Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is one of the hottest pillars of digital transformation in the enterprise.  RPA promises to unleash the productivity of humans, reduce labor costs, reduce human error, and improve cycle times. Who doesn’t want these benefits?

The current entry cost (tech & talent) to pilot an RPA solution starts at $100,000 and can hit millions of dollars at scale. By 2021, some of the capabilities offered by RPA platforms may well be commoditized, driving the technology costs to the floor. We saw this happen when Amazon, Google, and Microsoft launched their cloud-based AI tools, commoditizing the solutions of IBM Watson and others. We also saw the AI talent pool expand to hit demand. Navigating in the RPA realm is a daunting journey for many.

This article explores practical some practical questions to make your RPA journey easier.

Taking A Step Back, What Is RPA?

RPA creates a pool of digital workers or “robots” trained to handle specific tasks and decisions being done with human workers. Robots work 24X7 and have a lower operating cost than an employee salary. RPA is the undeniable force multiplier for any business.

The “robot” is a piece of software on a desktop or server that copies and emulates the computer-generated tasks of a human or the system generated tasks of a software application. Those tasks can be assembled into a process with decision trees allowing the robots to handle collections of services automatically. In some cases, the robots use AI for decision making – eliminating the need for humans even in the decision process.  

The Invoice Processing Example  

Accounting functions are like invoice processing, and accounts payable are the first targets for an RPA project. Invoice processing is an expensive, time-consuming, repetitive process prone to a human error involving paper and electronic invoices moving between two or more systems.   

A company receives a paper invoice, emailed invoice (PDF), or electronic data interchange (EDI) invoice from a vendor for payment. The accounting clerk will one take one of the following actions: 

  1. Paper invoices – Scan with OCR, copy, and paste into accounting system
  2. Emailed PDF invoices – Copy and paste into accounting system
  3. EDI invoices – Online approval accept into the account systems
  4. Invoice exceptions – Handled manually following business terms

RPA automates with whole process with robots and AI:

  1. Attended Robots (with humans) – The attended robot is installed on the desktop as a smart helper application running in the background. The attended robot automatically processes paper and electronic invoices as well as data migration in the accounting system.
  2. Unattended Robots (with machines) – The unattended robot runs on a server transferring the invoices electronically between the systems with no human interaction.
  3. AI and Robots – Most RPA systems deploy a light form of AI so that human-like decisions can be made by the robots.

Mundane, repetitive processes like invoice processing and the non-critical decisions can be made by accounting robots. For the first time in the history of work, a business will improve cycle times, reduce costs with digital workers. Employees may have time to contribute intellectually and creatively to their jobs where never before possible.  

RPA Not New, But Intelligent Platforms Are

Businesses have been working to integrate desktop office productivity and system to system integration across the enterprise for years. The building blocks of RPA have existed for some time, commercial and open source solutions. Some of those building blocks include: optical character recognition, automated workflow, desktop virtualization, and desktop automation macros (Excel & Word). Many larger businesses in finance, insurance, and manufacturing deployed homegrown RPA platforms a few years ago. 

Intelligent RPA companies such as Automation AnywhereBlue PrismEdgeverveIntellibotNiceKofaxKyronServiceNowSoftomotiveUIPath, and Workfusion have one-stop-shop platforms. The Big4 management consulting firms are in the game too with their hybrid solutions and RPA talent.

The stampede of RPA and consulting companies may have already visited your green pastures. We will explore the pros, cons, costs, and use cases for these companies in future articles.  

Enter Stage Left – The Big Guys by 2021

The largest US technology companies will be entering the RPA game by 2021 or sooner. Why? Right now, the robots of the Intelligent RPA companies integrate tasks across many of the following popular applications: Microsoft Office, Windows, Enterprise, and Azure; Google Suite, Cloud, and Search; SalesForce; SAP, Oracle, Adobe, Amazon AWS, IBM, and Apple. The digital workforce land grab is well underway, with the big guys being far behind at this point in time.

By 2021 or sooner, business can expect these companies to launch or acquire their own RPA platforms. We are in the early adopter phase of RPA, where the key players will look different in the next year. Businesses can expect to see lower cost, scalable, and integrated RPA platforms when big tech gets in the game. We will explore this side of RPA in future articles as well as the non-US solutions. 

Key Takeaways to Consider

Companies will each create thousands of digital workers in the coming years. These digital workforces will be anchored into the RPA platforms where they run.  Business face some important choices around RPA. These questions are worth considering:

  1. How does RPA fit into your business strategy?
  2. What is your mandate, budget, and span of control with your RPA initiative?
  3. What is the vetting and approval process for candidate RPA processes?
  4. What is your RPA communication plan to stakeholders?
  5. What are the key metrics you need to evaluate?
  6. How should RPA technology solutions be selected?
  7. Will you build a hybrid or select an off the shelf solution?
  8. What does your digital work organization design look like?
  9. What is your RPA talent plan – employees, new talent, contractors?
  10. What are your rules of governance for your digital workforce?