A Realistic Take on RPA in the Workplace

PHOTO: Franck Veschi

As is so often the case when a technology catches on, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is surrounded by a lot of hype about what exactly it is – and what it isn’t. What is preventing companies from using this technology? How do companies see the connection between RPA and more established technologies such as Business Process Management (BPM) and Enterprise Content Management (ECM)?

Interest in RPA continues, but six common misconceptions prevent companies from taking full advantage of the technology.

1. RPA business drivers

RPA is often viewed as a technology to replace people in the workforce. In fact, RPA enables humans and machines to work together to create efficiency, even when an entire process cannot be automated. RPA helps companies resolve bottlenecks caused by a lack of resources or skills. It also provides an inexpensive way to bring new automation technologies to the business.

Although the word “robot” is in the name, Deloitte warns that RPA is not a “walking, talking Autobot” but rather a way of “replacing people who do repetitive rule-based tasks”. The list of key RPA roles is a good place to start thinking about using RPA:

  • Open emails and attachments.
  • Sign in to web / corporate applications.
  • Moving files and folders.
  • Copy and paste.
  • Fill out forms.
  • Reading and writing in databases.
  • Scrape data out of the web.
  • Connection to system APIs.
  • Make calculations.
  • Extract structured data from documents.
  • Collecting social media statistics.
  • Follow “if / then” decisions / rules.

Related article: Breaking 8 Myths of Robotic Process Automation

2. Challenges in RPA implementation

Poorly documented legacy systems with poorly defined connections can make implementing RPA a challenge. But for the most part, RPA deployments are quick with minimal disruption to existing processes. RPA itself is not a complex technology, and RPA providers offer support, tools, and training to help companies get started. RPA providers offer RPA software as a service that can be scaled flexibly and as required from any device with just one Internet connection.

3. Unstructured information

While the distinction between data and content is largely artificial – most companies simply feel they have an information problem – dealing with content is simply more confusing than with data, and therefore presents unique automation challenges. As companies consider using RPA tools to bridge some of the process gaps between systems, the huge amount of unstructured and semi-structured information (i.e., content!) That surrounds most processes is a key issue here. Documents, JPEGs, emails, conversations, pictures, forms, text messages, application files, audio files, video files, and information in myriad other forms all fall into this category.

Industry organization AIIM states that companies expect that the volume of information flowing through processes will increase from X to 4X in the next two years and that 60% of this information will be content rather than data. This poses a challenge to the complete optimization of many RPA engines. If companies expect to take full advantage of RPA technologies, they must also solve the problem of unstructured information by converting their unstructured information into machine-understandable data.

Related Article: BPA vs. RPA: How Are They Similar, How Are They Different?

4. Expected ROI

RPA is often mistakenly referred to as a pure cost-saving initiative, neglecting the other benefits it can offer. RPA-enabled automation frees business users from manual tasks so they can spend more time doing valuable work that adds more value to the business. By automating manual and routine tasks, organizations also reduce the likelihood of errors in these tasks and lower the likelihood of downstream process interruptions.

5. RPA does not replace legacy systems

A common mistake is to confuse RPA as a replacement for existing legacy infrastructure systems such as Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Business Process Management (BPM). This leads to longer decision-making than necessary as everyone involved in these systems opposes the adoption of new technologies. BPM and ECM systems often support business-critical processes and their interruption is not a random decision. RPA should be viewed as a complement and partner to BPM and ECM technologies that can fill the gaps in these implementations.

6. Risks

A potential risk with RPA is that it can be implemented without considering its impact on other systems. RPA is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Organizations need to consider what processes need to be automated, the amount of data involved in those processes, who the users are and how they are equipped with the technology before implementing RPA across the organization.

A realistic view of RPA

RPA doesn’t work for every organization or process. Despite the sometimes overzealous claims, RPA is not an automatic solution to every challenge. As with any major enterprise technology, organizations need to keep a close eye on the change management issues associated with deploying RPA and address employee concerns about job loss as a strategic concern rather than an afterthought.

John Mancini is the President of Content Results, LLC and the former President of AIIM. He is a well-known author, speaker, and consultant on information management, digital transformation, and intelligent automation.

August 14, 2021