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Robotic Process Automation Requires a Thoughtful Approach

March 23, 2022


As a result of lockdowns, illness, and employee shortages, the pandemic forced many companies to explore or accelerate process automation. The Tibco team explains, “Process automation streamlines a system by removing human inputs, which decreases errors, increases speed of delivery, boosts quality, minimizes costs, and simplifies the business process. It incorporates software tools, people, and processes to create a completely automated workflow.”[1] A survey conducted by Camunda, found, “More than nine in 10 (92%) IT decision-makers describe process automation as a vital element of digital transformation. The same percentage considers process automation critical to achieving business optimization and efficiency, and to helping them free up employees to take on more complex, strategic jobs.”[2]


Some business executives may not be familiar with one particular type of process automation: robotic process automation (RPA). Gerhard Krumm, an expert in the subject, writes, “Have you often transferred data from several Excel sheets or PDF files to another application several times a day? Or do you have to transfer orders from incoming e-mails into an enterprise resource planning system on a regular basis? If you know these activities, then you have only one wish. You would like to minimize or hand over this time-consuming work. You now have an idea of what RPA means: the automated execution of this (annoying) activity by a software robot.”[3]


Benefits of and Concerns About RPA


Journalist Peter Wayner (@peterwayner) insists, “[RPA] remains one of the poorly named buzzwords in enterprise computing. There are no robots in sight. The tools are generally deployed to fix what was once known as paperwork, but they rarely touch much paper. They do their work gluing together legacy systems by pushing virtual buttons and juggling the multiple data formats so that the various teams can keep track of the work moving through their offices.”[4] “Paperwork” is often the bane of businesses. When mistakes are made, trying to correct them can be costly, both in terms of time and money. Most experts assert that the primary benefit offered by RPA is accuracy. Krumm explains, “When a software robot carries out repetitive work, it has one major advantage: the susceptibility to transmission errors is significantly reduced. This is because a robot cannot be disturbed or confused, for example by a call from a customer or questions from colleagues.”


Another benefit of process automation is business continuity. When the pandemic forced offices to shut down, companies utilizing RPA systems found themselves in a better situation to carry on business. That may be why so many decision-makers in the Camunda survey insisted process automation was a vital element of digital transformation. As the GlobalData Technology staff notes, “Covid’s impact on the global economy has triggered a sharp interest among enterprises to improve business processes through automation, with robotics leading the charge by delivering immediate value through robotic process automation solutions.”[5] RPA has also been labeled a gateway technology for artificial intelligence (AI). Wayner explains, “Craig Le Clair at Forrester Research predicts that every RPA company will either embrace AI or ‘become a dinosaur’. While this may never become strictly true, there’s no doubt that RPA is one of the simpler vectors for inserting AI into corporate DNA.”


One of the principal concerns about introducing RPA into a company, especially by employees, is the potential of loss of jobs. Krumm asks, “Are robots really destroying jobs?” The answer, for the most part, seems to be no. Umme Sutarwala (@umme_sutarwala), a Global News Correspondent with OnDot Media, writes, “The ‘robots are coming for your job’ story is starting to lose traction.”[6] In fact, many companies have found that workers are much more satisfied with their jobs once they hand-off tedious tasks to tireless bots. And, according the GlobalData Technology staff, “Recent trends triggered by the pandemic, including workforce and technologist shortages and business processes inefficiencies, have aligned in recent years to make RPA a high-demand component of the IT operations agenda.”


Implementing RPA


Just because employees are grateful to offload tedious tasks, it doesn’t mean that implementing RPA solutions is easy. Centuries ago, Niccolo Machiavelli, in his classic The Prince, wrote, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” John Burke, CIO and principal research analyst with Nemertes Research, adds, “Any change requires support to make it easier, and that is especially true for automation efforts. Many enterprise leaders say automation is a top priority for them. Just saying that doesn’t make it true, and it doesn’t guarantee any changes in staff behavior.”[7] According to Burke, the top three barriers to successful automation implementation are “getting the right tools, building the right processes, and providing the right employee support.”


Although this discussion may lead one to believe that RPA is a silver bullet technology, it’s not. It’s a tool. And, like all tools, it needs to be applied to the right job to be effective. The staff at CIO Applications notes, “RPA is not appropriate for many business operations. Businesses should devise a strategy for selecting the appropriate processes and prioritizing them depending on complexity and ROI.”[8] Burke notes, “Automating a purely mechanical step is usually straightforward and is the focus of RPA tools especially. Automating a more nuanced decision may still be possible, but the more sophisticated the required decision-making process is, the more difficult it is to automate.” The CIO Applications staff recommends taking the following steps when implementing an RPA solution.


Step 1. List out processes to automate. “Consider how automating these procedures will seem, its goal, the business environment, and how that will fit into future company operations or the broader automation journey.”


Step 2. Perform a feasibility assessment. “Conduct a feasibility analysis for each process to see how much it can get automated. It is a two-step method that includes process evaluation and technical feasibility.” Bill Gates (@BillGates) once noted, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” That’s why making sure your processes are ready for automation is essential.


Step 3. Readjust. If the feasibility study identifies processes “that are not organized, standardized, optimized, documented, or conducted as anticipated,” either drop that process from consideration or “attempt to reoptimize and reorganize the process.”


Step 4. Get users involved. A technology that is not used is no better than having no technology in the first place. By understanding processes from the user’s perspective, the likelihood that it will be accepted and used increases dramatically. Users can also help you document the procedures in greater detail. As the CIO Applications staff notes, “It is critical to have a complete description of each operation that will get automated.”


Step 5. Prove the concept. “Conduct extensive testing to investigate performance in all potential circumstances.” Obviously, any flaws that are uncovered will need to be resolved before the solution goes into full production.


Burke concludes, “Automation barriers are a common reality, but with the right mix of tools, processes and support for staff, IT leaders can unstick or accelerate their automation strategies.”


[1] Staff, “What is Process Automation?” Tibco.
[2] Staff, “Report: 92% of IT decision-makers think process automation is ‘vital’,” Venture Beat, 19 January 2022.
[3] Gerhard Krumm, “RPA – Robotic Process Automation – But What For?” MoreThanDigital, 7 January 2022.
[4] Peter Wayner, “Robotic process automation in 2022,” Venture Beat, 27 December 2021.
[5] GlobalData Technology, “RPA to complement the human touch in 2022,” Verdict, 4 January 2022.
[6] Umme Sutarwala, “Three Key RPA Trends to Watch Out For in 2022,” Enterprise Talk, 17 January 2022.
[7] John Burke, “Top 3 ways to overcome automation barriers,” TechTarget, 31 January 2022.
[8] Staff, “Key Steps of Implementing RPA in Your Organization,” CIO Applications, 27 January 2022.

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