Definition

robotic process automation

Contributor(s): Linda Rosencrance
This definition is part of our Essential Guide: AI in IT tools promises better, faster, stronger ops

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 humans to perform. These tasks can include queries, calculations and maintenance of records and transactions.

RPA technology, sometimes called a software robot or bot, mimics a human worker, logging into applications, entering data, calculating and completing tasks, and logging out.

RPA software isn't part of an organization's IT infrastructure. Instead, it sits on top of it, enabling a company to implement the technology quickly and efficiently -- all without changing the existing infrastructure and systems.

The evolution of RPA

Although the term "robotic process automation" can be traced to the early 2000s, it had been developing for a number of years previously.

RPA evolved from three key technologies: screen scraping, workflow automation and artificial intelligence.

Screen scraping is the process of collecting screen display data from a legacy application so that the data can be displayed by a more modern user interface. The advantages of workflow automation software, which eliminates the need for manual data entry and increases order fulfillment rates, include increased speed, efficiency and accuracy. Lastly, artificial intelligence involves the ability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intervention and intelligence.

Benefits of RPA

Robotic process automation technology can help organizations on their digital transformation journeys by:

  • Enabling better customer service
  • Ensuring business operations and processes comply with regulations and standards
  • Allowing processes to be completed much more rapidly
  • Providing improved efficiency by digitizing and auditing process data
  • Creating cost savings for manual and repetitive tasks
  • Enabling employees to be more productive

Applications of RPA

Some of the top applications of RPA include:

  • Customer service: RPA can help companies offer better customer service by automating contact center tasks, including verifying e-signatures, uploading scanned documents and verifying information for automatic approvals or rejections.
  • Accounting: Organizations can use RPA for general accounting, operational accounting, transactional reporting and budgeting.
  • Financial services: Companies in the financial services industry can use RPA for foreign exchange payments, automating account openings and closings, managing audit requests and processing insurance claims.
  • Healthcare: Medical organizations can use RPA for handling patient records, claims, customer support, account management, billing, reporting and analytics.
  • Human resources: RPA can automate HR tasks, including onboarding and offboarding, updating employee information and timesheet submission processes.
  • Supply chain management: RPA can be used for procurement, automating order processing and payments, monitoring inventory levels and tracking shipments.

Differences between RPA and regular automation

What distinguishes RPA from traditional IT automation is the ability of the RPA software to be aware and adapt to changing circumstances, exceptions and new situations. Once RPA software has been trained 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.

RPA software is particularly useful for organizations that have many different and complicated systems that need to interact together fluidly.

For instance, if an electronic form from a human resource system is missing 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 is complete, the employee might send it on to payroll so the information can 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.

Top RPA vendors

  • Automation Anywhere Inc. provides an enterprise digital workforce platform geared toward procure-to-pay, quote-to-cash, HR, claims processing and other back-office processes.
  • Blue Prism focuses on providing organizations in regulated industries with more agile virtual workforces, offering desktop-aligned robots that are defined and managed centrally.
  • EdgeVerve Limited, an Infosys company, helps enterprises modernize customer service, improve business processes and enhance operational productivity.
  • HelpSystems enables companies to streamline IT and business operations by automating tasks and workflows without the need to write code.
  • UiPath offers an open platform to help organizations efficiently automate business processes.
  • Workfusion combines robotics, AI-powered cognitive automation and workforce orchestration to automate enterprise business processes.

What to look for in RPA software

When enterprise leaders look for RPA technologies, they should consider a number of things, including:

  • Scalability: Organizations shouldn't select RPA software that requires them to deploy software robots to desktops or virtualized environments. They should look for RPA platforms that can be centrally managed and scale massively.
  • Speed: Enterprises should be able to design and test new robotic processes in a few hours or less, as well as optimize the bots to work quickly.
  • Reliability: As companies launch robots to automate hundreds or even thousands of tasks, they should look for tools with built-in monitoring and analytics that enable them to monitor the health of their systems.
  • Simplicity: Organizations should look for products that are simple enough that any employee in the business can build and use them to handle various kinds of work, including collecting data and turning content into information that enables leaders to make the best business decisions.
  • Intelligence: The best RPA tools can support simple task-based activities, read and write to any data source, and take advantage of more advanced learning to further improve automation.
  • Enterprise-class: Companies should look for tools that are built from the ground up for enterprise-grade scalability, reliability and manageability.

C-level decision-making around RPA

Though automation software is expected to replace up to 140 million full-time employees worldwide by 2025, many high-quality jobs will be created for those who maintain and improve RPA software.

When software robots do replace people in the enterprise, C-level executives need to be responsible for ensuring that business outcomes are achieved and new governance policies are met.

Robotic process automation technology also requires that the CTO/CIO take more of a leadership role and assume accountability for the business outcomes and the risks of deploying RPA tools.

Additionally, the COO, CIO and chief human resources officer, as well as the relevant C-level executive who owns the process being automated, should all work toward ensuring the availability of an enterprise-grade, secure platform for controlling and operating bots across systems.

Where the robotic process automation market is heading

A Global Market Insights Inc. report expects the RPA market to reach $5 billion by 2024. The increased adoption of RPA technologies by organizations to enhance their capabilities and performance and boost cost savings will reportedly drive the growth of the robotic process automation market most during that time.

This was last updated in December 2017

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Which benefits of RPA software does your enterprise find most enticing?
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That's a great overview. One minor addition - I think, the key benefit of the RPA technology that does not stand out clearly for me in the article is the fact that companies can continue working with an existing landscape of their applications without building any IT integration and still use RPA. 

In the past, process automation requires building interfaces with all the applications and keeping these interfaces up-to-date. RPA allows to avoid it and minimize investments in the IT integration. Robotic Process Automation works with the existing application landscape in a way a human would do, repeating a particular sequence of actions across various application, being basically, a macro on steroids.

Best,
Alexey

The Burnie Group
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I don't completely agree to this. As companies will require to invest some amount based on the scope of RPA implementation. When we refer to term RPA, this are software robots. either you need to have existing legacy software system or if not you will have to build a new one to support RPA. Abhishek
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Very interesting
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If RPA can mimic the brain storming that a human mind can do it is perfect as it will be error free to focus on task. But still human mind is always try to find a way to complete a task out of normal way (you may call it cheating). If RPA don't stop at point where say perfect process to do a job, and try to learning and try to create new scenarios it can match human capabilities. It is infect true that RPA will be most likely almost error free as human can be distracted, tried or bored to run same process again and again   
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Nice article
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Good to know article.
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