What Does That Mean?

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What is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the term used for software tools that partially or fully automate human activities that are manual, rule-based, and repetitive. They work by replicating the actions of an actual human interacting with one or more software applications to perform tasks such as data entry, process standard transactions, or respond to simple customer service queries. Indeed, the “chat bot” that has started to become ubiquitous on websites is almost always a robotic process automation tool, not a human. It can handle the typical standard queries like “where is X on the website”, “how do I reset my password”, and the like.

Robotic process automation tools are not replacements for the underlying business applications; rather, they simply automate the already manual tasks of human workers.  They essentially look at the screens that workers today look at and fill in and update the same boxes and fields within the user interface by pulling the relevant data from the relevant location.  This serves a couple of purposes:

  • It frees humans from monotonous, low-value-added tasks like data entry and makes them available for higher-value tasks that require human creativity, ingenuity, and decision making.
  • It helps to ensure that outputs are complete, correct, and consistent between tasks and between human workers
  • It helps to ensure that tasks can be completed more quickly because the robotic process automation tool can find and retrieve any necessary data in the background

Professor Leslie Willcox, an expert in technology, work, and globalization at the London School of Economics, notes that robotic process automation enhances human skills and “takes the robot out of the human.”

One of the key benefits of robotic process automation is that the tools do not alter existing systems or infrastructure. Many other process automation tools interact with systems using application programming interfaces (APIs), which means writing code and can lead to concerns about quality assurance, maintaining that code, and responding to changes in the underlying applications.

All of this said, in practice there are severe limitations on what a robotic process automation tool can do – It has to be scripted/programmed to perform a repetitive task. To do that a subject matter expert (SME) who really understands how the work is done manually must be employed to map out those steps.

In addition, the data sources and destinations need to be highly structured and unchanging – robotic process automation tools don’t deal with quirks, errors, exceptions or the normal mess of human interactions well at all.

But even with these considerations, organizations are seeing tangible, concrete benefits from robotic process automation.

As these tools get more sophisticated they have begun taking on characteristics of business process management tools as well as artificial intelligence tools. This allows them to become even more efficient and could, for example, lead to a point where the tool could analyze the sentiment within a particular customer query or correspondence and make a recommendation about a discount.


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