What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Traditional automation uses application programme interfaces where some form of human input is needed such as data entry or clicking specific buttons. Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, works through setting up software ‘robots’ that automatically use these user interfaces as a human would, but at greater speeds. The main aim of the technology is to reduce number of hours spent on mundane tasks. So far RPA is used to automate manual, repetitive, rules-based processes that typically have low rate of variable outcomes by replicating the processes of opening apps, keyboard inputs, and mouse clicks that a human would do. However, thanks to advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, this is subject to change over the next decade.
Why is it becoming so important?
RPA’s importance and potential are evident in the rate of implementation by large companies since 2016. According to Joe Blue, director of global data science at data company MapR, the technology’s convenience was key in its initial rapid adoption. Adding small widgets or existing panels to dashboards can convey the information processed by RPA so that users “don’t even see 80 percent of the cases that they would have seen because they were automatically delegated and never got there”.
As is typical with the topic of automation, job security lessens, and many employees face the risk of being made redundant. Craig Le Clair, chief analyst at Forrester Research, estimates that around 26 million – or roughly 1 in 6 – employees’ jobs in America “lie in the perfect ‘sweet spot’ for RPA”. By 2028, 60 to 70 percent of those employees may no longer be needed. What’s interesting, however, is that Deloitte only found employee resistance amongst 17% of RPA adopters. This could be linked to Forrester’s study on the Impact of RPA on Employee Engagement which found “more than half [of RPA adopters] reported improved employee engagement as a benefit of RPA. Other benefits include increased efficiency (86%), deeper insights into customers (67%), and improved customer service (57%)”. Some employees are being retrained and many of their roles are shifting focus to client-facing and analytical tasks, resulting in happier employees.
All-in-all, RPA has delivered results for implementers such as glass manufacturer AGC reported a reduction of 4,200 work hours per year in September 2019 while aiming to reduce 10,000 work hours by the end of 2020.Such results are likely to drive other companies to implement the technology in hopes of observing similar benefits.
As per Deloitte’s 2018 RPA Survey, 53% of surveyed companies had started their RPA journey, 78% of which were going to increase RPA investments by 2021. Given rates of implementation, Deloitte expects 72% of companies to have adopted RPA technologies by end of 2020, with “near-universal adoption” by 2023. While these exact timelines may seem a bit ambitious, we do believe that they are realistic within this decade as a leading trend. This is reflected in growth numbers found by Gartner Research which reported a 63.1% increase of the industry’s revenues from $518mn in the fiscal year of 2017 to $846mn in 2018, with 2019 numbers looking to grow by 56.6% to $1.3bn.
It is worth noting, however, that out of Deloitte’s survey, only 3% of RPA implementers have been able to scale to more than 50 bots within their businesses. This is one of the main things that we expect to change over the next decade through what Gartner Research refers to as hyperautomation. Gartner defines this as “multiple machine learning, packaged software and automation tools to deliver work”. Through this, we will not only see more intelligent automation, but also more scalable automation. Through the use of Machine Learning and process morning, RPA bots will no longer need specific rules to follow and will instead be able to improvise according to multiple scenarios after running in the background while recording users’ actions.
Furthermore, there is a trend within RPA and enterprise software for low/no-code software is emerging, partially due to success stories from RPA start-ups such as Airtable and Twilio. RPA’s current user and task-specified nature is one of the most major costs of its implementation. With low/no-code RPA, its uses can be as easily understood as Excel, enabling it to greatly revolutionaries how we work. Going forward in the next decade, organisations will better understand how to implement RPA bots and standardise them across multiple departments and processes, vastly increasing scalability and benefits.
How will RPA change the way business is done and where does the opportunity lie? RPA will be a big driver for change in the coming decade. Proper use of the technology can not only decrease operational costs of businesses by as much as 30%, according to Gartner, but it can also redefine the operations and jobs within those businesses. With the help of AI even within consulting, banking, and law which were once thought to be out of reach for automation will begin seeing changes as tasks such as preparing slides, drafting legal agreements, data manipulation, an auditing slowly disappear from the job description and requirements. Employees stand to benefit a great deal from this as their roles focus on more client interactions and relationship building with more cognitive and stimulating aspects and less mundane, repetitive tasks.
Businesses also stand to gain a lot from the technology. While the aforementioned cost cutting is a big driver for RPA implementation, businesses can also benefit from less down time between decisions as insights get delivered faster with higher accuracy; more access to information within the company as RPA software consolidates and manages stored data from multiple legacy servers; and higher productivity and engagement within the workplace.
What are the challenges it brings to the fore?
If for some readers the upside and potential for RPA seems too good to be true that’s because in some cases it very well may be. As per Zeeshan Rajan, Senior Manager at PwC, for RPA implementation to be successful “”A sound foundation must be created for the purpose of further scaling, and this requires a solid basis with a defined strategy, communication plans and change management, trained RPA experts and a stable IT infrastructure – just to mention some examples”. This not only means high costs for businesses in dedicating resources, training or hiring experts, but also major changes within operations and communications in the firm that can all require long transition periods. Therefore, it’s quite important for businesses that do not have the right foundations to manage their expectations of what RPA can achieve for them once implemented as it is not a magic solution to any and all inefficiency problems.
While these requirements for RPA adoption and success may become more relaxed in the decade as RPA evolvers into smarter forms and is more able to adapt, this still poses a big challenge for businesses and whether they are truly ready for this new era of automation. Even if businesses find current RPA investments to be too expensive, being ahead of the curve and preparing for the technology in advance can present businesses with a large competitive advantage when and if they decide on implementation in the future. Are you RPA ready? Because the businesses of this decade are being more and more so.