February 5, 2019

What exactly is RPA?

Kris Elliott

Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) is one of the latest emerging technologies in the Business Process Automation (BPA) landscape and currently has a lot of hype surrounding it.  While some are heralding it as the future of BPA, out in the marketplace there is still a lot of uncertainty around what exactly it is.  Businesses are unclear about how it could be used in their processes and about whether RPA is a useful solution or just another industry buzzword.

Here are a few pointers to help clear up some of the confusion and to explain some of the misconceptions behind some of the more commonly asked questions.

Are the Robots smart?

It’s surprisingly common for RPA to get conflated with AI (Artificial Intelligence).  This confusion isn’t helped by the vendors who are out there coining marketing phrases like ‘Intelligent Process Automation’ and others that seem to hint that there is some kind digital sorcery involved.  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 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.

So, back to the original question: Are RPA robots smart?  A solution can be a particularly clever one when it solves a problem in an innovative way, so in that respect RPA robots essentially inherit the cleverness of the person that programmed them.  However, because you are essentially pre-mapping all the tasks a robot can perform as a series of potentially complex IF/THEN/ELSE type decisions, it would be overly generous to suggest that the robot is intuitive, and outright fantastical to suggest that it’s cognitive.  There may well come a time when RPA and AI merge and you have a truly digital person capable of making unscripted decisions, but we are not there just yet. 

Will the robots live forever?

Or in other words, is RPA a long-term solution?  RPA can help solve a problem that many businesses are facing, which is ‘How can we automate our processes to gain efficiencies when our systems have no integration options?’  Today many systems have integration options ranging from API’s and direct tools, through to manual ingestion and flat file imports.   When these options are available, integration is significantly easier because the way has been paved for you.  The folks that made the software built you the doorways you need to get your information into that system.

There are also many systems, particularly those of an older vintage, that don’t have these options.  For a variety of reasons, it might be impractical to update or replace those systems so the only way to get data in might be to simply have a person tirelessly pound their keyboard.  This functional restriction creates an unavoidable bottle neck, however now RPA can help overcome it.  By providing the ability for data to be extracted from / inputted into the fields of a user interface, RPA can provide a level of data integration with systems that have no other integration options.  This means it definitely has short- and medium-term benefits.  However, in the longer term you would need to ask what the strategy is around upgrading or replacing those systems, and whether that upgrade or replacement would introduce an API or other integration methods that would make the robot redundant.  Legacy systems are not immortal.  At some point their age and suitability will need to be addressed, and when that time comes the RPA tool may also fall on the digital scrapheap.

Are all Robots are created equally?

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.  Does that mean those tools 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’ exactly 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.  (For clarity, I’m using the IEEE SA descriptions above)

Generally speaking, RPA solutions fall into two primary categories:  Attended and Unattended.  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 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 of the 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 act outside of a single application and can be made to do pretty much whatever a user can do.

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 rather than being called upon on-demand.  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.

So, to sum up, RPA has the makings of being a very important arrow in the BPA quiver but it’s important to ensure your expectations are realistic.  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 API integration isn’t an option.  However, in many other cases it may well be the ideal solution.

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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