RPA: Why You Have To Care About This Totally Unsexy Tech

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Robotic process automation, or RPA, is a technology with an identity problem. The name is both dry enough to make the eyes glow and confusing enough to obscure precisely what it is or could be doing.

As a result, very few people outside of the computer industry are familiar with the concept. Yet, it is a technology that is expected to have a colossal impact on the working lives of almost every office worker, and at least an indirect impact on everyone.

According to latest screenings from analyst house Gartner, the RPA market is expected to be worth nearly $ 2 billion this year – and much more than that by the middle of the decade. And by the end of 2022, 90% of large companies will have deployed the technology in some way.

Selling is very simple: RPA is supposed to help companies reduce time and money spent on repetitive manual tasks and, in turn, free employees from tedious administration. So what’s the catch?

What is RPA?

Although RPA has been around for two decades now, the industry has seen a surge in recent years, catalyzed by the need to become more efficient during the pandemic. The largest pure-play provider today is UiPath, with revenue of $ 607 million in FY2021, followed by Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, but other IT companies are also integrating RPA functionality in their products.

Simply put, RPA is programming software to perform tasks by following a set of instructions. These software units are variously referred to as digital workers, software robots, and automation assistants.

“A software bot is configurable software designed to perform a task by learning, imitating, and then executing rule-based business processes. It interacts with other software applications and systems to carry out these business processes, just like a human would, ”said Prince Kohli, CTO at Automation Anywhere.

In theory, RPA allows employees to spend less time entering data into Excel spreadsheets, document processing and extracting information from CRM systems, and more time fulfilling aspects of their roles that computers are (currently) not equipped to handle. “These bots allow employees to take robotics outside of their work, ”Kohli added.

While it is easy to imagine how any business could benefit from the ability to automate tasks in this way, the early adopters were generally large companies from the industries required to perform the most repetitive administration, such as as insurance, utilities, financial services and health care.

spreadsheet

RPA promises to help workers spend less time with their noses in a spreadsheet. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

More recently, however, with the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) and low-code solutions to the mix, RPA deployments have become easier to configure and smart enough to handle more difficult missions. Paul Maguire, senior vice president of EMEA and APAC at software company Appian, says these types of support technologies will create new use cases and bring RPA to a wider audience.

“While RPA is great for automating tasks, it isn’t for everything,” he told us. “This is where hyperautomation has a role to play, by combining technologies with people in a single workflow. “

“Implemented on their own, RPA bots can be fast and relatively inexpensive, but they can’t handle exceptions or changes. AI is a powerful tool to help collect and analyze information. It can also turn unstructured content into structured data to sort, prioritize, and make suggestions on best actions for the next step for better decisions.

Nonetheless, however, RPA companies have some difficulty communicating the benefits of their services to workers and businesses, who have learned to be wary of grandiose promises.

The most common fear is that RPA will lay off some of the workforce, automating the functions currently performed by human workers. Unsurprisingly, RPA vendors say this is a misconception, a product of pop culture representations of bots and AI, but it could be argued that the vendors themselves are to blame as well. . Automation is almost always presented as a way to free staff to add value in new and creative ways, but the message is rarely more specific than that.

Future of work

It is widely believed that the rise of automation will change the configuration of the workforce and the day-to-day activities of employees, but there is debate as to the magnitude of this change.

The picture painted by sellers is that RPA will play a supporting role. Instead of cutting jobs, RPA will take on all the disgusting manual tasks and reduce error rates by removing human fallibility from the equation, they say.

“When we hear about the replacement of employees by robots, it is often unattended robots. The purpose of an unattended robot is to take a process and run it on its own, and no human is needed, ”explained NICE’s Oded Karev, who deploys RPA in a call center the context.

“The monitored robots, however, rely on the working man with machine. The robot is installed on the employee’s desk and becomes something akin to a virtual assistant to help improve performance.

When asked for specific examples of how RPA will change the lives of employees, the companies we spoke to explained that the technology can be applied in any situation where information is siled or employees. are overloaded with data processing tasks.

For example, Gavin Mee, MD Northern Europe at UiPath, claims that RPA allows accounting professionals to spend less time Bookkeeping account and data collection, and more time on ‘in-depth analysis and advisory activities’. And in a human ressources In this context, software robots can handle tasks such as approving annual leave and recording sick days, while staff focus on “building relationships and solving critical problems”.

The customer service industry is also considered to be well prepared to benefit from RPA. The main role of agents is to engage with customers, but too much time is currently wasted finding and entering information across multiple disparate systems, which a software bot can handle with relative ease.

customer service representative

The customer service industry is among those that stand to benefit most immediately from RPA. (Image credit: Narisara Nami via Getty Images)

While it’s plausible that increased efficiency will allow companies to operate with smaller teams, resulting in job cuts, all of these types of roles will still be filled by human workers. The most important change will be that the range of their responsibilities will be radically different.

It is also true that RPA will create a need for a number of new jobs. Namely, more IT staff will be needed to handle the configuration and maintenance of RPA systems, as it is not as simple as setting up a software robot and letting it run for free.

While low-code solutions make it easier for non-technical employees to deploy software bots, additional programming expertise will be required to configure bots for more complex workloads, monitor the performance of deployments, and handle errors and anomalies. .

A recent investigation conducted by UiPath suggests that the majority (77%) of RPA professionals expect their organizations to hire more developers in the next year. A research report The World Economic Forum (WEF) came to a similar conclusion that automation will result in a net increase of 58 million jobs, albeit jobs requiring higher average skills.

Inevitable friction

Despite their vested interests, the vendors we consulted all concede that businesses will encounter friction on many levels when the time comes to deploy RPA at scale. And the problem is as much cultural as technological.

“One of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of RPA is a misunderstanding or even fear of the technology,” Mee explained. “Thanks to Hollywood blockbusters, the word ‘robot’ often conjures negative images, and when this is compounded by fears of redundancy, companies can face resistance when embarking on an RPA journey. “

“It’s a natural response; we tend to fear what we don’t know, and technology that promises to forever revolutionize the way we work is almost inevitably going to cause confusion and apprehension at first.

Mee and others say that solving this problem is to approach deployment as transparently as possible; clearly communicate the intentions and ambitions behind the introduction of RPA, as well as the business benefits.

The angle from which organizations approach RPA is also important. Many large organizations struggle to know where to start, while others are looking for quick fixes to meet their short-term productivity goals, which can become a problem when expanding deployments afterwards. Mixing RPA with other automation technologies, such as AI and business process management (BPM), only adds to the complexity.

As Optiv Security has pointed out, there are also cybersecurity risks associated with rushed or shallow RPA deployments. Ultimately, RPA expands the attack surface, introducing “many entry routes and many exit routes,” says Optiv, which means implementation needs to be careful and thoughtful.

Ultimately, however, the decision of whether or not to turn to RPA may be out of the hands of business leaders, made virtually mandatory by market conditions and changing employee expectations.

“If there is a leader who is hesitant, I would ask them to think about what their knowledge workers would invent or improve if they had more time, and the business value that would immediately follow. What if they face an existential risk if they don’t provide that kind of support and experience to their customers and employees, ”said Kohli of Automation Anywhere.

In this scenario, the question is no longer whether it is fair to forgo RPA in order to preserve jobs that may be automatable, but whether companies can afford it.

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