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What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

Posted January 14, 2020
robotic process automation concept with robot juggling multiple tasks

The customer service industry is ripe for the use of robotic process automation (RPA). According to NICE, an estimated 80% of a customer service agent’s time is taken up by repetitive back-office tasks. With contact centers in a constant battle to reduce employee attrition, the possibility of better engaging workers by minimizing the menial administrative aspects of their jobs is an attractive feature of RPA.

In addition to supporting customer service roles, many organizations have implemented RPA solutions (and, in some cases, layered in machine learning algorithms) in other aspects of their business with great success. According to Forrester, the RPA industry will be worth $2.9 billion by 2021, and in the healthcare space alone, it will grow by 20% per year over the next five years.

The market potential for RPA technology is huge. Still, you may be wondering: What is it, exactly — and how is it going to revolutionize my business? Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of how RPA works and its enticing business proposition.

What is robotic process automation and how does it work?

Robotic process automation is the use of a computer to create a virtual FTE (full-time equivalent). It has the ability to manipulate existing application software in the same way that a person today processes basic tasks like transaction processing, formatting data and moving files and folders.

To create the virtual FTE, a business process expert documents the flow of information to be replaced with the automated technology. APIs, or connections, are then built to replace that flow. “The new model requires monitoring, and updates if the information flow changes, but the need for a person is drastically reduced,” says Kirsten Jepson, director of product marketing for TELUS International.

There are three levels of RPA, each corresponding to progressively higher levels of complexity. At the basic level, robotic process automation involves relatively simple workflows, while enhanced process automation often includes a built-in knowledge repository, enabling pattern recognition within unstructured data. At its most complex, cognitive automation integrates AI, natural language processing and self-learning to enable predictive analytics.

The applications for RPA are almost endless, but some common RPA tasks include:

  • Logging in to applications
  • Filling out forms
  • Extracting structured data
  • Merging data from multiple sources
  • Copying and pasting information
  • Reading and writing databases
  • Connecting to system APIs
  • Opening emails and attachments

While the tasks an RPA solution is able to accomplish are basic in nature, the results are very impressive. For example, TELUS International recently implemented a large-scale RPA operation for a leading telecom, deploying 50 RPA bots that automated invoicing, order shipment processing and many other tasks. The bots achieved 90% automation within the given set of processes, resulting in savings of $6 million and 500,000 person hours. Importantly, 50 employees were redeployed to more interesting, rewarding, high-value digital work.

What are the benefits of robotic process automation?

Across all industries, companies seeking to boost efficiency, productivity and employee engagement stand to benefit from RPA. As in the TELUS International example above, RPA allows for contact center agents, back-office staff and other employees to focus on more complex transactions, leading to higher engagement and satisfaction with their work.

There is also a significant benefit for the customer experience. NICE found that 80% of business leaders consider RPA important to improving customer service excellence as automating tasks results in faster processing with fewer mistakes.

As companies implement more advanced IT infrastructures and pursue digital transformation, RPA can also help them scale up and down more effectively. And, by integrating machine-learning capabilities, the RPA solution can actually take on more complex tasks over time, resulting in heightened innovation.

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However, it’s important to note that these benefits can only be realized when RPA is thoughtfully implemented after a careful analysis of existing processes. If an organization goes to automate invoice approval, for instance, they may overlook dozens of other approval processes within the company. RPA requires an ongoing investment of top down focus, coordinated resources and time; it isn’t a “set it and forget it” exercise.

Common challenges and misconceptions around RPA

For all its promise, RPA carries with it a common set of misconceptions. Some people believe it will replace human jobs, and others assume cost savings will happen overnight.

Indeed, part of the appeal of RPA is its ability to reduce labor costs and increase efficiency. But at the same time, automation doesn’t eliminate the need for human workers; it increases demand for more highly-trained workers.

Costs also don’t magically disappear from the equation. Companies need to rigorously document their processes first before knowing how automation might help them. That on its own requires a significant investment. Then there are the costs associated with implementation. Only after all the groundwork is laid will opportunities for savings become apparent.

That’s why Jepson advises companies to be patient and persistent. “One danger is over-promising on the cost savings that will come with eliminating a process. This can result in a new RPA initiative being shut down or pushed aside too soon,” she says.

RPA is not solely a technical effort either. Rather, it’s a blend of people, process and technology. As Jepson summarizes, “They all go together. People support the complex transactions, processes are improved and technology handles the iterative transactions. Only when all three work in unison are the outcomes a win, win, win.”

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