We've been saying the robots are coming for a while; now they're here and they're thinking for themselves.
Robotic process automation, or RPA, is not a new concept. It's been around for the past 10 years at least. It just looked different as it was in the form of technology-driven software robots, or bots. The whole initiative was technology-driven in those early days, with the aim of bringing automation to simplified tasks.
If we travel back to the invention of computing as we know it today, we've always known about business process re-engineering (BPR). Every single computer was designed around this: it was a C-suite imperative that everyone had to do. Companies spent vast amounts of money on end-to-end BPR, and it was an ongoing project with no end in sight.
Then BPR evolved into business process automation (BPA) and companies started looking at their processes to see what could be automated. This was driven by an increase in the number of transactions and a realisation that the workforce couldn't be expanded at the same rate. It just wasn't possible for companies to scale to meet rapidly growing demand.
In order to evolve certain levels of BPA, the software robot, or bot, was formed. This was a simplistic technology aimed at delivering automation. However, over the next 10 years, this resulted in companies having all these automated processes that weren't intelligent and that couldn't evolve themselves. No decisions were possible. The next evolution required to make BPA work better was intelligent bots, which is where we are today, with robotic process automation (RPA).
RPA is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to handle high volume, repeatable tasks that were previously done by humans. It all comes down to an intelligent robot. It's important to note that bots have evolved from being a technology responsibility to being a business imperative. "As we move into the cloud world, where everything is connected and at your fingertips, the number of transactions is out of control. The main reason that RPA is such a hot topic at the moment is it's the only solution that will enable companies to scale and grow going forward in a cost-effective manner."
Any definition of robotic process automation requires that three elements be present: a business process management system must be implemented and changed to record the new automated process; the software bot itself that will do this interaction (which always stood alone before); and the automated controlling, monitoring and scheduling of what the bot does.
Previously, the first and third elements were missing from BPA, which is why bots never achieved major traction in the business world as well as why BPA has traditionally been a technology-led product. Internationally, businesses in various sectors have reported massive productivity gains from implementing BPA. The financial sector has redesigned how claims are processed using bots, with one bank deploying 150 bots to perform transactions that would require the hiring of 200 employees, at 30% of the cost of increasing the workforce. In the retail sector, bots are being deployed to automate functions such as answering customer questions and retrieving useful information from audit documents.
Locally, there are quite a few use cases where RPA is being implemented with chatbots in particular gaining acceptance. People are getting tired of performing repetitive tasks, and eventually, these tasks will be replaced by RPA. But, will bots actually cut into employment figures? Garter says by 2020, bots will reduce 65% of employee requirements in certain areas, such as call centres. But, are we really talking about removing people? In all of the documented use cases referred to above, none of the businesses got rid of employees. Instead they upskilled entry-level employees to add more value to the organisation. This means nobody remains an entry-level knowledge worker indefinitely.
Another challenge faced locally is that many of the bigger sectors rely on home-grown applications, with the insurance industry being a prime example. "There's no cohesive system; each division uses its own solution. So if you're buying a policy or registering a claim, that's two different systems that require you to resubmit your information. If these tasks can be relegated to bots, then you can upskill your workforce to add value to other areas of the business."
This suggestion makes good business sense when you consider the rate at which the number of transactions and processes are increasing. Companies have two options, either they can hire more people or they can enter the world of RPA. The former is just not economically viable if you consider that growth in the number of transactions doesn't necessarily translate into revenue growth."
RPA is regarded as the silver bullet for managing an explosion in transactions, with the caveat that it must be business-driven instead of technology-led. This is one of the potential pitfalls of RPA, if it's technology-driven, it has an 85% chance of failure within the organisation. Research has shown that only 3% [IDC] of organisations have managed to successfully scale RPA.
Local banks are facing an interesting dilemma currently, in that if the mature, conservative financial institutions want to remain relevant, they need to compete with the more agile digital providers that are coming to the fore. "This means that they'd all aggressively commit to RPA in a number of areas because they need to achieve efficiencies quickly to compete with the newcomers," says Justin Agar, Territory Manager, Application Modernisation and Connectivity Portfolio at Micro Focus. "The big banks have to change to stay relevant, but also just in order to survive."
RPA is a stepping stone to true intelligent automation, and while it eliminates human error and presents less of a security risk, it is at the same time also generating huge amounts of data. This means predictive analytics becomes a feasible model to combine with RPA in order to facilitate intelligent, automated changes within the process. That's the future growth path of RPA and how it's going to evolve. Intelligent analytics capabilities will permit insights into where processes aren't working so that RPA can adapt itself to become more efficient.
However, initially, RPA is simply allowing the organisation to do more with what it currently has and be more competitive. It's about becoming more efficient and handling the demands of the data world that we live in today. For many years, research firms like Gartner, Forrester and IDC have been advising customers to rip and replace their technology. For the first time, we're seeing all of the analysts saying you have to modernise instead. This represents a 180-degree turn. They've realised that rip and replace is just too disruptive and expensive for most businesses to withstand.