The hype around robotic process automation (RPA) seems to be at an all-time high, and RPA is a crucial component of digital transformation initiatives everywhere. After all, who doesn’t want robots? But how exactly does it work, and when should you use it in your organization?
What Is Robotic Process Automation?
RPA uses software robots (bots) to automate individual tasks performed by human beings by mimicking their interactions with software systems. Think about the familiar Excel macro recorder except that it works with legacy screens and browsers, not just Excel.
RPA bots simply use the existing user interface to log into systems, copy and paste data, move files and perform other mechanical tasks that don’t add much value but take humans a significant amount of time.
What Is Business Process Automation?
In contrast, business process automation (often called business process management or BPM) concerns itself with not just individual tasks but with the overall end-to-end process. It’s much more about enabling faster and more accurate decision making rather than faster data entry.
In today’s world, customer expectations are sky high. Customer responsiveness and collaboration are critical and are only possible by bringing together technology and human beings rather than isolating them into their own corners. That’s where BPM plays a key role by allowing customers direct access to back-office functions.
The Promise Of RPA
RPA’s biggest promise is that it can cut costs without the need to update expensive underlying infrastructure and systems since it emulates and replaces actions taken by humans using the existing user interface.
For insurance companies, utilities, banks and others with large back-office operations where humans perform simple, repetitive tasks in front of computers, RPA promises significant benefits. Forrester describes an insurance company which was able to reduce the time to review claims to just a few seconds instead of one hour.
Unfortunately, that’s a rare success story as many RPA implementations fail.
Limitations Of RPA
The macro-recorder nature of RPA is also its biggest con:
- If there’s a minor change to the UI or data, the RPA stops working. The bots can’t simply adjust their behavior like humans can.
- An even bigger problem is that the dependency on the legacy UI makes it much harder to change and modernize the underlying system. Introducing RPA may temporarily breathe new life into your legacy system, but it can divert attention from far more significant strategic initiatives that may be truly disruptive.
- RPA requires significant IT support. The bots need to be maintained and updated, security has to be addressed, and you need to be careful not to create an overly complex infrastructure.
- RPA is simply not resilient — it’s very hard to deal with issues that are largely unexpected.
When To Use RPA
Many businesses still run on critical systems that are extremely expensive to replace and can only be accessed via their user interface. There is no option to integrate with them using far more robust APIs. RPA is a great tool to temporarily automate these without major disruption provided the underlying business process is sound.
A good example is the aforementioned insurance use case where the backend system is probably an IBM mainframe or AS/400 that’s been in use for decades. These systems are often decades old, implemented in COBOL and have no APIs. The only access is through terminals (green screens). Millions of applications developed using client-server technology on Windows are still in production use in organizations everywhere, from scheduling workers and deliveries to managing expenses for employees to processing credit applications. RPA bots perform exactly the same actions as humans — they move the cursor to the right field, click in it, enter data, move to the next field and so on — using the same user interface.
When To Use BPM
Internal business processes are the lifeblood of every organization. You simply cannot afford to let these processes be manual and rigid. The pace of business is too fast, world-class customer support is the No. 1 priority, and you must be agile enough to adapt and take advantage of new opportunities.
As tempting (and easy) as RPA is for individual tasks, ignore process automation at your own peril. One is a Band-Aid; the other a strategic initiative at the foundation of digitally transforming your business. Automating day-to-day operations (using BPM software, for example) cuts across your business:
- Do you want your talent chasing down supervisors to get approval for their purchase order process or focusing on what they’re skilled at?
- Digitizing operations such as sales order forms or appointments lets customers interact with you any time.
- Accelerate time to market when delivering solutions to take advantage of new opportunities.
Limitations of BPM
BPM isn’t a panacea.
It’s important to ensure that the underlying process is sound — otherwise, you’ll simply end up with a bad automated process.
Ensure that you don’t get bogged down trying to automate everything with expensive consultants. Start small, get a quick success and then use BPM’s flexibility to adapt your processes as your business evolves.
Dōmo Arigatō, Mr. Roboto
RPA and bots aren’t going anywhere. They add tremendous value to the enterprise and will only get smarter. Like any technology, RPA has limitations. It’s a tactical solution with a narrow set of use cases where it truly delivers business value, and you should deploy it accordingly.
In contrast, BPM is a long-term, strategic business initiative. Automated processes may even include an RPA component. Manual processes waste time, slow your business down and put you at a competitive disadvantage. After all, you want your business to grow, and you never know what’s just around the (digital) corner. BPM, possibly incorporating RPA where appropriate, greatly increases business agility and responsiveness while focusing your employees’ time on their core talents.