Understanding and applying robotic process automation

By Nathan Dionne, ECI

Published: 20 September 2021

Digital transformation is in full swing, driven by data and dramatically shaping how companies across industries work. Then again, you could have a mountain of clean, organised data, and as much as it could be a gold mine, it could be a bust if a company is unprepared for the work it takes to derive value from it.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of technology to operate systems without the assistance of humans. Its foremost aim is to perform repetitive and tedious tasks that don’t advance a company’s goals but still must take place because they underpin operations. RPA doesn’t just mimic humans; it allows work to be performed with far greater speed and accuracy. 

RPAs look nothing like larger-than-life robots from movies; they’re typically just computer applications. But because they can interact with computerised processes without constant supervision, they’re proving powerful in business. Still, RPAs need to be carefully designed and fed the correct data to free their human co-workers of rote activities and enable them to focus on higher-level tasks that add greater value.

Different types

Like artificial intelligence (AI), there are two types of robotic process automation - specialised and general. Specialised RPA is designed to automate a particular task. This type of RPA, while highly customisable, works only on the process it was designed to take care of.

General RPA, on the other hand, can be used for a larger variety of processes and achieved via machine learning (ML). Further, it can be trained to understand and automate processes with unstructured, semi-structured, and structured data. Companies that use general RPA software are often large enterprises that have the data flow to support automation.

However, with increased data in businesses of all sizes, and the competitive advantages it can provide, the possibilities are attracting a greater number and variety of companies.

Cost, competitiveness, and quality

The benefits of RPA are far-reaching. First off, when done right, it’ll automate tasks an employee would otherwise have to do, only faster, more accurately, and with no training or ramp-up needed. This can add up to a lot of time and cost savings. At the same time, though, when it comes to money, you have to consider the cost of not automating; competitors that do will clearly be in a stronger position. 

RPA mitigates human error to raise both the quantity and quality of work, too. For example, an investment firm tracking different asset classes face a daily process that requires a lot of manual reconciliation. If a mistake is made, it might not be realised for weeks, and in the meantime, investment decisions would be based on flawed data.

Further, with settlements not causing issues - and processes moving in the right sequence, between the right people, at the right times - approvals come more quickly, and checks and balances are in place to keep work running smoothly.

It’s pretty simple: costs are less, and efficiency is high when everything is done right the first time.

Empower, adapt, and allocate

RPA can allow businesses to redeploy their employees, removing them from repetitive tasks and engaging them in projects that support true growth, both for the company and individual.

Work where human strengths are needed, such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, and judgment, typically bring greater value to the company, and they’re also often more personally rewarding. This can raise job satisfaction and help retain employees. Further, the ability to reallocate employees can enable a business to apply their useful company knowledge to other value-adding areas, supplement talent gaps, and more. 

Of course, there’s the attraction of being able to do one’s job more efficiently, without manual processes that can make time drag. For instance, let’s say you’re at that same investment firm and there is a rapidly growing hedge fund, requiring human resources (HR) to onboard a lot of people fast. Between provisioning accounts, providing access to the right tools, sending out emails, and more, there’s a lot of work involved. With an RPA bot, 20 new people could be processed at once, with the HR person monitoring progress through a window on the corner of their screen, which also notifies them if anything needs their attention.

We’re talking about boiling a two-week process into days – that’s the type of time savings that can make an employee and company happy. And in a realm like investing, the ability to adapt and reallocate resources quickly can make all the difference.

Getting off on the right foot

Organisations need to create a prioritisation framework and plan before plunging into RPA. Too often, executives say they need RPA now, so IT starts initiating various projects. Four months later, all they have is a thousand bots, costing many more thousands of dollars, and half of them don't work. This erodes executive confidence, budget, and IT bandwidth.

That said, decide what project you want to do first, how to implement it, and the ways you'll measure results. Support it with a robust roadmap that keeps things moving ahead incrementally. This will enable you to illustrate ROI and then build out your program further with the support and funding it deserves.