At the last Microsoft keynote event, somewhat overshadowed by the prominence of Microsoft Mesh’s announcement about the possible future of augmented reality, there was a much more low-key announcement around a technology, Power Automate Desktop, that ties in with a concept that has long been peddled by the consulting world as the trend to corporate CTOs: Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Basically, software-based automation processes that make it possible to perform routine tasks, and that many pundits see as a way to increase worker productivity.
The announcement of Power Automate Desktop, a free Windows tool that can be used to create automated workflows, is seen by many as a form of automation that could replace many workers in routine jobs, although in practice, there is little new about it. Modules of this type have been available in environments such as Apple or Linux for quite some time, but have never received much attention. The fact that Microsoft is now proposing it as an alternative and offering it free of charge with Windows, far and away the environment with the highest penetration in the corporate world, could perhaps accelerate the process and enable productivity increases derived from this type of automation of routine processes, with the consequent freeing up of time. In other cases, there is talk of the possibility of RPA carrying out processes that previously, in many companies, were outsourced to external companies in countries with lower labor costs, which could therefore be carried out locally.
The concept of RPA is, as such, quite old, ranging from data capture in other applications or services to the integration of APIs in other business applications, connectors in service management systems, terminal services or, increasingly, the application of machine learning algorithms such as image recognition or data pattern recognition. RPA is receiving increasing attention precisely because of these kinds of possibilities, the incorporation of machine learning into the process(Cognitive RPA, RPAAI or simply RPA 2.0), and the use of increasingly user-friendly and reliable software platforms. However, it remains to be seen whether even with such relatively easy-to-use tools, these types of automation processes will be taken up by the workers themselves — who may see them as a greater convenience, but also, as we have already discussed, as a threat — or by corporate IT departments.
Based on past experience, the spread of RPA can be compared to the use of macros in spreadsheets such as Excel: relatively simple forms of automation that practically anyone could use with a relatively low learning curve and that could lead to great results, but also to errors or hardly standardizable processes, generally highly dependent on the person who had set them in motion. Obviously, workers know their routines and the parts of them that can be automated best, but it is also possible that the results will be better if those processes are monitored, documented and managed by corporate systems departments.
Will the current interest in RPA tools lead to an improvement in the quality of life for people who carry out routine processes in the course of their work, or will it go beyond that and lead to substitution? Will Microsoft, by incorporating RPA tools into the most common operating system in corporate environments, spark an extension of the use of these tools, or will they remain on the sidelines?