RPA Made Simple – What is RPA and How does it work?


RPA is the coolest kid on the block at the moment.

It’s the most interesting technology in enterprise technologies.

Just saying out the full acronym – Robotics Process Automation makes you sound and look smart.

I was at a get-together discussing and exchanging ideas and I mentioned the potential of RPAs and I got the stare

But what really what is RPA? and how does it work? how does it affect you and how can you leverage this new technology trend?

Admittedly, there are multiple articles, blogs and reports on the web all providing their explanation of RPA.

While they all present some good explanation, they tend to be quite technical and tailored to top-level senior executives.

My suspicion is that there is an agenda to sell their automation tool or entice senior executives to patronage their implementation service.

I, on the other hand, have nothing to sell. I am simply sharing my learnings and sincerely want to add value to fellow professionals.

The big question I am asking is what is RPA and what does it have to do with the everyday professional?

This post will break down everything you need to know about robotic process automation, what it could mean to you and how you could leverage it.

What is RPA (Robotic Process Automation)?

Robotic Process Automation is a simple yet complicated concept to capture in just a few words. The best way to understand the concept is to survey the landscape of how industry practitioners and vendors are defining it.

Here are some of the most descriptive and comprehensive definitions that I found:

Robotic Process Automation is the technology that allows anyone today to configure computer software, or a “robot” to emulate and integrate the actions of a human interacting within digital systems to execute a business process.

UIPath

RPA is a Digital Workforce of software robots that can execute any business process. Period.

Automation Anywhere

Robotic process automation is a form of business process automation technology based on metaphorical software robots or artificial intelligence workers

Wikipedia

RPA is an application of technology, governed by business logic and structured inputs, aimed at automating business processes.

CIO

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) uses software, commonly known as a ‘robot’, to capture and interpret existing IT applications to enable transaction processing, data manipulation and communication across multiple IT systems.

Deloitte

To summarise, some of them talk about robotic process automation being a software, a digital workforce, or a subset of business process automation.

Folks, why don’t we just keep it simple? What robotic automation really means can already be guessed from the term itself: Automating processes using robots.

But here is the catch – robots here are NOT physical robots like in the movie iRobot

Neither is it mechanical robots like the ones on assembly plants.

They are software robots. You cannot see them but you can see them at work.

Also, since automation actually requires technology, we can, very simply, define robotic automation process like this:

RPA, which is the abbreviation for Robotic Process Automation, is the process of creating software robots to automate manual processes previously performed by humans.

RPA bots are configurable software set up to perform specifically the tasks you assign and control.

An RPA Digital worker is built to augment human workers by performing complete business functions from start to finish.

For example, a Digital Worker can take on the work of regularly submitting invoices through the system from beginning to end.

While a bot will automate a specific task, a Digital Worker will perform end-to-processes by combining AI, machine learning, RPA and analytics.

The ultimate goal of robotic process automation is to take away mundane, repetitive, and manual tasks so humans can focus on higher-value activities.

Obviously, when this concept is applied to the world of business, it is powerful and can yield some impressive benefits such as efficiency gain, productivity increase and cost savings.

How is RPA Different from Traditional Automation?

We now know what is robotic process automation. But how are they different from traditional automation?

First, what am I referring to when I say traditional automation? Traditional automation has always existed before RPA became popular.

Traditional automation is simply a way of enabling software applications to talk to each other via an application programming interface (API).

Traditional automation tools require in-depth coding knowledge of the specific application you are automating.

Traditional automation requires application integration at a database or infrastructure level and can take months to implement. RPA operates at the presentation layer.

Traditional automation is driven by how the codes have been programmed while RPA is mainly process-driven.

Traditional automation requires a lot of software unravelling and programming. RPA is non-intrusive.

The image below illustrates how RPA compares to traditional automation –

RPA Vs Traditional Automation | Source: UIPath

Why Is RPA Needed?

You might be wondering how these ‘software robots’ work.

Before I take you into that, let’s talk about why RPA is needed and what is fueling its emergence.

In the primitive years, people travelled from place to place on foot, camels, horses, or chariots.

Can you imagine getting to your workplace on camels or chariots? It’ll probably take you a few hours or days.

Then came cars, trains, and aeroplanes which has reduced travel time drastically. Now it is possible to work in different cities and even countries.

This my friends are the same idea that is embodied in robotic process automation.

The idea that we can achieve more by being more efficient and productive.

In that regard, Robotics Process Automation is a new milestone of technological advancements.

RPA promises productivity enhancement and offers huge savings in terms of time, effort and cost.

