What is RPA? Robotic Process Automation Explained
RPA is revolutionizing the way organizations operate. It’s a simple and easy-to-use software deploying RPA bots that mimic human actions. It can save you time and money, freeing your employees from monotonous tasks.
What Does RPA Stand for?
RPA stands for robotic process automation. It uses software robots to automate digital activities usually performed by human workers.
So, What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
Robotic process automation gives you software technology – 'bots' – that you teach to perform business processes.
It's all about using these ‘bots’ to manage low-value, repetitive jobs. By handing these tasks to a team of bots, you'll see results faster, save costs and allow your staff to focus their time on more valuable operations.
This isn't some obscure, niche technology either. McKinsey reports that 45% of employees’ time could be freed through current automation technology.
What is an RPA Bot
With RPA, you can create individual software bots to execute complex processes. They mimic actions and perform tasks by giving step-by-step instructions. RPA bots can interact with any of your systems and applications just like a person would. But unlike people, RPA bots can work faster, without breaks and with greater accuracy.
What Different Kinds of RPA Are There?
The Three Types of RPA
Robotic process animation falls into three key categories: attended RPA, unattended RPA and hybrid RPA.
This variety of RPA lives on a user's device and won't usually activate unless the user gives a command. Best suited for: automation where the person deals with sensitive data, for triggering a process or for auditing purposes. It is often a good choice for a customer-facing worker or for sensitive tasks such as fraud or AML checks.
This kind of RPA runs independently, completing tasks by following a rules-based process. Best suited for: reducing the labor load of back-office employees. Invoices or accounts are good examples of these processes.
This kind of RPA combines attended and unattended bots, providing end-to-end automation. Best suited for: automating activities existing across front and back-office work, and scaling automations.
How Does RPA Work?
In a nutshell, RPA works by providing bots emulating the actions of a human completing a process. They can capture data, key in information, navigate systems and perform tasks in the same user interface (UI) your employees use. They're also able to respond to input and communicate between systems.
The most ideal candidates for automation tend to be those with repeatable, high-volume processes driven by business rules.
RPA in Action
The first step is to install the bot and build the process instructions it will follow. Building RPA bots is designed to be accessible but can sometimes require technical skills. However, many platforms are low-code/no-code, pre-built objects giving access to ‘drag-and-drop’ automations. Building bots is done by either recording the process or designing it from definition documents.
Operation varies depending on whether you're running attended, unattended or hybrid automation.
For attended RPA, a user must usually trigger bots to start or stop working. Occasionally these bots require further input, such as login details, to perfectly perform certain tasks.
Unattended RPA can operate without any involvement from a human. It uses 'trigger events' to let bots know when to start and stop working on tasks. These bots run in the background on a server or virtual machine.
Orchestration allows you to manage and administer your RPA bots. Examples include switching various bots on or off, arranging them into groups and prescribing workflows for groups.
Orchestration is especially important if you've implemented RPA on a large scale. You'll likely need to operate bots on hundreds or thousands of devices, automating numerous different tasks at any given time.
Is RPA Software a Type of Cognitive Technology or Artificial Intelligence?
In short, no. RPA is not cognitive technology or artificial intelligence.
However, RPA is the foundation for intelligent process automation and cognitive automation. They’re not the same, but they do share a lot of similarities.
RPA performs repetitive actions using structured digital data. Meanwhile, cognitive automation technology turns unstructured data into structured data. This data can then be used by RPA to complete the processes.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is often used as a catch-all term for any technology using software or bots to achieve tasks traditionally performed by humans. However, RPA is not a form of AI. The key difference here is that RPA relies on logic and structured inputs. In contrast, AI develops its own logic and uses unstructured inputs.
RPA and AI are now being deployed together as intelligent automation. Although RPA is not a type of cognitive tech, they work well together. The adoption of these two technologies as an intelligent process automation platform helps organizations gain more benefits from RPA.
Is RPA the Same as Business Process Management Software?
Again, no – RPA and business process management software (BPMS) shouldn't be confused. The most significant difference is that RPA automates sets of tasks or processes, whereas BPMS is used to refine and streamline workflows. This means they’re highly complementary to each other.
In a nutshell, BPM lets you optimize and streamline how your processes work from end-to-end. It allows you to orchestrate workflows involving people, bots and systems. The RPA bots automate processes or tasks within the workflows to deliver even more efficiency.
