Robotic process automation: A disruptive, not destructive technology

Let's face it -- many aspects of office jobs are tedious, mindless, and repetitive. Software robots can handle rule-based tasks so that employees can use their brain power for more complicated responsibilities.


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When industrial robots replace workers at manufacturing plants, it's a tangible change. A robotic arm replaces a human one, and it does monotonous work with precision, speed, and zero complaints. The same goes for robotic surgeons , landscapers , and janitors -- whether they are assisting or replacing workers, the robots are physically present. But what happens when robots take over the kinds of jobs that are already being done remotely?

Robotic process automation is a term that describes software that can automate tasks that were previously performed by humans. Many of today's jobs don't require physical labor -- instead, employees click, type, and occasionally talk to each other, but usually through messaging apps such as Slack. Even for highly trained professionals, many daily tasks are repetitive and mindless, such as organizing data, copying and pasting information into different formats or systems, and routine emails to pass project updates and action items along to various stakeholders.

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These repetitive, rules-based tasks can be automated, but instead of having an electromechanical robot push buttons, software mimics what a human would do. The end-goal of robotic software is like any other form of automation: to make things more efficient.

We spoke with Neil Kinson, Chief of Staff at Redwood Software, an enterprise process automation provider. He tells us that robotic software helps companies tap into existing talent. For example, "If you're in a financial services sector in a back office, you're probably a qualified accountant; you trained a lot of years to do that," he says. "Actually, what you want to do is to apply your judgement to the numbers that you're producing, not just cut and paste between spreadsheets, create pivot tables, etc. etc."

When companies are faced with limited resources, one option is outsourcing a portion of the work. A newer option involves streamlining processes with the help of software, so that existing employees can spend more time using their brain power to solve problems and be more proactive. Kinson explains:

The automation we're talking about is designed to do more work with the same or slightly less people. There has been a dramatic increase in work in the last five or six years, coming from the exponential data explosion and an increase in audit regulation bureaucracy. And the automation is being created to solve that problem, rather than to cut costs. A lot of organizations are applying automation just to cope.

Leslie Willcocks, a professor at the London School of Economics, has co-authored a book and dozens of academic papers on this topic. He tells us, "Organizations are often siloed, and the way to break the silo is to automate the end-to-end process as far as possible."

So, if robotic process automation is so wonderful, then why isn't everyone doing it yet? There are the usual barriers to adopting new technology: the initial investment, internal company politics, resistance to change, and mostly, a lack of knowledge.

Willcocks says the terminology "confuses people enormously." He explains, "There are about 39 vendors at the moment, and they're all putting various confusing messages out about what they do and about what is 'robotic process automation'. There is a very low level of understanding."

Some people are starting to understand how robotic software can make business operations more efficient, and companies are seeing it as a new option, but it's not about to replace offshoring. Many companies have already shifted work through business process outsourcing (BPO), and are locked into long-term contracts with third party providers.

"Your previous efforts to drive out cost and drive efficiency could actually prevent you from the flexibility and agility you need to stay competitive," says Kinson. But BPO providers are starting to adopt the technology themselves. Kinson sums it up quite nicely: "This is a disruptive technology, it's not a destructive technology."