functions. For example, extracting and indexing data from email attachments can be challenging, especially if every customer uses a different layout for their purchase orders. AI and a trained ML model can identify what is in a document and then process or route as necessary.
Interested in exploring RPA opportunities? Ingram Micro has partnered with Gartner Magic Quadrant market leader, UiPath, to deliver RPA solutions. UiPath offers a powerful set of RPA software solutions that can help organizations speed up their digital transformation and is genuinely considered a catalyst for introducing automation strategy into the workplace. Ingram Micro has built up considerable expertise in UiPath’s products and licensing requirements. Ingram Micro has consulting expertise that can assist partners in opportunity identification, design thinking and advisory services.
For more information, contact UiPath-SD@ingrammicro.com