RPA has a similar relationship to Business Process Automation (BPA). The former is focused on individual automations for specific tasks, and can be considered a form of wider BPA. BPA aims to automate all elements of end-to-end – often complex – processes. Businesses also use it to model, orchestrate and optimize workflows.
There's now a dizzying array of automation solutions available. So why choose RPA?
The key reasons to implement RPA in your organization are to streamline your operations and ultimately reduce long-term costs.
At the employee level, RPA can eliminate monotonous and repetitive jobs, including a number of highly complex tasks. This frees staff from manual processing, allowing them to focus on more strategic and creative activities.
What are the Benefits of RPA?
From better business outcomes, to improved employee engagement, there are many benefits of RPA. Below are six key advantages of adopting RPA.
From better business outcomes, to improved employee engagement, there are many benefits of RPA. Below are six key advantages of adopting RPA.
Speed and Efficiency
Software bots work exceptionally quickly, especially compared to humans performing the same task. They drastically cut down processing time; a task that would take a human hours to complete can now be achieved in just minutes. And unlike a person rushing a task, this speed comes at no risk to the quality of the output.
Of course, these activities don't sit in isolation. RPA can also speed up and improve larger, complex processes and transform various operations throughout your organization.
Accuracy Eliminates Human Error
Everyone makes mistakes and it's no surprise that errors creep in when people spend long hours on monotonous, repetitive tasks. But RPA bots will always perform perfectly. So long as they’re given the right instructions for their tasks, you’ll have uniform, predictable results every time.
RPA of course has upfront charges and ongoing maintenance costs. Still, bots are far more productive and less expensive than the equivalent number of human workers required for the same results. Any time an RPA bot performs a task, it will be completed faster and more accurately than when performed by a person. This results in significant business savings and frees your people to perform other tasks.
Improved Customer Satisfaction
Certain points in any customer experience (CX) journey will benefit from the 'human touch'. But for other areas, RPA offers many advantages for your customers. For instance, with robots working alongside employees, customers can expect quicker response times.
Then there’s the indirect benefit of employee freedom. By taking care of laborious tasks, RPA gives your human customer service agents the time to manage more complex customer issues. They can focus on providing excellent personal responses for better customer satisfaction.
RPA is an automation software that expands your workforce by giving you access to digital workers. This new portion of your staff will be available 24 hours, seven days a week, with no vacation or sick days and no dips in productivity.
While they'll need some training, they will return far more hours back to the business than are put in. What’s more, they’ll free up other employees for more valuable work.
RPA removes the burdens of monotonous jobs like data entry and invoice processing. Implementing back-end system automation simplifies workflows, liberating your employees traditionally tasked with these activities. These workers can now dedicate time to more challenging, creative and ultimately stimulating work.
RPA and intelligent automation can do incredible things for your company. But your people and human creativity are still your strongest assets. Freeing your employees so they can strategically monitor, assess and refine your operations will be one of the greatest benefits of using RPA tools.
What are the Challenges of RPA?
The RPA implementation model may cause challenges if you rush into it without proper research and preparation.
A dedicated planning phase can help you meet challenges head-on, eliminating some even before they arise. It should include three important objectives: identifying target digital systems and processes for automation, engaging key stakeholders who can act as advisories and promoters for your RPA implementation, and preparing employees for the coming changes.
When considering RPA, watch out for the following potential pitfalls.
While RPA is a huge factor in digital transformation, with some amazing benefits, it is just one factor. It's easy to get swept away and start looking at RPA as a magic solution for all obstacles in an organization.
That's not to say it won't make a huge difference. Get a clear picture and set expectations to avoid disappointment. It's a good idea to lay out your key business objectives, considering how RPA may help your organization meet each one.
Understandably, not everyone will welcome an influx of high-performing 'robots’. At least not right away. The fear that “machines are coming for my job” could create significant internal pushback against RPA.
The best way to mitigate this is through strong employee engagement – making sure everyone is well-informed about the project in advance of kicking off with robotic process automation. As well as providing plenty of information about the overall plan and benefits, helping individual employees understand exactly how it will impact their role – with an emphasis on the benefits to them – can drastically alleviate worries and prevent backlash.
