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APR 17, 2020

The Who, What, and Why of Robotic Process Automation

By Kurtz Law, With James Redmond Chua
Unsplash/Shahadat Rahman

Robotics, AI, and machine learning are driving a new age of automation. In 2019, Grand View Research reported the global robotic process automation (RPA) market alone was valued at US$1.1 billion with an expected growth rate of around 33% over the next seven years.

This was however, an estimation made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben May, head of global macro research at Oxford Economics, states that this will likely challenge economies due to containment measures and trending conservative consumer spending. From a cost perspective, McKinsey reported that US$16 trillion has been attributed to wages which could be automated by adapting existing technologies. For a clearer understanding of RPA and its impact on business processes, Kurtz Law interviewed Nagaoka University of Technology, RPA Lecturer James Chua.

KL: Could you explain what robotic process automation is?

JC: RPA is a tool that uses software robots to automate human digital interactions. These interactions refer to activities such as clicking a mouse, typing on a keyboard, opening emails, copying and pasting text, moving files, and so on. Essentially, we are talking about digital automation. We program RPA tools to recognize input and carry out a series of processes.

KL: So it’s software, not hardware?

JC: Some people misinterpret the term “robot,” thinking that it must be a physical machine. Essentially in RPA terms, the robot is a program which is given a set of parameters. It waits for input, and then carries out its instructions. These days, RPA robots are relatively simple. They don’t try to carry out complex activities such as mimicking human intelligence. They could be as simple as computer algorithms, performing tedious, repetitive tasks which, until recently, have all been performed by humans.

KL:  Could you give us an example?

JC: RPA works best with replicable tasks. Consider talent operations:  sourcing, hiring, and onboarding employees, for example. Onboarding is usually a repetitive task. You could feed the RPA tool a document containing a table of names of new workers, their positions, their email addresses etc., and RPA will automatically carry out the steps required to comply with company policy. This could include setting up accounts and creating logins, sending training manuals, supplying dress-code regulations, and so on.

KL: Is RPA a new technology, or is it a reinvention of an older technology?

JC: I would say that it is a new type of solution based on concepts and technologies that have been around for decades. RPA uses existing technology such as screen scraping and workflow automation. Screen scraping has been around for a very long time. It predates the web. You can imagine what it means: data is extracted from the screen. If you think about a spreadsheet, the RPA tool doesn’t need to know how Excel works. It only needs you to open the application, so it can visually see the data. It can then grab numbers or words as text or characters. This can be very handy when dealing with desktop applications, virtual machines and legacy applications. Thirty years ago, screen scraping was inaccurate and slow, but today RPA vendors such as UiPath report 100% accuracy and high-speed data scraping.

KL: UiPath claims that anyone can learn RPA, even children. Do you agree?

JC: I think so. RPA is based on automating rules-based processes. Just like language, it has syntax and it can be learned and memorized. Of course, understanding it deeply goes beyond that.

KL: How efficient is RPA?

JC: It depends a lot on the planning, design, and implementation. It’s not efficient when the process it aims to mimic is broken, or when the RPA professional doesn’t fully understand client processes. Projects can be obstructed by employees who are resistant to RPA implementation. Employees might be afraid that their positions are at risk, or that established work patterns will have to change. Such resistance can derail a digital workforce, so it is important to engage them and get their buy in from the start.

KL: Do you think RPA is changing the way companies do business?

JC: What occupation hasn’t experienced repetitive, tedious activities? Who wouldn’t appreciate help sorting emails or distributing data to colleagues and customers? Or hunting through pages of documents for specific information? There are jobs out there where up to 90% of the work consists of these types of activities. They are often time-consuming and contribute to work fatigue. RPA can drastically reduce these types of work, freeing time for workers to be more proactive in value creation, building emotional connections with clients and colleagues, and problem solving.

I would personally like to see organizations implement RPA as a way to invest more in reskilling and upskilling their employees. I think that this would lead to a greater sense of loyalty and pride, which could have a high impact on retention rates.

KL: What impact will the Coronavirus situation have on the RPA market?

JC: Probably significant but, it’s too early to speculate. Time will tell.

KL: Do you think that automation will eliminate jobs?

JC: RPA is not intended to replace people. The vision is that humans and robots are part of the same team doing what they do best. Robots will take care of the manual, repetitive tasks while humans focus on the cognitive, analytical, and creative. Imagine employees coming to the office doing design thinking and collaborating with teams to improve products and services. Or brainstorming on how to strengthen and nurture relationships with clients. These activities are stimulating and engaging, which creates motivation to work.

I do recognize that there is a temptation to use automation to reduce headcount and costs. But if, for example, RPA can fulfil 20% of an employee’s job, that employee’s additional time could be used for some other high-value activity. At the same time, new RPA occupations are being created: business analysts, solution architects, system engineers, infrastructure engineers, developers, and so on.

So I hope companies will make the most of opportunities that RPA brings, and rather than eliminate jobs, transform them.