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What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English?

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What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English - Intelance

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

What is robotic process automation (RPA)? What kinds of repetitive tasks can it handle? Here’s a primer for IT and business leaders – and anyone needing to demystify the concept.

What is robotic process automation?

“RPA is a form of business process automation that allows anyone to define a set of instructions for a robot or ‘bot’ to perform,” says Aaron Bultman, director of product at Nintex. “RPA bots are capable of mimicking most human-computer interactions to carry out a ton of error-free tasks, at high volume and speed.”

RPA is ultimately about automating some of the most mundane and repetitive computer-based tasks and processes in the workplace that require human action. Think copy-paste tasks and moving files from one location to another.

5 ways to define RPA in plain English

  • “In layman’s terms, RPA is the process by which a software bot uses a combination of automation, computer vision, and machine learning to automate repetitive, high-volume tasks that are rule-based and trigger-driven.” – David Landreman, CPO of Olive.
  • “Robotic process automation is nothing but instructing a machine to execute mundane, repetitive manual tasks. If there is a logical step to performing a task, a bot will be able to replicate it.” – Vishnu KC, senior software analyst lead at ClaySys Technologies.
  • “RPA is software that automates rules-based actions performed on a computer.” – Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax.
  • “RPA is an advanced form of business process automation that is able to record tasks performed by a human on their computer, then perform those same tasks without human intervention. Essentially, it is a virtual robot copycat.” – Marcel Shaw, federal systems engineer at Ivanti.
  • “Put simply, the role of RPA is to automate repetitive tasks that were previously handled by humans. The software is programmed to do repetitive tasks across applications and systems. The software is taught a workflow with multiple steps and applications.”– Antony Edwards, COO at Eggplant.

RPA and artificial intelligence

Robotic process automation is often mistaken for artificial intelligence (AI), but the two are distinctly different. AI combines cognitive automation, machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), reasoning, hypothesis generation and analysis.

The critical difference is that RPA is process-driven, whereas AI is data-driven. RPA bots can only follow the processes defined by an end user, while AI bots use machine learning to recognize patterns in data, in particular unstructured data, and learn over time. Put differently, AI is intended to simulate human intelligence, while RPA is solely for replicating human-directed tasks. While the use of artificial intelligence and RPA tools minimize the need for human intervention, the way in which they automate processes is different. 

That said, RPA and AI also complement each other well. AI can help RPA automate tasks more fully and handle more complex use cases. RPA also enables AI insights to be actioned on more quickly instead of waiting on manual implementations.

Hoes does RPA work and what can it do for me?

Robotic Process Automation bots have the same digital skillset as people. Think of RPA bots as a Digital Workforce that can interact with any system or application. For example, bots are able to copy-paste, scrape web data, make calculations, open and move files, parse emails, log into programs, connect to APIs, and extract unstructured data. And because bots can adapt to any interface or workflow, there’s no need to change business systems, applications, or existing processes in order to automate.

Automation technology, like RPA, can also access information through legacy systems, integrating well with other applications through front-end integrations. This allows the automation platform to behave similarly to a human worker. RPA’s real value is in its quick and simple front-end integrations.

What processes are a match for RPA?

Evaluating your internal processes and workflows that would be good candidates for RPA is its own story for another day. That said, there are some fundamental criteria worth noting here since they can help you and your team get a better handle on what RPA is and how it could be useful. Moreover, these criteria can help as you discuss RPA implementation with non-technical colleagues elsewhere in the company. One of the big categories: Any processes that require people to do a high volume of repetitive data work.

“RPA is ideal for tasks involving a high level of human data processing,” says Landreman, the CPO at Olive. “The most common uses of RPA programs supplement repetitive functions or data-intensive processes, where logic-based outcomes are anticipated.”

Landreman, shares four basic check-offs when determining possible RPA fits:

  • The process must be rule-based.
  • The process must be repeated at regular intervals, or have a pre-defined trigger.
  • The process must have defined inputs and outputs.
  • The task should have sufficient volume.
Check out some example RPA use-cases

What are the benefits of RPA?

There are multiple benefits of RPA, including:

  • Less coding: RPA does not necessarily require a developer to configure; drag-and-drop features in user interfaces make it easier to onboard non-technical staff.
  • Rapid cost savings: Since RPA reduces the workload of teams, staff can be reallocated towards other priority work that does require human input, leading to increases in productivity and ROI. 
  • Higher customer satisfaction: Since bots and chatbots can work around the clock, they can reduce wait times for customers, leading to higher rates of customer satisfaction.
  • Improved employee morale: By lifting repetitive, high-volume workload off your team, RPA allows people to focus on more thoughtful and strategic decision-making. This shift in work has a positive effect on employee happiness.
  • Better accuracy and compliance: Since you can program RPA robots to follow specific workflows and rules, you can reduce human error, particularly around work which requires accuracy and compliance, like regulatory standards. RPA can also provide an audit trail, making it easy to monitor progress and resolve issues more quickly.  
  • Existing systems remain in place: Robotic process automation software does not cause any disruption to underlying systems because bots work on the presentation layer of existing applications. So, you can implement bots in situations where you don’t have an application programming interface (API) or the resources to develop deep integrations.