What is robotic process automation and could it help transform how your business deals with data?
Data is the lifeblood of any business today, but for every innovative or exciting big data analytics operation that seeks to transform how a company uses its information, there may be hundreds of smaller, but no less essential, operations that depend on having the right data.
Many of these data entry or retrieval tasks can be repetitive, slow and boring for the workers who have to deal with them, and as a result, this can lead to more inefficiencies, a higher risk of errors and lower staff morale.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. By developing automated tools to take these processes out of the hands of manual workers, companies can boost efficiency, improve accuracy and reduce costs. And one of the best solutions for this is robotic process automation.
What is robotic process automation?
Robotic process automation, or RPA, is a type of software program that is able to interact with, interpret and manage data. Its primary purpose is to automate many of the everyday activities that would be too labor-intensive, time-consuming or repetitive for a human worker to be efficient at performing.
In this way, RPA may be viewed as a 'virtual workforce', taking on unpopular but necessary back office jobs and freeing up human employees for more complex or creative tasks. The robots are programmed to follow a specific, precise set of functions and obey clear rules, so can be considered as a limited form of artificial intelligence, mimicking what a person would do in the same circumstance.
This means they can tackle tedious processes much more efficiently than a human operator would be able to. For instance, in the banking sector, a customer applying for a credit card may provide a range of information that has to be entered and verified, which is a tedious process for a human. But as this process is highly systematic, an RPA can gather all the required documents from the individuals, make the necessary credit and background checks itself and make a decision about whether or not an individual is eligible for a credit card without human input.
What's more, because the machine can be relied on to complete the process in exactly the same way every time, there is no chance of errors creeping in. Plus, the robot will never get bored at having to perform the same operations over and over again.
However, since they can only complete the set tasks they have been instructed, they have their limitations. Therefore, they are best suited for use in applications where they are dealing with highly structured datasets that have clear fields and rules that they can follow.
How does RPA work?
RPAs operate by running through a set workflow of tasks, which provides the robot with instructions on what to do at each stage. Once this workflow has been programmed into the RPA, the software can then autonomously run the program and complete the same task again and again to exactly the same requirements.
For example, one of the most common real-world applications for an RPA is in automating the creation of invoices. This is an essential function for any business, but it can often be a tedious, repetitive and time-consuming process for a human employee, especially in larger firms, which may have to deal with hundreds or thousands of functionally identical invoices every day.
However, because the process of creating an invoice is highly structured, it is an ideal candidate for automation with the help of an RPA. In a typical business, the workflow for this task may look something like this:
- An invoice request is received via email.
- The operator opens the relevant billing software.
- Information is transcribed from the email request into the software.
- The invoice is created from this information and saved.
- The original sender is notified that the process is complete.
An effective RPA tool can be programmed to conduct all of these steps, once the email request is received, without human input. As long as the data it needs is presented in the correct, structured format, it can easily copy and paste from one field into another without oversight.
Of course, this does depend on the incoming data being complete, accurate and correctly formatted. However, the robot should also be able to recognize if this is not the case - for example, if any essential details are missing - in which case it can email the original sender back requesting the right data. This prevents any mistakes that may arise as the result of user error.
How to use RPA in everyday business
In order for RPAs to be effective, it is important that firms ensure some measure of standardization in their data to make it as easy as possible for the robot to interact with it. For instance, in the invoicing example above, the best solution is to require employees to fill in a specific form when they have a request, which has been designed explicitly to integrate with the RPA.
Of course, speeding up the process of creating financial information is far from the only work to which an RPA can be tasked. Some other key departments where this technology can be particularly useful include customer service, HR, IT and business operations.
For instance, customer care departments may be able to use an RPA to retrieve an individual's profile or billing history without an agent having to search for it in different places, while HR teams may be able to use one to review job applications in the hiring process and filter out those that do not meet certain requirements.
While RPAs can be used in various departments throughout a business, they won't be appropriate for every circumstance. Deloitte has highlighted a few key attributes that a process should have in order to make it suitable for an RPA.
- Being repetitive
- Are error-prone
- Highly structured or rules-based
- Rely on digital data
- Are time-sensitive or highly seasonal
If companies can identify business processes that tick most or all of these boxes, implementing an RPA to automate the activities can bring numerous benefits. A well-designed RPA can not only speed up activities and free human workers from monotonous tasks, but they can also be highly cost-effective.
Compared with more complex artificial intelligence solutions, RPAs are also much cheaper to develop and faster to deploy, as firms only need to worry about them doing one thing and, as long as the tasks to which they are being set do not change, they require very little maintenance.
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