RPA allows humans to apply themselves to more creative activities thus attaining new levels of efficiency,

A global study commissioned by Automation Anywhere, a leader in Robotic Process Automation (RPA) of more than 10,000 office workers spanning nearly a dozen countries, revealed that on average, office workers spend upwards of three hours a day on manual, repetitive computer tasks which aren’t part of their primary job.

Nearly half of the workers surveyed expressed find digital administration boring (47%) and a poor use of their skills (48%), while the majority say it gets in the way of doing their main job (51% overall) and reduces their overall productivity (64%).

At the very top of the hated task heap is general data entry – manually inputting data into a computer or other devices, followed closely by managing email traffic and filing digital documents – such as documents, spreadsheets, images or PDFs – into the correct digital folder. Compiling reports from IT and software systems and invoice management round out the top five most hated tasks

When applied to automate business tasks, RPA can transform an organisation because it extends the creative problem-solving capabilities and productivity of human beings.

So, below are some of the reasons why RPA is needed in the business world:

Cost Reduction

A recent research by NASSCOM, The National Association of Software and Services Companies, showed that several businesses have reduced their operational costs by 65% as a result of integrating the RPA software into their existing business models. 

Now let’s consider a product-based IT software company with a sales team focused on selling enterprise products to clients across the globe.

The company may need to hire many people to work 24/7 so that it can deliver its services to different countries, effectively, despite the different time zones. 

Now, what are the challenges the company may face because of the large volume of employees working day and night? 

  • High employee cost: The company will have to pay the salaries and also cater to the health and welfare of all its workers.
  • The employee cost may double because the company may need to hire two batches of workers: those who work in the daytime and the others who work overnight.
  • If an employee makes a mistake in carrying out his duty, it may cost the company a lot of money that should have been saved or put to more effective use if the task was well done.

But here is how RPA could help this company reduce some of its cost:

As part of the selling process, there are particular tasks that are done regularly and repetitively.

These tasks can be automated so that human workers can focus on building relationships with clients and closing deals.

Hence, less money will be spent on compensating workers.

On its websites, a chat support system could be integrated with RPA which completely eliminates the human element.

This is particularly necessary when there are many simultaneous customers query submissions.

On platforms where the chat support isn’t automated yet, customers often have to queue after submitting their queries before they are attended to, and this could take a lot of time. 

But with RPA, the process can be made very simple. Bots can be programmed to give specific responses to customers, collate customer queries, and process the queries into useful solutions.

The result of using RPA is that the company will save MORE MONEY, which would have been used to pay up all the employees that were initially in the customer care section.

Speed and Accuracy of Data

RPA is not only cost-effective but is also fast and very accurate. Let me give you a simple, relatable example of how accurate the RPA software is:

Have you ever used a calculator? Think about how long it will take you to do the math below –

125367893 x 118735468

For a calculator, that’s about less than a second. Some phone calculators will even give you the answer instantaneously.

Imagine you have hundreds of this kind of calculation to do with your head, and, just to add, you have also been given a very strict deadline to complete the tasks. How long will it take you? Can you guarantee your accuracy every step of the way? 

Now imagine the calculations as daily tasks and the calculator as RPA.

RPA can help to put out all the headaches and hassles involved in doing mundane repetitive tasks.

But even more than that, you can rest your mind knowing that whatever RPA collates is 100 per cent accurate as long as you give it the right input just like a calculator.

RPA Easily Integrates With the Existing IT Systems

RPA does not require changing your existing IT infrastructure.

All you need to do is to train the RPA to use that existing system to carry out any task you assign to it.

RPA functions in the presentation layer

The presentation layer is where data is translated from another layer into something a human can interpret.

It’s at the presentation layer that you input the right information into the appropriate fields of a customer record, for example, Name, Date of Birth, Address, etc.

The presentation layer is where software programmers and designers find the code to making a program look nice as well.

RPA emulates how human workers complete their tasks. but does it with more precision, accuracy, and in a shorter time. 

Zero Downtime

Hardly can a human work 24/7 without breaking down;

It is even recommended that humans should rest for long periods after a hard day of work.

Business executives are jubilating at the fact that RPA does not need rest!

RPA can work 24/7, which means that they can help organizations keep up with the constant inflow of tasks particular in busy seasons where there is a hike in tasks.

RPA has no downtime. It can work for as long as you want but like any other automated system,

RPA needs a significant amount of run-time maintenance and scheduling. 

Companies will usually need to collaborate with a third-party organization that is skilled at maintaining, scaling and dealing with other automation complexities.  That’s an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone.

