The software robot invasion is underway

Companies are adopting robotic process automation tools as they look to reduce errors and increase process efficiency.

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One of the more disruptive emerging technologies, robotic process automation (RPA), appears primed for significant growth, despite the fact that many organizations remain confused or concerned about the impact these tools might have on their operations.

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For some, RPA is seen as a technology designed to replace full-time human labor outright and therefore to be treated with caution. For others, it has the potential for huge cost savings and can enable enterprises to move people from mundane tasks such as data entry to more exciting endeavors.

Recent research indicates that there's a growing demand for RPA, which involves the use of software robots to handle any rules-based repetitive tasks quickly and cost effectively. And deploying the technology doesn't have to result in throwing a lot of people out of work.

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"Interest and adoption of RPA has spiked dramatically across [the largest] organizations," said Tony Abel, a managing director with consulting firm Protiviti. "Organizations that have been dabbling in trials of other AI [artificial intelligence] technologies are realizing that to complete the vision of their digital transformation, they need to include an AI component that addresses their operational challenges."

Most organizations that have deployed RPA are looking to reduce errors and processing times and to integrate across expansive technology platforms, Abel said. "They're also looking to improve controls that both accelerate the existing audit process and anticipate greater complexity in audit processing in the future," he said.

Companies that are truly leveraging the value of RPA are doing so in such a way that improves their human capital position by replacing or enhancing activities currently performed by humans with robots, Abel said. Others are still reluctant to recognize the direct correlation between what a robot can do and what has historically been done by humans, he said. They are therefore hesitant to invest in the technology.

Clearly, these are still the early days of RPA implementation.

"Many organizations are still just getting started," Abel said. "They begin with a specific use case, usually by applying proof-of-concept bots in one small area of the business, whether that's supplier setup, system access provisioning, or invoice reconciliation."

Once they realize the value, they then look across the enterprise to other business processes that could reap the benefits of automation, Abel said.

"Another trend we are seeing is the use of robotics in delivery of services, particularly outsourced services," Abel said. "Also, the continual increase in labor rates in major off-shore locations is driving substitution of human labor for automation."

There are no guarantees of success. "We've seen a number of organizations that have stumbled with RPA implementations," Abel said. This usually occurs in large enterprises that are highly bureaucratic, he said.

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Often several areas within an organization are running trials of one or multiple RPA products without fully committing or appropriately dedicating the time and skills necessary. "They are also not talking with one another," Abel said. "They have approached it with one foot out the door and become disillusioned with the results."

Disillusionment also comes when organizations are not able to reduce as much human capital as they had hoped. "Their business cases [and return on investment] was based purely on reducing headcount, which is a narrow way to view the value RPA can provide," Abel said. "The issues organizations are facing are a consequence of not having proper guidance and leadership in their RPA journey."

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