We Use Robots Every Day in Our Personal Lives—Why Not at Work?

By: Jason Burian on July 1, 2019

First, What RPA is Not

Robotic process automation (RPA). That’s some term, huh? Isaac Asimov, pictures of automobile assembly lines, and fields of people being harvested in the Matrix come to mind. Before we descend into the inevitable future ruled by our mechanical overlords, let’s talk about RPA. Let’s start with what robotic process automation is not: It’s not actually robots. I know right—software people...🙄.

It’s also not this, although I still want one (well, the funny one and not the murderous, psycho-killer version):

For our under-30 friends, this is Johnny 5 from the fabulous 1986 movie Short Circuit starring the unparalleled Steve Guttenberg. You should certainly go watch, although it will not help you in your understanding of RPA.

RPA is also not whatever the hell this abomination is:

Good lord—kill it with fire.

But the video does illustrate a good point: Robots cannot do what humans can. Compasion, empathy, service—these are valuable human capabilities that a robot cannot replicate. More on this to come.

So, What is RPA Already?

Robotic process automation is software that helps a human automate a manual process. We use this technology every day: “Hey, Siri, what’s the weather?”. With a simple voice command, a robot (Siri, in this case) performs a number of predetermined tasks. It gets your current physical location, queries a weather service for data, and returns that data to the user. What would have taken you three or four clicks was given to you in a single command. We use these capabilities every day in our personal lives: ordering pizza, playing a music playlist, etc. So why not apply these same capabilities to our workday?

I typically group RPA into two types: Desktop/User Automations and Process Automations. Lets dissect each a bit more.

Desktop Automations

These are probably the closest to the “Siri” example above. These are automations, initiated by users via a click, that remove several manual steps. They’re often used to tie many systems together. Let’s say you work in the finance team and a vendor calls in looking for payment. You open the accounting system and pull up that vendor’s information, but you also need the electronic version of the invoice. Well, that’s in another system not connected to the accounting software. With a desktop automation, our helpful and not-at-all murderous robot friend can go fetch that for us just like the weather.

We were able to pull together all the information we needed to answer the question in a very simple way. What you didn’t have to do was start up the other system where the documents live, log in, navigate to the invoices area, execute a search, and then open it.

Shorter phone call; time saved. Easy answer for the vendor; better customer service.

Process Automations

These automations use the same software robots as above, but in order to completely automate human tasks. These robots sit on computers waiting for work just like a human worker would. This robo-coworker performs the exact same data entry work as an employee would using the exact same user interface. Let’s stick with the invoice example from above. The goal of the invoice process is that the data is entered into an accounting system so that the bill can get paid. Sometimes this happens with a person looking at a piece of paper or a digital copy that has been scanned. Either way, the human looks at the invoice and keys in the data. Process automations hand that tedious manual work to a robot who is happy to do it.

Can Robots Really Do That?

You’re damn right they can. Software robots have several advantages over humans when it comes to manual tasks. Because they are a digital workforce, they can be expanded and reduced to meet fluctuating volumes of work without the pesky hiring/firing stuff. Does your work volume grow during tax season or holidays? Add a few more bots and then turn them off when the amount decreases. They also never take breaks or PTO. Their data entry is often much faster because robots are excellent typists and don’t make keying errors. Finally, they always follow the business rules to the letter.

Why Not Write Integration Code?

This question often gets asked. Why use the UI of an application to do data entry? Why not write code that will push the data directly into the system?

Look, RPA isn’t always the right tool to use. Sometimes calling an application’s API is the right path. But what if the application doesn’t have an API?  In the early 2000’s, we didn’t create extensibility for applications. Sometimes software vendors will change APIs when upgrading from version to version. That means your code and integrations break. Finally, some business rules (like data validation) only happen in the user interface. APIs can bypass these business rules, assuming the developer is doing it in their code. RPA is not always the right tool for the job, but with it we have another option at our disposal to solve problems.

What Can I Use RPA For?

There are many processes in an organization that are not the right fit for RPA; how do you identify the right ones?

I look in two places: first, where humans can provide more strategic value but are bogged down with manual, tedious work; second, at the processes that are critical to an organization’s success. These are processes that typically involve bringing in or sending out money, e.g., onboarding a new customer, closing a loan, or paying an invoice.

Some Examples:

  • Finance and Accounting – Getting data into line-of-business systems
  • Integration with BPM Tools – Getting data and executing the next business decision
  • Customer Service Centers – Quickly collecting information about the caller
  • Onboarding – Customers, new accounts, employees, vendors
  • Content Creation – Gathering information, creating a correspondence, emailing it to a customer

In Conclusion

There are many things a robot cannot do. They cannot empathize with a customer on the phone. They cannot think strategically about how to make an organization or a process better. Humans are the most important part of our organizations for this reason; they are not important for manual, tedious, repetitive tasks. Look, at some point in the future, robots will rise up and kill us all. But until they do, we should put them to work and let humans get back to more valuable tasks.

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