The evolution of robotic process automation: from rule-follower to decision-maker

The history of business technology is fairly simple: find the things that humans find boring, labour-intensive and time-consuming, and give them to robots to do.

Robotic process automation (RPA) has been improving the efficiency and productivity of businesses this way for years, and the technology is getting better all the time.

But where will this end? What does the evolution of robotic process automation look like? We’ll look at that shortly.

First, we have to understand where we are now and where we’ve come from.

The past: what was early robotic process automation like? 

It may have only become popular in the last few years, but robotic process automation has actually been around for over a decade. At its most basic, RPA uses software to complete routine, repetitive tasks more quickly than humans can.

And that’s what early RPA did. It followed rules, without fail, and mostly without supervision. This was logical, unattended automation done on desktop computers in server rooms.

The main aims? Raise productivity and efficiency, automate tasks, make cost savings.

RPA took off in finance, but others were sceptical

At first, RPA was driven by the big banks and insurers, who often used automation to force their outdated systems to collaborate (which was cheaper and quicker than a full upgrade).

Early RPA was met with a degree of scepticism and fear. The presence of that machine in the server room was a warning to some that ‘the robots are coming’ to take their place.

And unlike today, there were no expert RPA advisers around to calm these fears. End-users bought software directly from RPA vendors, and misconceptions mostly went unchecked.

But the automation hype and excitement soon grew

Some time around 2015, the hype machine started working overtime on RPA. Suddenly, everybody wanted in – partly to the rising number of success stories.

But there were high-profile failures too. And while the sceptics thought RPA was over-hyped, our technology and management consulting team argue that it hasn’t been hyped enough.

That’s because we still haven’t properly considered the significant productivity and prosperity improvements RPA can and will have at an individual, business, and societal level.

At this point, let’s leap ahead again and ask: what is RPA like today?

The present: robotic process automation in 2020

Today’s RPA landscape consists of a huge range of vendors, solutions, end users, and use cases – as well as advisers like us who bring years of experience and insight to a project.

Front offices are becoming more automated, especially in an attended way, with humans and robots working together (call centres and retail stores are leading the way here).

And cloud-based delivery is the new normal which means, with on-premise equipment no longer essential, RPA is now accessible to many middle-market businesses who may previously have been priced-out due to expensive IT infrastructure needs.

RPA still mostly belongs to the service industries

Even as it expands into new sectors, RPA is still making its biggest gains in the service sectors (financial, professional, and consumer) in terms of efficiency, productivity, and cultural change.

Accountants, lawyers, financial analysts: these people trade in information and insight. And it’s in the global moving around of zeros and ones that RPA comes into its own.

In financial services for example, with high-frequency trading and investments, the use of automation has progressed much further down the intelligence road than anywhere else.

Intelligence has arrived but basic RPA is still king

And intelligence is where most of the current RPA hype is focused: the fusion of RPA and AI into a solution that makes decisions instead of just following the rules we give it.

This is where machine learning, natural language processing, and optical character recognition enter the conversation, creating robots that can learn and improve.

But while it is true that vendors are introducing more AI, and that some sectors are making good use of it, it’s also true that intelligence is still largely a conversation for the future.

The reality for most businesses in 2020, particularly in the middle-market, is that basic, rules-based RPA could still deliver significant benefits. But greater uptake will only come from greater understanding.

Advisers have got a public information campaign to run

Creating greater understanding and appreciation of the RPA opportunities will rely on the efforts of experienced automation advisers like us (in part, at least).

There’s still too much fear and misunderstanding, and that can be a primary cause of RPA failure. ‘The robots are going to steal our jobs’ is something we hear far too often.

We must convince people that RPA is about making human jobs easier and more rewarding, not taking them away. This starts with CEOs and decision-makers as much as anybody else.

Most business cases for RPA are still written around labour cost savings, which shows that most people are still focussing too much on the tech and tasks. Productivity and efficiency are both valuable benefits of RPA but they are not the only ones. Operational resilience, quality of service, employee engagement, risk management and enhance compliance are all compelling benefits in their own right.

With that in mind, let’s consider the future of robotic process automation. 

The future: what’s next for robotic process automation?

When it comes to the software, we’re clearly going to see more intelligence. Future solutions will increasingly learn from past events and patterns to make decisions and judgments.

If we have robots that analyse, describe and suggest, then the next step has to be robots that define and implement – solving problems without asking for our permission.

But it’s precisely this narrow focus on the tech that’s holding us back. Real progress will only happen when we focus on how this technology can help us as individuals and business leaders – and as members of society.

There’ll be a lightbulb moment about the societal impact

History is good at leaving clues for how current technology might shape future societies. And perhaps the best historical clue about RPA is Henry Ford and mass car production.

Henry Ford’s moving assembly line didn’t just take some of the time and cost out of car production. It was so much more than that. Ford democratised the automobile.

Until Ford, only the richest people could afford a car. Ford’s approach led to a significant productivity improvement, just like RPA does, and it put car ownership within reach of virtually everybody.

Think about the impact this had on urban planning, employment, healthcare, tourism, home ownership, and consumerism to name just a few. Suddenly, the bigger picture is revealed.

Process automation could have a similar impact in traditional white-collar industries.

And there may be some pain in the short-term

Ford’s methods caused riots. People raged against the threat to their jobs. But automated car manufacturing didn’t eliminate the need for people. It did, however, fundamentally change the Ford Motor Company and the jobs of factory workers everywhere.

We’re in this space now with RPA, only this time we’re talking about white-collar jobs.

We’re on the verge of a completely different industrial revolution, of a completely different scale, which will probably lead to significant short-term disruption.

Business leaders have a responsibility to the people they employ, to look beyond the tasks that individuals perform, and consider what RPA could allow their business – and our society – to become.

But automation is the hero we need, if not the one we want

The biggest population of any generation ever is about to retire. To pay for the largest retired workforce of all time, we’re going to need record-high levels of productivity.

But we’re a long way off this in the UK, where productivity has slumped over the last decade (particularly in the early part of 2020) even in industries where output was historically high.

How will we raise productivity levels enough to pay for, and staff, even just the health and social care needs we’re about to experience? Automation may well be our best hope.

The tech is improving, our thinking must catch up

Most robotic software is still limited in what it can do, largely restricted to following rules. But the solutions are getting better, more intelligent, and they’re doing more all the time.

What opportunity does that give your business? What opportunity does that give society? 

Ford and the moving assembly line were about more than making cars. Robotic process automation is more than smart tech that can do the boring jobs we don’t want to.

The future of automation and RPA is better understanding and appreciation, wider adoption, and – potentially – fundamental societal change.

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