Robotic process automation: the latest promise to liberate back offices

New generation of software seeks to pick up the work of previous solutions and digitize 'repetitive, routine, dreary and uninteresting' tasks.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

A recent want ad for a job at a professional services companies had this interesting description:

Photo: Joe McKendrick

"Robotic Process Automation Analyst: Key responsibilities include: work with business teams to simplify and improve operations by analyzing as-is processes and create end-to-end automation solution designs... Work with process owners/SMEs and technology teams to analyse and assess automation feasibility... Document business requirements, processes and work instructions.... Operate as an advisor or business consultant and recommend process automation improvements. Implement automation within RPA software to deliver against business requirements, software and industry best practices...."

So, we have robot process automation (RPA) and a bunch of new jobs arising around it -- what is this oddly named thing?

Never mind the image of humanoid-looking robots sitting at terminals or shuffling paperwork. It's more about software running behind the scenes. Leslie Willcocks, professor of technology, work, and globalization at the London School of Economics' department of management, was recently interviewed by McKinsey on what robot process automation (RPA) is, and what it will mean for administrative and back-office tasks.

Not to worry about RPA taking away jobs -- it is meant to elevate roles -- and even may be a stress-reduction strategy, Willcocks explains. "The average knowledge worker employed on a back-office process has a lot of repetitive, routine tasks that are dreary and uninteresting," says Willcocks. "RPA is a type of software that mimics the activity of a human being in carrying out a task within a process. It can do repetitive stuff more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, freeing them to do other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer."

Recent research from Transparency Market Research estimates that the IT robotic automation market will expand at an annual growth rate of 47% between 2016 and 2024. TMR identified key providers in this market: Blue Prism, Be Informed, Appian, IPSoft, Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Atos, Capgemini, Genfour, Genpact, Automation Anywhere, Sutherland Global Services, and UiPath.

Willcocks identified four classes of RPA solutions:

  • "Highly customized software that will work only with certain types of process in, say, accounting and finance."
  • "Screen scraping or web scraping. A user might be collecting data, synthesizing it, and putting it into some sort of document on a desktop. You automate as much of that as possible."
  • "Self-development kits where a template is provided and specialist programmers design the robot. That's usually customized for a specific organization."
  • "Enterprise/enterprise-safe software that can be scaled and is reusable."

RPA's clearest and earliest benefits are within organizations with compliance obligations, such as financial services. Such companies are finding "that automation is a cheap and fast way of applying superior capability to the problem of compliance." Robo-automating customer service is another piece of low-hanging fruit, as routine issues are addressed on an automated basis, while staff is freed up to deal with higher-level or more complex problems.

Employees respond positively to RPAs, too, Willcocks explains. "People welcomed the technology because they hated the tasks that the machines now do, and it relieved them of the rising pressure of work," he says. "Every organization we have studied reports that it is dealing with bigger workloads. I think there will be an exponential amount of work to match the exponential increase in data--50 percent more each year. There is also a massive increase in audit regulation and bureaucracy. We need automation just to relieve the stress that creates in organizations."

So how is RPA different from the other automation pushes that have come through organizations over the past three decades? For example, event processing -- which arose in the mid-2000s -- also sought to take the manual steps out of administrative processes. Perhaps RPA represents another step in digitizing organizations drowning in paperwork (even if it is virtual). As TMR explains it, the prices of RPA are far more economical than previous generations of process automation solutions. "IT robots (automation software) are programmed to be used with data-driven and rule-based processes, which work towards aspects such as improving productivity and compliance accuracy,"

Not every process can be automated, Willcocks cautions. "It can't structure the data," he says. Exception handling is something that is going to take time for RPA to be able to handle automatically.

Implementing RPA requires the same due diligence as any other major IT initiative, Willcocks explains. Get an executive champion to gain organizational support, and pay attention to change management requirements. It may not take away jobs, but it's going to significantly change many jobs across the enterprise.

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