Imagine an army of tiny robots. Each one can do one thing. It does it precisely and tirelessly. And when it completes it, another robot takes over and does another thing. This chain of ‘bots’ can together do what people can do. But without error, rest-breaks, or complaint. Welcome to the world of Robotic Process Automation.
Although it’s often abbreviated to RPA, we’ll stick with Robotic Process Automation. Because, if you’re reading this, you are probably not familiar enough yet, for the acronym to register easily. Because this article purports to be only one thing: a basic primer for the uninformed.
For more depth, you’ll need to seek out an expert on Robotic Process Automation. Maybe, by the time you read this, that expert will look like a little bot in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. And, sitting behind it will be a series of other bots. Collectively, they may be a robotic process automation that answers questions about robotic process automation. How weird would that be?
Why Do We Need Robotic Process Automation?
People tire. They rebel against doing repetitive, mundane tasks. And they make mistakes.
If you sign up for a newsletter, someone wants that data on a spreadsheet. They need to send a welcome message to everyone on their spreadsheet. If one of those people clicks a link, the business may need a diary entry. Or maybe it will want to make up a parcel. That needs a label, a packing list, and goods need to be retrieved from warehouse shelves.
Clearly, people could do these tasks.
And, equally clearly, 1990s technology could build a huge and complex IT product that integrates all these things.
But, what if you have all your IT infrastructure? And now you want a small extra bit of functionality. Maybe scanning an email for a phone number and placing it into an invoice. You could:
- Get a person to do it
Quick to implement, accurate at first, expensive to sustain
- Re-programme your system
Slow to implement, accurate forever, expensive to maintain when new functions are added weekly
- Find a third way
Guess what… There is one. It’s Robotic Process Automation
Enter Robotic Process Automation
The third way is to craft a small piece of software that does one simple thing. It grabs the data from one part of your system and feeds it into another part. Just as a person might. Then, when you need another capability, craft a new bot to do that thing and add it on.
What is Robotic Process Automation?
Robotic Process Automation is a chain of small pieces of software, called bots. Each one can interact with data from IT applications, and interpret, process, manipulate, and communicate that data to another application – or a different part of the same one.
These robots create a virtual workforce that can mimic what people can do, when we interact with digital systems. Each one follows a simple rule-set. It does it precisely, without error or fatigue.
The Capabilities that Bots can Have
Chaining together bots to create Robotic Process Automation is really chaining together a set of capabilities. Each bot does one thing before handing off to the next. Each capability may be something a human can do easily. But the whole task starts to look complex. But the benefit over traditional IT infrastructure is the ease of swapping out one bot for another, when you want to either change or optimise the task it does.
The capabilities of robotic process automation bots include:
- gathering data
- validating data
- researching information
- carrying out data manipulation and analysis
- structuring data
- recording information
- transferring information
- carrying out calculations
- forecasting trends
- generating natural language (to speak with people)
- interpreting natural language (to listen to people)
- co-ordinating actions of other bots
- monitoring and reporting progress
Did You Say ‘Talking to People’?
Yes, near-enough. I was serious at the start of this article. Those little chat-boxes that so many websites have. Yup… They are bots. They generate natural language text. Then, they interpret your responses and then retrieve and communicate the information you need. Only when your request either contains too much they cannot interpret or it touches on matters the bot has been trained to refer onwards, does the bot trigger an alert for a human operator to take over.
The Benefits of Robotic Process Automation
Robots never sleep. They never get bored and complain. And they don’t make mistakes. They do, however, do what they are programmed to do. Which means they have no initiative. So, faulty coding or situations a little different from their range of programmed-in cases will cause wacky results. But organisations are loving them. Their use is exploding. Here’s why:
- They work fast
Processing data from email text and posting it to a database can be up to 15 times faster than a skilled human at peak work rate. But…
No rest-breaks, weekends, holidays, nor compassionate leave. Which means they also don’t get tired, so…
No stupid transcription errors where 345 becomes 354. All this means…
You get your money’s worth. Return on investment for set-up costs comes quickly and continues to grow. Until you need a new bot, which brings us to…
The modular nature means it is cheap, easy, and low risk to substitute a bot or add new ones into a chain. And all of this sits on top of existing, working IT infrastructure, which means…
You can optimise existing processes and add new ones, without compromising the integrity of what is already working.
In short, the Robotic Process Automation opens up agile development of new business capabilities to new entrepreneurial start-ups and established global giants. Even one-person businesses (like your author) are using online RPA tools like IFTTT (IF This Then That) and Zapier to automate business processes.
If you don’t know what Robotic Process Automation is, nor how you might use it in your business, then maybe you’re in danger of being replaced by a chain of bots in the near future.
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What is Your experience of Robotic Process Automation?
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The robots are working on the new Pocketbook.