What is RPA?

Seeing a headline with robots in it caught my attention. I’ve worked with robots for years, particularly education and entertainment robots. Ever since robots have come on the scene, there has been the concern that automation would result in layoffs, mostly for manufacturing and distribution employees. Now, however, the concern may be that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) may affect the livelihood of knowledge workers.

According to the Institute for Robotic Process Automation (IRPA), “Any company that uses labor on a large scale for general process work, where people are performing high-volume, highly transactional process functions, will boost their capabilities and save money and time with robotic process automation software.” CIO Magazine discusses that RPA can “yield huge returns” but at the same time warns that bypassing IT can create risks for companies.

RPA is in the “early adopter” stage. Surveys said that RPA had low adoption rates in 2015 and that 2016 will see an uptick in companies once they understand how it can be used. CIO.com said, “The business value of RPA is so compelling that growth will accelerate.”

Bottom line, RPA is based on the notion of “software robots” or AI workers. These software robots can replicate the actions of workers that interact with the user interface (UI) of computer systems. In the past, RPA could be considered a form of screen scraping, however, it is much more than that today. IRPA states that RPA robots are “revolutionizing the way we think about, and administer business processes, IT support processes, workflow processes, remote infrastructure, and back-office work.”

The benefits of RPA include lower cost, higher efficiency, improved performance and quality, and advanced analytics. Concerning advanced analytics – RPA helps to make the gathering and organizing data much easier so a firm can predict future outcomes by developing predictive models.

There are various RPA software vendors in the market today including Worksoft Inc., Anywhere, Blue Prism, T-Plan, and even Lexmark. Lexmark announced its Kofax Kapow 10 for RPA projects aimed at “automating the labor-intensive processing of digital information.” RPA does not require programming skills; business operations people can be trained in a few weeks to independently automate processes.

And therein lies the rub, RPA allows subject matter experts to be able to use the tools rather than IT programmers. Software robots can be configured or “trained” using “demonstrative steps rather than being programmed using code-based instructions.”  Therefore, CIO Magazine cautioned that companies that bypassing IT can cause problems later.

By automating repetitive tasks, RPA delivers immediate impact to business operations and accelerate new business opportunities. The question then becomes, will RPA bring back jobs from offshore or will it cause more layoffs?

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