Difficulty in Selecting Suitable Processes
RPA can streamline a great many digital processes, but not everything is suitable for automation. Processes requiring lots of manual input susceptible to human error tend to be good candidates for automation. But they should also be based on standardized, predictive rules with clear (if complex) instructions to work with RPA. Typically, processes that require creativity or problem-solving aren’t suited to RPA.
Deeming RPA 'Just an IT Thing'
As with any digital transformation process, RPA needs to be widely embraced and understood by the business as a whole, with strong support from leadership teams. Otherwise, you're opening yourself up to huge headaches down the road. To avoid this, it is essential to involve people in identifying automation opportunities and affirming their value. This will get you the resources, time and traction for scaling your RPA project.
For a successful implementation, it's a good idea to develop an RPA 'Center of Excellence' (CoE). This involves identifying and engaging those people in your organization who are best suited to act as champions for RPA. Find those engaging in key roles: your change manager, subject experts for your processes and those who will be operating your bots.
Not Involving IT in Decision-Making
The flip side to the previous challenge is introducing RPA without consulting IT early and regularly. Involving CIOs and the wider IT function from the outset will help you roll out automation successfully while also getting the resources you need. That means empowering IT so they can maintain the bots and help build more robust automations from the outset.
Create a CoE at the planning stage and ensure key members of the IT department are included and engaged. CIO buy-in is imperative if you want to make RPA a success, but you should also consider other key roles such as RPA developers, solutions architects and engineers
For many organizations, introducing and running RPA are only the first steps in a large-scale business transformation project. But many businesses run into difficulty when scaling automation, including RPA, across the enterprise.
One key issue is lacking a clear strategy or vision for an organization-wide approach. But many other factors can hinder attempts to scale RPA. This might be enterprises failing to optimize the processes they want to automate (assuming RPA itself will fix all challenges within a process), or lacking the talent needed to execute the automation levels required at an enterprise-wide scale.
What Can RPA Do?
RPA has the potential to transform the way companies do business and how work is done. Even the simplest of RPA bots can perform lower-value, repetitive work such as data entry, file and folder administration, filling out forms, routine analysis and creating standardized reports. By adding more advanced technology such as AI, OCR or IDP, you may find robots able to perform cognitive processes like conversing with customers, interpreting structured data and text, and even making complex decisions by employing advanced machine learning techniques.
RPA can be adopted in wider intelligent process automation projects, or by itself, to streamline individual manual tasks and transform your digital systems. For many organizations, RPA is the first step in their automation journey.
RPA can unlock further value for your business when used with other powerful digital solutions. For example, you could combine RPA and AI to create intelligent automation or hyperautomation. You would be giving your bots the potential to tackle far more complex tasks. With the right AI, bots could handle cognitive processes like speech comprehension and responsive communication. Adding natural language processing (NLP) will help you achieve end-to-end automations for considerably more processes.
RPA may also have to find its place alongside 'heavy-weight' automation projects like back-end system automation or traditional automation. However, much of the beauty of RPA lies in its simplicity. Unlike traditional automation, it requires little or no infrastructure change. It generally offers seamless integration with enterprise applications, working on the existing UI and using the features of current systems.
How to Start your Automation
So, you want to introduce intelligent automation to your organization, but you’re not sure where to start. The best way to reach your automation goals and get started quickly is to build a strategic roadmap.
Here are our five steps for getting started on your automation journey:
- Prepare everyone for automation and set expectations. For enterprise-wide buy-in, you’ll need to develop a convincing RPA use case. Unifying your digital workforce with your people is essential to winning over your workforce. Showcasing the benefits and potential return on investment (ROI) will help you get there.
- Ensure your processes are set for automation by identifying and eliminating bottlenecks and siloes. To create scalable automation across your enterprise, you’ll need to remove any obstacles in your current processes. Process intelligence, which combines process mining and task mining, monitors and maps your current business processes to determine which are ideal for automation and where you can make improvements.
- Establish reliable governance so your industry standards are consistently met. Implementing a Center of Excellence (CoE) is a great way to get employees involved in your automation strategy and ensure compliance. A CoE will help with faster scalability as well as auditability.
- Find a scalable operating model that works for you. By following a Robotic Operating Model (ROM), you’ll have a detailed step-by-step guide to strategically set up and scale your intelligent automation program, evolving it as you expand. The ROM also lets you track your automation maturity so you can always identify where your organization is on its automation journey.