How Does RPA Work? 

Hopefully, you’re beginning to get the idea what this technology is all about. What it is and why it is needed.

Now how do they do all the things we have described i.e perform tasks speedily and accurately?

Think about how human employees work, and you’d have figured out the exact way RPA works.

RPA bots emulate human employee actions like opening files, inputting data, copy-pasting fields, and so on, but it does it automatically.

For example –

  • an HR robot that is able to extract data from scanned IDs and fill in hiring papers
  • The HR robot that is able to extract data from scanned IDs and fill in hiring papers
  • The robot assisting a call centre operator by bringing and filling in relevant data
  • The robot processing claims for a health insurance company
  • The robot processing financial statements

There are 2 ways in which RPA bots can be used in automation:

Types of RPA Bots | Source: RPAPlace

Attended/Assisted Automation is the type of automation where an RPA bot and the human worker are working together to execute certain tasks in the process.

As the bot works to help the human complete an involved process in less time, it might get to a point where it’ll pause and require human intervention.

This type of automation is required where an input or a decision is required from a human.

For instance, a bot requiring a user to validate a set of data before it proceeds or an instance where the bot needs to be manually triggered to work,

Unattended/Unassisten Automation is the type of automation where the RPA bots are working independently of an human interaction.

These are the Digital workers and they require their own workstation

The best way to explain how RPA is put to work is to use an example.

This type of automation is desirable where the task is repetitive, highly rule-based and do not need any human activities

How RPA Works

The way an RPA bot works is to essentially mimic how humans perform a task or operation.

They log into applications, move files, open folders, copy and paste data, fill in forms, extract structured and semi-structured data from documents, scrape browsers and much more.

How RPA Works | Source – UIPath

To really understand how an RPA bot works, you need to understand the concept of a business process.

This is the underlying principle governing robotic process automation.

To simply put it, a process is a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. It involves sets of interrelated activities that transform inputs into outputs.

Generally speaking, every process always will have input and output. What happens in-between the input and out is the flow of activities or steps to be taken

Speaking in Robotic Process Automation terms, a process will include

The Input: the data that goes into the process

Process flow: the sequences of activities and steps to be taken

Source Applications: The applications or systems used to perform the activities and steps in the process flow

Output: the result of generated by the process

It’s important to state here that the output of one process can be the beginning of another process.

Now let’s take an example: an invoice creation process

In this process, the invoice request is received and opened.

Relevant data is entered into the invoice management software e.g SAP, Freshbooks, Microsoft Dynamics, Xerox, Quickbooks etc

And the invoice document is created.

Breaking this into an automation process you have

Input: Attached document in excel or pdf format.

Source Application: one of the invoice management application mentioned above.

Output: An invoice.

Process flow: see below

Invoice Creation Process (High-Level)

Once the process has been clearly outlined as in the image above, the next step is to configure this process for an RPA bot using any prefered RPA tool.

The RPA bot basically just mimics this process as a human would as in the image below. The only difference is its a bot doing the work.

The bot will open and login the invoice management software.

Extracting relevant details (e.g. bank account, ordered item, ID) from the invoice

Evaluates and validate the data extracted.

If it encounters invalid data, it’ll send an email to the requester to make an adjustment

Once it has validated the data, it’ll create the invoice record in the invoice management software and send a confirmation email to the requester.

RPA at Work – Invoice Creation Process

Here is what is interesting – Let’s assume

The Human worker

Takes 5 mins to complete one invoice. In an 8hour shift, that’ll be 96 completed invoices.

Now let’s be honest, a human will take coffee breaks, check their phones (we all do it), chit chat with their colleagues etc.

So 96 will be more like 90 invoices in an 8hour shift.

The RPA Bot

Takes 30secs to complete one invoice. In the same 8hour shift, the RPA bot would have completed 960 invoices.

And you can be certain about this because the bot does not take coffee breaks neither does it chit chat with other bots.

And since the bot can put in more shifts, a 16-hour shift will also double the number of invoices completed to 1920 invoices.

I hope you can now see why businesses are super excited about this new technology.

You might be wondering – what then happens to the human worker? I’ll come to that later.

Now we have a basic understanding of how RPA bots work, let’s look at other processes and industries where they being applied.

What Can RPA Automate? 

RPA works the same way humans work but with a greater level of speed, precision, and accuracy.

RPA bots can automate many processes seamlessly and make work easier for human workers.

