Robotic Process Automation 101
So you’ve heard about this Robotic Process Automation (RPA) idea, but what is it really? It actually goes by several other names which can be used interchangeably:
- Process Automation
- Workflow Automation
- Business Process Automation
Essentially, it’s just a fancy word for innovation that is focused on a series of steps in a process, and automates all or part of them.
RPA can get all flash and utilise machine learning, predictive analytics or a suite of cognitive services including vision, search, speed, language and decision services, but otherwise it’s really nothing more than ‘automation.’
Business Process Mapping
Understanding the steps in a process is critical to being able to automate them. Documenting a Business Process Map visually is often a great way to start. It involves using a diagram to show individual steps together with decision-points or branches to show how the series of steps might change depending on certain factors.
For example, if you were mapping the process of answering the phone, you might include a decision about which team should respond to an incoming call and divert the call accordingly.
Mapping business processes isn’t always an easy thing to do. Specialists known as Business Analysts can assist in documenting processes in explicit detail. It’s surprising how much people just expect that others understand the details and often miss out large steps when trying to document processes for the first time.
It’s also common to document both ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ processes, where the first are the current system and the latter being the proposed or future processes. Techniques such as LEAN and SixSigma can be helpful in determining the most efficient future-state processes.
A significant problem arises during documentation of a process, when it is realised that current processes are far from consistent.
Not only are inconsistent processes a problem for business process mapping documentation, they can also mean inconsistent customer experiences and outcomes, inefficient processes or processes that do not comply with policies, contracts, standards or regulatory requirements.
Business process mapping presents an opportunity to identify non-value-adding steps in a process with a goal of eliminating them.
Studies have shown that governmental red tape is costly and slows the pace of business dramatically, but it can pale into insignificance, when compared to the internal red-tape businesses put on themselves.
Many tools are available to automate business processes, ranging from common SaaS tools such as IFTTT (if this then that) and Zapier, to Microsoft PowerAutomate and LogicApps, to custom-developed integration solutions.
Data doesn’t always need to be captured in the individual applications needed to process information. It is often possible to create simple desktop and mobile apps that collect information in a single form, and then distribute that data to the individual applications that need the data automatically. This can not only make entering information a lot easier, but also much faster and inclusive of data validation processes to ensure only correct data is captured.
Even in cases where paper-based forms are a necessity, automated processes for ingested hand-written information and converting it to text are now well within reach for every organisation. No barrier exists to handwritten, typed or spoken input for collecting data of virtually any kind.
Into the Future
So how far can RPA go to automate processes such as no human intervention is required? There appear to be few limits as artificial intelligence, machine learning and cognitive services being easier and easier to incorporate into workflows to automate processes in every business.
The key is to start small, automate part of a single process, and realise some benefits before moving onto more ambitious goals. Paper based forms need to be seen as a thing of the past, just like fax machines and cheques.
Technology is moving faster than it ever has before, and it will never move as slowly again.