Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required humans to perform. These tasks can include queries, calculations and maintenance of records and transactions.
RPA technology consists of software robots (bots) that can mimic a human worker. RPA bots can log into applications, enter data, calculate and complete tasks and then log out. Currently, practitioners divide RPA technologies into three broad categories: probots, knowbots and chatbots.
- Probots are bots that follow simple, repeatable rules to process data.
- Knowbots are bots that search the internet to gather and store user-specified information.
- Chatbots are virtual agents who can respond to customer queries in real time.
RPA software is not part of an organization’s IT infrastructure. Instead, it sits on top of it, enabling a company to implement the technology quickly and efficiently — all without changing the existing infrastructure and systems. What distinguishes RPA from traditional IT automation is the ability of the RPA software to be aware and adapt to changing circumstances, exceptions and new situations. Once RPA software has been trained to capture and interpret the actions of specific processes in existing software applications, it can then manipulate data, trigger responses, initiate new actions and communicate with other systems autonomously.
The evolution of RPA
Although the term “robotic process automation” can be traced to the early 2000s, it had been developing for a number of years previously. RPA evolved from three key technologies: screen scraping, workflow automation and artificial intelligence. Screen scraping is the process of collecting screen display data from a legacy application so that the data can be displayed by a more modern user interface. The advantages of workflow automation software, which eliminates the need for manual data entry and increases order fulfillment rates, include increased speed, efficiency and accuracy. Lastly, artificial intelligence involves the ability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intervention and intelligence.
Today, RPA software is particularly useful for organizations that have many different and complicated systems that need to interact together fluidly. For instance, if an electronic form from a human resource system is missing a zip code, traditional automation software would flag the form as having an exception and an employee would handle the exception by looking up the correct zip code and entering it on the form. Once the form is complete, the employee might send it on to payroll so the information can be entered into the organization’s payroll system. With RPA technology, however, software that has the ability to adapt, self-learn and self-correct would handle the exception and interact with the payroll system without human assistance.
- Decreased costs:Cost savings of approximately 80-90% can be achieved when a business process performed by an FTE is replaced by a software robot.
- Freeing up staff for higher value tasks:Automation of repetitive and time-consuming processes frees up your staff to make a more value-add contribution. For example, when assessing an insurance claim more time can be spent in the assessment as opposed to populating the same data into 5 various systems.
- Increased employee engagement:When staff can focus on high-value tasks they often feel more invested in the work they are completing. When implementing RPA projects, we often see staff engaging in repetitive activities e.g. copying data between 10 different systems while completing a single customer request, with RPA they can serve an additional 3 clients instead.
- Reduced operational risk: RPA reduces the rate of errors because robots make less mistakes. Avoiding purely human mistakes, such as those made while tired, or by deviating from the process, means a lower level of operational risk.
- Reduced output variability: Robots are great at duplicating tasks consistently with little to no distinguishable variability. It ensures that similar tasks are handled in the same way e.g. underwriting for insurance policies is consistent across the same risk groups.
- Reduced paper use: RPA forces digitization as it requires that companies have the data and files being manipulated by software robots in a digital form. Work that in the past may have been done partly or in full on paper, by an FTE, can now be purely electronic.
- Driving process improvement: In an automation project you often first analyze and then simplify (where possible) the processes to be automated, creating more manageable processes (for both people and machines). For example, if you have 10 different ways to set up a new client in your system, it would make sense to streamline this process first and then automate it.
- Increased output: Automation allows for work to be done 24/7/365 without people fatigue, or quality variance. Often, customers want to interact with service providers outside of a 9-5 timeframe—on evenings and weekends—automation allows you to offer this level of service.
- Higher speed and throughput: Customers receive expedited service as machines are able to process requests in real time. e.g. credit checks, etc.
- Improved customer experience: By deploying RPA you free up expensive and high-value resources, FTEs, from more menial and repetitive tasks and put them back on the front line assisting your customers.
- Improved internal service levels: With RPA things like internal reports can be delivered faster and without mistakes, new employees can be set-up very quickly, and even IT issues can be enormously accelerated.
- Defined governance structures: RPA forces companies to define clear governance structures around IT applications by forcing organizations to agree on who owns each application. Leading to a clearer definition of access rights for each application, since robots, like humans, will need to use the same access.
- An RPA virtual workforce uses all the same systems your FTEs use. This is one of greatest advantages of RPA in comparison to other automation solutions. In the past, Business Process Management solutions and workflow management tools had to be integrated with each application they interacted with. RPA simply uses the existing systems in the way your FTEs would.
- Being able to easily scale up or down your operations as needed ensures that companies can make adjustments based on seasonality. In the insurance sector, for example, a virtual workforce can be ramped up in order to process snow/hail claims in the winter, flooding in the summer, etc.
- Virtual workforces are highly secure: Managing IT security for RPA robots is very simple as they do not change roles, leave the company, or retire. They also don’t hack your data.
- Increased expertise in core domains: By automating simple tasks, your company can develop increased expertise in your core domains, such as developing more sophisticated fraud analysis, and/or creating more accurate underwriting algorithms.
- RPA eliminates customer pain points: A successfully implemented virtual workforce can enhance your customer’s experience and eliminate common customer pain points. For example, traditionally when processing a loan the customer has to fill out several forms, submit required documents. These are then sent for processing, review and approvals. The overall process can take several weeks, with multiple human touch-points, after which the customer gets a feedback on the status of their loan application. With RPA, a robot can take over the complete process, reducing turnaround time to a few days or less.
- Impact is delivered quickly: From the moment when robots are in place – a matter of weeks – organizations start seeing benefits. The Burnie Group’s typical implementation timeline for RPA projects is approximately 8 weeks.
- RPA solutions allow management to know the progress of SLAs in real time. Dashboards tracking the output of your virtual workforce address a frequent problem of operations and back-office managers – understanding where his/her team stands and how volumes are evolving.
- High-quality processes and output: Similar to a recipe being created by a five-star cook, a robot’s decision making logic is designed by your best SMEs, ensuring high-quality output. Your SME transfer knowledge of best practices with the RPA team ensuring your virtual workforce is performing at the highest standard.
- Better record keeping: Robots always document what they’ve done, not only leaving a clear audit and control track, but also allowing for easy recovery after unexpected shutdowns.
- Being an innovator: RPA is a cutting edge technology that is dramatically changing back-office operations enabling greater innovation by freeing up human labour to focus on idea-generating.
Applications of RPA
Some of the top applications of RPA include:
- Customer service: RPA can help companies offer better customer service by automating contact center tasks, including verifying e-signatures, uploading scanned documents and verifying information for automatic approvals or rejections.
- Accounting: Organizations can use RPA for general accounting, operational accounting, transactional reporting and budgeting.
- Financial services: Companies in the financial services industry can use RPA for foreign exchange payments, automating account openings and closings, managing audit requests and processing insurance claims.
- Healthcare: Medical organizations can use RPA for handling patient records, claims, customer support, account management, billing, reporting and analytics.
- Human resources: RPA can automate HR tasks, including onboarding and offboarding, updating employee information and timesheet submission processes.
- Supply chain management: RPA can be used for procurement, automating order processing and payments, monitoring inventory levels and tracking shipments.