Some processes that RPA can automate include the following:

  • Launch and use of various applications like opening emails and attachments, logging into platforms, moving files and folders
  • Integration with existing IT systems by connecting to system APIs as well as reading and writing databases
  • Augmentation of data by scraping data from the web or social media
  • Data processing operations like calculations, data extraction from documents, data science and analysis.

These are just a few of the many processes that RPA has automated.

Moreover, many more sectors and operations are still being influenced by RPA technology as I’ll illustrate in the next section.

What Is the Use of RPA?

Robotic Process Automation is relevant in just about any field and industry including business processes and activities, commercial functions, support functions, banking, insurance, trading, eCommerce, logistics, and even personal use. 

Who is Using RPA? | Source: TechTarget

That said, the biggest adopters are banks, insurance companies, telcos and utility companies.

This is because these industries have a lot of outdated computer software applications (Legacy systems) and choose RPA solutions to ensure integration functionality

The image below is a Gartner study of industries by RPA adoption

RPA Adoption by Industries | Source: Gartner

Now let’s look into some industries where RPA has proved its value on more specific processes.

RPA in the Banking Sector

There are many banking processes that have been automated by RPA bots.

This has helped banks to keep up with ever-changing regulations, reduce errors and ensure flexibility to remain competitive.

Some of the very common banking operations that RPA has revolutionized include the following:

1. Know Your Customer (KYC) 

The process of updating customer biodata has become automated by many banking organizations. A bot can help to collate all the necessary information about a customer.

Moreover, RPA can be automated to transfer more difficult profiling tasks to a human worker. 

2. Loan Application and Disbursement 

Since the procedure for applying for loans is quite similar for most people,

RPA can be used to make the whole process easier.

Then the loan disbursement stage may be assigned to a human worker for proper discernment.

3. Bank Audits

One of the most tedious tasks for bankers is the manual auditing of records.

RPA bots can be created to automatically collate every necessary information about customers’ accounts, compile it in a word document, and then use it for the auditing process.

RPA in Customer Relationship Management

Customer relationship management is a very crucial function in every organisation.

This is simply because they are the first point of contact from the outside world (Customers). As a result, it must be handled very well.

When customers reach out to customer care agents with their queries, it could take a lot of call time and less effectiveness, especially when the agent has to switch between systems to gather information for solving the customer’s queries. 

Most times, this would end in a great deal of dissatisfaction on the part of the customer, and it eventually tells on the progress of the company.

But if such an organization can integrate RPA bots into their system and use them to simplify the whole process, customer care agents would satisfy customers and also cut down on the time spent with each customer.

Ways in which a bot can simplify the process include the following:

  • By simply pushing a button, a bot can compile frequent queries and automatically generate data for each customer so that the customer care agent won’t have to switch between systems to generate them manually. 
  • A bot can also help the agent to create a dashboard that will already contain most frequently used information for each customer, and the agent will easily access it when they need to.

Finance and Accounting

Finance and accounting processes that lend themselves to RPA include procure to pay, accounts receivable, general accounting, tax accounting and compliance, financial planning and reporting. 

Human Resources

HR tasks being automated by RPA include payroll, time and attendance management, onboarding and offboarding, compliance and recruiting new hires

IT Management and Services

Examples of how RPA can be applied to IT include automating software audits, managing source-code control, handling incident resolutions such as password reset and server restarts, and optimizing email notifications.

Supply Change Management

RPA can be used for procurement, automating order processing and payments, monitoring inventory levels and tracking shipments

Telecommunications

Telecommunications providers are in an industry that is rapidly growing and comprises of large volumes of operational processes that includes managing data, controlling cost, increasing business agility, acquiring talent, and developing new services

RPA solutions have been implemented to help telecommunications companies manage large, unstructured datasets and increase their responsiveness to industry disruptions via streamlined operational tasks,

Healthcare

The numbers of patients are constantly increasing and healthcare providers are challenged with managing levels of inventory, supporting the digitization of patient files, optimizing appointment scheduling, and executing billing and claims processing.

To help overcome these operational pain points, healthcare providers have deployed robotic process automation to alleviate these challenges and drive enhanced efficiency and growth. Healthcare is predicted to have a 36% automation potential

Retail

Retail is an intense industry. With rising production costs, slow growth, new technology disruptions, uncertain labour availability, and most important of all, rapidly changing customer expectations, it can be challenging to keep up.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and its ability to transform work and boost productivity, enhance customer experience and deliver accurate and reliable results in both attended and unattended processes.

Public Sector

In the United States alone 58% of citizen-related processes are still paper-driven, while in the United Kingdom only 20% of public service employees do strategic work that requires analytical thinking.

