What is robotic process automation?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a type of software used to automate repeatable business processes, quickly and consistently, accessing IT systems in a similar way that people do.

That’s the short and simple answer. But there’s so much misunderstanding around robotic process automation, that we thought we’d explain just what robotic process automation is and – perhaps more importantly – what it isn’t.

Let’s look at robotic process automation in a bit more detail.

Robotic process automation is...

… a type of artificial intelligence (AI)

RPA is a type of AI technology. AI can sometimes be quite complex and difficult to understand. RPA is towards the simpler end of the AI spectrum and is focused on replicating and automating repeatable tasks.

Other types of AI might focus on more complex use cases, such as independently analysing large quantities of complex data or identifying patterns.

... based on software

When people talk about robots in the context of robotic process automation, they’re referring to software robots. There is no physical robot involved, as might be the case with production line robotic arms.

The types of activities that RPA is best suited to are therefore those that are based on some form of IT software, such as:

  • entering data into IT systems
  • checking information from multiple sources
  • creating forms from data. 

… used to automate repeatable business processes

Robotic process automation is best deployed in processes with repeatable tasks and activities. The robots can be used to replicate the activities of people in order to remove the need for laborious work.

There are broadly two types of RPA technology.

  • Unattended – This is predominantly focused on back-office tasks that can be automated from end-to-end without input from a human
  • Attended – This is slightly more complex and sophisticated but often where more significant business benefits can be achieved. Attended automation is all about humans and robots working side-by-side in real-time. The most common use cases for attended automation are seen in areas such as customer contact centres.

Other tasks and activities that are well suited to RPA include those that:

  • involve updates to multiple different systems – such as an operational system, a finance system, and a third-party application or website;
  • are prone to error – once they’re accurately configured, these robots cannot make basic transposition errors; and
  • subject to seasonal volume fluctuations – a number of activities peak at particular times of the day, week, month or year, and RPA makes it easier to flex capacity to meet these peaks and troughs in demand.

… designed to operate quickly and consistently

RPA robots work extremely fast, and they can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They will comply with the defined process every single time. The implications of this for efficiency and compliance are significant.

… given access to IT systems in the same way that people are

RPA robots access IT systems by clicking on fields and entering data into them on screen, just as people do. This differs to traditional IT automation, which typically relies on coding via back-end databases, most significantly in terms of the speed to deliver benefits and a return on investment.

Smaller tactical deployments, to address particular process pain points, can deliver timely benefits as part of a broader strategic deployment.

Robotic process automation is not…

… production line robots

There is no physical robot involved in RPA. The robots are all software robots.

… traditional IT automation

Traditional automation happens in the back end of systems. RPA happens via the same user interface that teams currently use. 

… an alternative to people

We do not believe that this technology will result in mass job losses. This is a solution to address those routine, monotonous tasks and activities that most people don’t want to do.
Achieving real value from RPA depends on identifying the right tasks that should be completed by people and technology accordingly.

… science fiction

Robotic process automation is not a science fiction. RPA is happening now. Organisations of all shapes and sizes are exploring how this emerging technology can help deliver genuine value to their operations.

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