Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are becoming more prevalent in business and society. As the technology becomes more accessible and efficient, more and more organisations are looking at RPA and AI. Although both of these technologies are not new it does seem that they are now beginning to come of age and radically changing the way the world does business.
So, what is RPA and AI? Let’s consider RPA first of all. Perhaps the most important thing to say about RPA is that it is not a robot! At least it is not a physical robot. RPA is a type of software that is able to interface with computer systems in the same way as a person does. RPA software is able to ‘type’ and is able to ‘click’ and is able to move a cursor. This enables it to open and close programs and to use programs. This is why the term ‘robotic’ was coined – there’s no physical robot but the software behaves in a robotic way. What is key though is that the RPA software is able to carry out tasks with a much greater level of efficiency than a human operator – and it never gets tired.
RPA has been shown to be a highly effective option for carrying out certain types of tasks. It has delivered huge cost savings for organisations and eye wateringly massive returns on investment of 100s of per cent in some instances. It is certainly worth every organisation taking a serious look at how they might take advantage of what it is able to do.
Shop Direct, Telefonica, RAC and nPower are just some of the organisations that have reported substantial benefits to their businesses. Some of those benefits include the reduction of costs of processes. It isn’t however only a matter of cost reduction. Using RPA helps to further improve the quality and consistency of outputs – why wouldn’t it? It also provides organisations with greater auditability / trackability of their processes down to key stroke level. A boon for those in say the financial services sector.
Neither is RPA just about the commercial sector. In 2015, Sefton Council became the first local authority in the UK to trial RPA in its revenues department. At the beginning of the project, leading international service provider, Arvato automated three processes in Sefton’s revenues department to ensure the RPA solution was accurate, robust, auditable and scalable, before extending it to cover a number of high-volume tasks across the department. The tasks vary in complexity, from indexing documents and assigning them to specific workflows to signing up people to direct debit payment of Council Tax and processing discount applications.
Alastair Bathgate, CEO of Blue Prism is confident that RPA has a greater role to play for local government in the future, “We believe there is huge potential for RPA to make a difference in local government thanks to the large number of repetitive back office tasks which can be automated”. His view is support by a a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers it was estimated that 45% of work activities could be automated, creating $2 billion of savings in global workforce costs.
RPA is clearly an important tool for organisations to consider. There is though considerable confusion that surrounds it. Many wonder what all the fuss is about given that most organisations already have very high levels of automation and have had for many decades. This gets us to the key to RPA’s appeal. We pointed out that RPA software uses other systems, like a human operator. This is crucial. It means that we can improve the efficiency of a process that is largely automated without necessarily having to make any changes to the existing legacy systems. For anyone who has wrestled with old legacy systems and over stretched IT teams the prospect of being able to make improvements, without instigating costly and resource hungry IT projects, is a very attractive proposition indeed.
RPA often acts as a link, bridging the gaps between systems or it can act as an effective work around for a system that could not quite accommodate a particular set of tasks. Often these system shortcomings have been addressed by getting people to fill the gap. Not only is this often quite inefficient it also creates mind numbingly dull tasks that someone has to do. RPA offers the opportunity to improve the efficiency of a process, reduce cost and often take away tedious tasks, allowing people to focus on more added value, more highly skilled tasks – like talking to customers.
This takes us nicely to the difference between RPA and AI. RPA is a dummy. It is pretty stupid. It does exactly what it is told to do – exactly. There’s no thinking – no judgement – just a set of rules which it blindly follows. It can only work with structured data. If the task requires working with less structured data RPA is struggling. If the rules for what it needs to do – down to individual key strokes – cannot be defined, then RPA is going to struggle.
Enter Artificial Intelligence. AI does have the capacity to work with less structured data. It can find patterns in data and be programed to make choices. AI can learn, based on what it experiences and that learning can then inform future choices. AI is advancing quickly and has evolved into an incredibly useful tool for organisations. Unstructured data such as emails and phone calls can be sifted with AI programmes by identifying key words or phrases before checking parameters and categorising what is required. Virgin Trains have been using AI for some time now to analyse emails received from customers. They are able to make sense of what the email is about by analysing key words. They are then able to decide to make for example further checks on the validity of the email content by perhaps checking if a specific train journey mentioned in the email actually exists. It might then go on to check if there was any reported issue with that train journey. It can then pass the task on to person who is now able to make a judgement about what needs to happen next having been saved the chore (and the time) of checking key facts.
In some instances AI can be used to help structure data allowing it then to be offered perhaps to an RPA solution to progress further. A combination of AI and RPA can potentially transform a process, massively reducing costs through reducing FTE’s while being more efficient and effective at completing tasks than human employment.
What has happened alongside the growing popularity of exploring and implementing RPA and AI is a growing appreciation of not only the benefits of these solutions but also the challenges. Understanding implementation and the processes that RPA and AI can improve is crucial to getting the best return on your investment. There has perhaps been a view that RPA certainly could be almost bought off the shelf and implemented by a school leaver with a GCSE in woodwork. The reality is somewhat different. More people are recognising that there is in fact a lot to consider to get the most from RPA. How to choose the best processes to RPA. How to gain buy-in and support. How to design the new target operating model. What software to choose. How to manage long term. How to ensure the fit with IT . How to set up effective governance.
RPA and AI are not the future, they are the present. A great return on your investment that efficiently and effectively gets the job done. Whether or not you and your organisation ultimately invest in RPA and AI solutions importance of investing in finding out more about it the case for investing some time and energy in finding out more about it and how it might add value to your business is extremely compelling. Those that don’t run the risk of missing out on a very good thing.