Definition

robotic process automation

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: From blockchain to RPA: A look at cutting-edge tech and the enterprise

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the use of software with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required a human to perform.

What distinguishes RPA from traditional IT automation is RPA software's ability to be aware and adapt to changing circumstances, exceptions and new situations. Once RPA software has been trained to to capture and interpret the actions of specific processes in existing software applications, it can then manipulate data, trigger responses, initiate new actions and communicate with other systems autonomously. Large and small companies will be able to reap the benefits of RPA by expediting back-office and middle-office tasks in a wide range of industries, including insurance, finance, procurement, supply chain management (SCM), accounting, customer relationship management (CRM) and human resource management (HRM).

RPA software is expecially useful for organizations that have many different, complicated systems that need to interact together fluidly. For example, if an electronic form from a human resource system  is lacking a zip code, traditional automation software would flag the form as having an exception and an employee would handle the exception by looking up the correct zip code and entering it on the form. Once the form was complete, the employee might send it on to payroll so the information could be entered into the organization's payroll system. With RPA technology, however, software that has the ability to adapt, self-learn, and self-correct would handle the exception and interact with the payroll system without human assistance.

Although RPA software can be expensive, the technology offers companies an alternative to outsourcing and can ultimately result in lower operating costs, decreased cycle times and increased productivity for human employees who no longer are tasked with boring work. Because RPA technology tracks and monitors all the tasks that it automates, it can also help companies to become more audit- and regulatory- compliant. Though it is expected that automation software will replace up to 140 million full-time employees worldwide by the year 2025, many high-quality jobs will be created for those who are able to maintain and improve RPA software.

See also: cognitive robotics

This was last updated in July 2015

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