Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, describes the use of automation to complete repetitive or low-level work at a faster rate. This might include tasks such as filing emails or transferring data between spreadsheets.
Traditionally, a human would be needed to do this kind of job. There was no alternative. This was a shame because they could easily take on higher-level, more creative work. RPA steps in here, as robots become programmed to complete these mundane tasks while freeing up space for humans to concentrate on the more rewarding aspects of work.
An introduction to RPA
Livingbridge’s Henry Alty describes how the integration of RPA is likely to speed up time-consuming or repetitive tasks, and reduce the number of errors made. Humans, although possessing greater creativity and emotional intelligence than AI, are susceptible to errors in a different way to robots. Robots, as long as they are programmed correctly by a human, do not tend to make any errors.
Taking the example of moving data across spreadsheets - artificial intelligence would be set up to interpret which fields of data need to be moved, and detect when new data appears in the sheet. AI has an infinitely improved attention span in comparison to humans, so would not falter on any task such as this.
This AI pattern of interpretation followed by relevant action would be repeated across any classically ‘mundane’ task.
What benefits does RPA have in store for the workplace?
We already know that RPA will help to replace the need for humans to work on repetitive or mundane tasks, but in which specific areas could it shine?
The HR department of any company deals with a fair chunk of data-based, repetitive tasks such as payroll management or employee benefit management. We wrote about how automation is beginning to change the way HR departments operate.
Ian Barkin, co-founder of the leading RPA consultancy company Symphony Ventures, discusses the example of an HR department he worked with. The integration of RPA allowed HR members to take focus away from organising the logistical workings of employee jobs, instead allowing them to place focus on more creative solutions around the company such as disability access.
Here are some other ways RPA can appear an attractive proposition:
The reduction of human error generally means increased turnover. A lack of errors would keep things moving at a swift pace, so financial targets can be exceeded. Take Henry Alty’s example of communications company Telefónica O2 - it deployed over 160 robots to process approximately 450,000 orders per month. This resulted in a huge ROI of 650% over three years.
RPA startups are already maturing at a rapid rate. Take two industry leaders in UiPath and Blue Prism. The quick growth of RPA technology companies such as these has proven to investors that it is a scalable market, and one which does have a future. The door is open for RPA startups with the right technology and customer support to help many companies to achieve greater efficiency by embracing the role of AI.
The implementation of RPA can cut the cost of hiring new employees. CIO references the experience of a bank that developed 85 robots to complete mundane processes. It found an output equivalent to adding 200 full-time employees to the bank, at just 30% of the price.
RPA comes with its warnings
Although the main message associated with RPA is one of positivity and increased freedom for company employees, there are notable struggles too.
As documented by CIO, these include the obvious threat to existing human jobs. Forrester research suggests that RPA poses a threat to roughly 9% of the workforce, so it will all be about managing the transition well. Will companies be able to find enough creative roles for the displaced employees to take up?
It can also prove to be a much tougher undertaking than the success stories make it seem. RPA may not be for every organisation, and it has been shown that only 3% of companies have managed to scale RPA to a level of over 50 robots.
Is RPA worth it?
The answer, probably, is that it depends on the company. Some organisations have shown it to pay dividends, and others have seen it fail. The most important thing to remember is that RPA would only be used as a tool to unleash humans towards more creative posts.
At Guild, we have written about how AI cannot really be used to replace typically creative human strengths such as the creation of music, or writing literature. It is vital to keep humans available for the kind of tasks they excel at.