- Think about the overall vision rather than focusing on small, task-based changes. It’s tempting to look at automating simple tasks with RPA, but true digital transformation comes when you look at the bigger picture of automating workflows with intelligent automation. That’s where you see real revenue and efficiency gains.
Want more details on the RPA basics?
For a detailed step-by-step guide in setting up and scaling your intelligent automation, check out the SS&C | Blue Prism® Robotic Operating Model 2 (ROM™2).
- Find out the differences and benefits of intelligent automation versus RPA.
- Find out the differences and benefits of hyperautomation versus RPA.
- Check out our glossary of commonly used RPA terms.
- Learn how to write a business RPA business case for executive buy-in.
- Answer the question, ‘Will RPA take human jobs?’ and how you can utilize digital workers to benefit everyone.
Want more details on your RPA strategy?
- Discover RPA use cases for examples of where intelligent automation has helped different industries.
- Establish an attainable and sustainable vision for your RPA implementation.
- Find out how to calculate the ROI of your RPA to get the most from your automation program.
- Learn what RPA challenges exist and how you can overcome them.
- Follow our guide to successfully executing your RPA strategy at scale.
Want more details on types of RPA deployment?
- Learn about Cloud RPA and how it can benefit your business
RPA Industry Use Cases
RPA in Financial Services and Banking
- Automating reporting tasks for reconciliations, monthly closing, management reports and mortgage processing
- Streamlining accounts payable and accounts receivable processes
- Fraud detection
RPA in Manufacturing
- Invoice processing
- Supply chain management
- Accounts payable processing
RPA in Telecoms
- Network management customer onboarding or offboarding
- Data transformation
- Debt collection
- Expense control
- First Call Resolution (FCR)
RPA in Insurance
- Registering and processing claims
- Regulatory compliance
- Business and process analytics
- Policy cancellation
- Sales and distribution
- Legacy application integration
- Policy servicing/admin
RPA in Retail
- Demand-supply planning
- Product categorization
- Inventory management
- Call center processes
- Marketing automation
- Sales analysis
- Supply chain management and logistics
- Customer support
RPA in Healthcare
- Appointment scheduling
- Patient records and data management
- Asset tracking and management
- Diagnostics and data analysis
- Patient outreach and post-treatment care
- Healthcare insurance claims automation
- Revenue cycle automation
- Prior Authorization Automation
RPA in Supply Chain, Shipping, and Logistics
- Shipment scheduling and tracking
- Procurement and inventory management
- Partner onboarding
- Order and payment processing
- Supply and demand planning
- Customer service
RPA in Government and Public Sector
- Data capture and analysis (surveys and census management)
- Statutory process automation
- Content migration
- Registration office processing and administration
- Grant application processing, permitting, reporting and compliance
RPA in Energy and Utilities
- Contact center processes
- Virtual agents
- Statements and billing
- Customer account management
- Technician dispatch and reporting
RPA in Aviation and Airline Industry
- Air traffic control processes
- Traveler information
- Aircraft maintenance
- Crew scheduling
- Ticket sales
Common Enterprise RPA Use Cases
RPA for Human Resources/HR
- Spent analytics and reporting
- Learning and development administration
- Position management
- Travel and/or expense management
- Payroll batch importing and validation
- Employee benefit invoice reconciliation
- New-starter onboarding
- Employee master data
- User credentials creation
- Access termination
RPA for Finance and Accounting Teams
- Expense reimbursement
- Financial planning and analysis (FP&A)
- Accounts payable and accounts receivable processing
- Accounting change
- Account and bank reconciliations
Robotic Process Automation: Key Takeaways
Robotic Process Automation is all about implementing software bots to automate digital tasks and streamline your processes.
RPA has a great many benefits including reduced costs and improved efficiency. While it's not without its challenges, many of these can be overcome with proper preparation.
Perhaps RPA's biggest benefit is freeing up your employees' time to focus on more creative and problem-solving tasks – emphasizing this is key to winning employee engagement and reducing any potential resistance.
RPA can play a key role in the business transformation of a wide range of industries and business functions. Examples include finance and banking, healthcare, insurance, manufacturing, retail, shipping and logistics, and energy.