August 22, 2019

Translating buzzwords: RPA

Kris Elliott

Regardless of which industry you are in, when you are working at the leading edge of innovation you can’t help but be inundated with the latest jargon surrounding the emerging technologies. To make matters worse, there is often very little consistency or agreement around the definitions of these terms. This is often compounded by the linguistic contortions some vendors perform in order to get the latest buzzword to apply to their products and services.

When it comes to Business Process Automation solutions, it is no different. There are words and phrases that get thrown around with little consistency around their usage. So, in an effort to cut through the confusion, I will be writing a series of blogs on various terminologies in an effort to help readers make sense of it all.

This entry in the series is focused on Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

What is RPA?

RPA is the name given to a technology, not to a particular product. As such, it’s important to realise that just as with any technology, not all products are created equally. You can go online right now and likely find some small freeware utilities that have since tried to ride the RPA wave by working the word ‘Robotic’ into their marketing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are examples of RPA.

It’s also important to understand that because RPA is an emerging technology, people are not necessarily using the term ‘RPA’ in exactly the same way.  What one person means when talking about Robotic Processing may well be different to what another person hears, because to each of them RPA means something different.

It’s surprisingly common for RPA to get conflated with AI (Artificial Intelligence). This confusion isn’t helped by the vendors who seem to hint that there is some kind digital sorcery involved and use marketing images of terminators and transformers.  Fortunately, the folks at IEEE SA put their 432,000+ heads together across 160+ countries and came up with some standard definitions for these two technologies. The intention was to create a global standard around what these terms mean.

They describe RPA as:

 “preconfigured software instance that uses business rules and predefined activity choreography to complete the autonomous execution of a combination of processes, activities, transactions, and tasks in one or more unrelated software systems to deliver a result or service with human exception management”

And they describe AI as:

 “the combination of cognitive automation, machine learning (ML), reasoning, hypothesis generation and analysis, natural language processing and intentional algorithm mutation producing insights and analytics at or above human capability”

While all that seems horribly wordy and even more confusing, simply put: RPA mimics human behaviour in a scripted way, whereas AI is more of a simulation of human cognition and intuition. Or to put it even more simply, RPA does what’s it’s told, whereas AI tries to think like us.

How does it work?

RPA solutions fall into two main categories: Attended Bots and Unattended Bots. The attended robots are typically workstation based and designed to quickly preform a series of tasks based on a preprogramed sequence of events. These tasks will usually mimic the human behaviour of how a person would do the same task. Often the user at the workstation will be able to see the applications flash open and closed as the Robot goes about it’s business at high speed. These kinds of robots are driven by individual tasks, with some RPA tools allowing you to add a button over the top of your existing applications. This then appears as if it is part of your normal application toolbar. Furthermore, this allows the user to activate the robot on-demand on an ‘as needed’ basis.  It is similar in many respects to a Word Macro that applies a series actions to your document, however in this case the robot acts outside of a single application and can be made to do pretty much whatever a user can do as well as account for several process paths in your workflow.

At the other end of the scale are the Unattended Robots. These are typically either server-based or hosted and are usually used for batch processing multiple records. For example, you could provide it with a file containing extracted invoice data and it could automatically enter that data into your finance system one record at a time the way a person would, so that a person doesn’t have to it.

Is RPA a Digital Transformation Platform?

RPA is in many ways the ideal tool for backward compatibility. If you have a legacy system that has a cumbersome, expensive, or functionally limited API (or perhaps even no API at all), RPA is the perfect tool for creating automation around data integration. Its screen-scraping and click-mapping abilities lend themselves perfectly to emulating the manual repetitive tasks that users tend to loathe doing.

A big part of the misunderstanding is based around the “P” in “RPA”. The word “Process” implies a sense of completeness and invokes a perception that a workflow will be improved. However, very rarely is RPA forward thinking platform as RPA projects often neglect the transformational need to redesign a process. Instead they tend to take an existing sequence of tasks and automate them to plug a gap in the user experience. When we strip it down to its basic elements, most deployed bots are automating user tasks, not business processes.

This brings me to a saying I’ve become fond of paraphrasing, though I no longer recall who coined it or where I first read it –

“RPA won’t fix a bad process, it will just speed it up”

In some situations, RPA can delay necessary upgrades and system replacements by taking away the pain that is often the catalyst needed to trigger more fundamental change. Depending on your perspective this could be either a good thing or a bad thing. If you have legacy systems which for whatever reason can’t be updated or replaced in the short/medium term, then RPA could potentially deliver immediate benefits while also giving you the illusion of transformation in the form of automation and efficiency gains.

However, if the challenges around those legacy systems are such that they need to be addressed more urgently, RPA enables complacency by allowing you move the pothole further up the road and treating the symptoms of the problem rather than resolving the underlying issue itself.

So, where does UpFlow Solutions fit into all of this…?

RPA is an important tool in the Business Process Automation toolbox and one that we at UpFlow Solutions do reach for when it’s needed. It is absolutely fine to maintain a cautious optimism around RPA, but just bear in mind that in many cases RPA should probably be positioned as more of a ‘Plan B’ if you have no other integration options. Ensure your expectations are realistic. Ultimately, if you are asking ‘How can RPA fit into my business?’ you likely asking the wrong question. The more important questions are “What are the business requirements driving my process?” and “How can those processes be improved?”. To quote myself from a previous blog –

“Don’t start by trying to fit a product into your business. Instead, invest some time into understanding the reasons behind your processes, and then challenge the assumptions around why things are done that particular way.”

If you have ever thought about these questions, then I’d love to hear your answers.

If you have any questions or would like to have a chat about how we can help please contact us today.

Kris Elliott
Solution Sales Executive

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