With the implementation of Robotic Process Automation, public organisation stand the chance to reduce costs and increase faster processing.

There is also the opportunity to deliver better services for citizens and reduce operational costs.

What are the Benefits of Using RPA? 

The reasons why RPA is on an upward trend is because of the initial benefits that early adopters have seen.

The technology is a relatively cheap, effective, and simple way to promote businesses, reduce operation costs, increase ROI, and maximize output. 

In this article, I wrote in much detail how RPA could help a business grow.

But here is a summary of the major benefits that the implementation of RPA has brought to business organisations.

  1. RPA helps to significantly reduce the cost of business operation, compensating workers, and managing repetitive tasks.
  2. More work can be done in less time. Moreover, it can also help to add or change processes when necessary.
  3. It has improved employee satisfaction because it helps employees to automate their repetitive mundane tasks and focus on high-value tasks.
  4. It also helps to boost business productivity by making work faster, easier, and error-free.
  5. It helps to improve quality by increasing compliance, auditability, consistency, and standardization of processes.
  6. It also improves customer relationship management by eliminating human errors and optimizing customer satisfaction.
  7. It is a non-invasive alternative to traditional IT integration.
  8. It finds relevancy of use in almost any sector from agriculture to commerce, finance, security, and so on. 

At its core, the main benefit of robotic process automation is

  • Better Accuracy
  • Improved compliance
  • Cost-saving
  • Increased speed
  • Increased productivity
  • Simpler scalability

What this means for you

The answer to that question depends on who you are and where you are on the career spectrum.

The image below illustrates the types of work activities that are prone to automation.

Related image

According to this report by Everest Group, a high RPA adoption rates means more than 3 million attended and unattended bots will be running in enterprises in 2020.

Many businesses are excited by the potential of robotics process automation. Thus they are increasing their investments in deployment.

However, RPA is not without drawbacks. Lack of leadership and IT expertise are one of the challenges that threaten to undermine the benefits of RPA

EY, a provider of RPA services, reported that as many as 30% to 50% of initial RPA projects fail.

C-Level Executives

For C-Level Executives, strong leadership is required to ensure that business outcomes are achieved, new governance policies are met, and the people whose jobs have changed due to RPA are trained to take on new responsibilities.

Like I said above, a bad process is a bad process is a bad process no matter what automation you apply to it. It’ll simply amplify the bad process.

Executives starting on RPA projects ought to first investigate, analyse and document their processes for optimum automation output.

I know we spoke about unattended RPA bots but really RPA should not be a set-it-and-forget-it tool.

It needs constant monitoring, measurement and process improvement for optimal success.

This is done through what is referred to as an Automation Centre of Excellence (CoE) or Control Center.

The Control Centre provides operation capabilities to properly launch, maintain and upgrade the RPA systems.

The Control Centre requires change management experts, solution architects, business analysts, RPA developers, and RPA support staff to function properly.

An idea of a CoE

Non C-Level Executives

For the rest of us who are not C level executives, RPA brings new career opportunities to become RPA professionals.

You could work on RPA implementation projects or work as one of the professionals needed in the Automation Centre of Excellence.

RPA skills were the most in-demand skills in 2019, according to ISG, a technology research and advisory firm.

LinkedIn emerging jobs report had robotics process automation in position #2 #3 #3 #4 in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Singapore, and India respectively.

In this article, I explain in much detail how you can start a successful career in robotic process automation

Is Coding Required for RPA?

I hear you asking, is coding required to become an RPA professional?

The answer is a big “No!” You don’t need to know how to code to become an RPA professional.

However, if you do want to become an RPA developer, you will need some basic understanding of some programming language.

But generally, you only need a basic understanding of the front-end of some of the RPA tools and how they can be used to automate business processes. 

Some people might argue that most employers who seek to employ RPA developers and architects seek people with a level of programming skills, but this is with a level of bias at the end of the employer. 

Think about RPA as a flow chart with a start and an end. It simply emulates and mimics a process the way a human worker will do rather than function by some programming lines of code. 

RPA is programmed the same way an operational user will intuitively teach a new employee how to handle certain processes in the company. It involves very little to no coding at all.

Conclusion

RPA Is the New-Improved Digital Workforce.

Technology has always found a way to improve our businesses, lives, and society in many amazing ways.

The invention of RPA is a breakthrough for many businesses and organizations as it helps to make work easier, faster, and more accurate.

This digital workforce will be a big deal in the next few years.

The question to us professionals is to decide where on the spectrum we want to operate.

Automate or get automated!

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