Robotic Process Automation – Myths and Facts


Robotic Process Automation – How robotic it is and how novel the technology is? Are “bots” really software robots? What RPA means to Business personnel, Technical people and Corporations. Where does it meet Artificial Intelligence today? How well would it be married with Artificial Intelligence tomorrow? If you are on Business side or Technical side, how exposed are you to RPA disruption and how can you be prepared for it and leverage it?

There has been a lot of buzz around Robotic Process Automation (RPA) off late. If you are new to this concept and technology, you would wonder what it is. From the name you may tend to think it’s something to do with Robotics. From all the buzz around Artificial Intelligence in conjunction to RPA, you might even think it’s related to Artificial Intelligence. Let’s see what is myth and what is fact.

What is RPA?

To understand what RPA is one needs to understand what a process is. Any sequence of steps that are performed to fulfill a business need is a process. Generally a process includes the real recipe of the process – steps to achieve what is really intended to achieve, a few best practices, a few regulatory and compliance stuff, creating audit trail etc. For easier understanding let’s take something more concrete.

You are applying for a credit card with a credit card provider. You fill the application either online or through a paper application. In either case, an associate of credit card provider has to validate all the furnished information for completeness and correctness – whether you provided your first name, last name, address, annual income and finally whether you signed the form or not. Then run a bunch of verifications and validations such as background and credit checks. Finally enter all these details in a system and run a risk model that determines your eligibility and credit limit. The whole sequence of steps is a business process.

In a non-RPA world, all or some of these steps are performed by a human. Of course, in a digital world, most or all of these tasks can be done programmatically. You can build a web application so that customers can apply online and a business process can be built with one of those well known BPM (Business Process Management) systems. If all the process can be automated by a BPM system, what’s the need and role of an RPA system?

That’s where things get interesting. Let’s jump to the real world. Unless we are talking about a new organization that’s completely built ground up for this use case, the above automation is often an integration project among several in-house and third party systems. For example, credit check is often provided by a third party application which will be invoked by the credit card provider. Whenever we talk about Integration, there is a lot of complexity, confusion and cost involved. Integration generally requires both the service provider and consumer to agree upon a few protocols and standards. On top of that, there are software development costs for both the ends. Also, not all applications are integratabtle as a few are legacy or extremely complex systems – a few applications won’t even have an API which makes it impossible to integrate with them. Even BPM cannot help in these situations. In some cases even if you can leverage BPM, these projects are so costly that there won’t be any ROI (positive cashflow) after factoring in the software license, development and maintenance costs.

With RPA, most of these issues are solved in an economical way. RPA is NOT a single technology. Instead it’s a collection of tools a few of which have been in use for more than a decade. A few tools that are integrated in RPA platform are

  • Record and Play tool – Records what a human performs and repeats it any number of times. Of course you can customize it so that each run can be performed with a different data set. If a human copies a row of excel spreadsheet and pastes in a form on a web page, this tool can simply repeat the same task – it opens the excel, highlight the text, copy it, open browser, log on to the application, navigate to the intended page and paste the content in the correct field of the form
  • Web Scraping tool – Reads a web page and extract content out of HTML
  • Other content extraction tools – Extract the content from spreadsheets, PDFs and images using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) techniques etc.
  • Rule Engine – Allows users to write rules which dictate the conditions to all the above tasks when to run and when not to run. Validations and verifications can also be performed by a rule engine.
  • Orchestrator – Helps to build the sequence and flow of tasks to determine execution order

If you are familiar with any of the automation testing tools, record and play and site scraping tools must be well known to you. Using these tools, one can mimic a human being with out doing any integration among disparate applications. As a result, any application – whether it has an API layer or not, it’s developed using a new technology or not, you can integrate it with an RPA application. In fact, even the application provider would be unable to identify whether a human is performing these tasks or a bot is performing them – of course a few sites build captcha and similar techs to avoid bots.

For BPM professionals, rules engine and orchestrators are inevitable tools. These tools help to provide order and conditionality to an RPA bot.

What RPA is NOT?

As it’s today, RPA does NOT leverage much of Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning. Most of the out-of-the-box RPA products do NOT have this integration yet. If you ask me whether RPA is any Robotic, my answer would be a big NO. Of course, what you build with RPA could be eligible to be called a “bot”. But beyond semantic meaning, it has nothing to do with Robotics.

As it’s today, most of the vendors’ bots are run independently as isolated processes. Probably at some time in future, they have to be invocable from other software products so that they can be launched on-demand and as part of a larger business process that involves non-RPA systems.

What it means to you?

I hope, by now, you got a conceptual view of what RPA is and what it is capable of at a very high level.

Business Personnel – If you are a business personnel who performs any repetitive tasks which are mundane and require a little or no business knowledge, it’s possible you may be replaced by a bot as of today.

If your job needs simple to medium level of business knowledge that can be encapsulated into some kind of structure and logic, you might be taken over by RPA as well. RPA technology as it’s today can perform your role very well.

If you are a Subject Matter Expert in a business area and it takes a lot of learning to reach where you are, then you are safe for now – at least until RPA integration with Artificial Intelligence is improved.

Technical Personnel – If you are a BPM professional, you may need to learn RPA soon. I believe, this is the skill that could be at risk because of RPA to start with. RPA is a natural evolution for you.

If you are a software programmer, you should be worried too. RPA cannot replace all software projects. However, some of the projects that would have been developed in traditional ways would now be developed using RPA. It means less demand for Software Programmers.

What’s the bright side?

Business Personnel – RPA truly empowers business personnel to take the control of automation. Your Subject Matter Expertise could still be appreciated. You don’t have to rely on Technical personnel as much as you used to. Significant portion of RPA implementation requires a little or no technical knowledge. It means, if you are willing to learn RPA, it would be actually a boon to you. Just to clarify, you don’t have to learn writing software code but you can implement at least half of automation yourself.

Technical Personnel – RPA is nothing challenging given your technical background. Learn it today. You can still share half the automation pie. Not all of the automation is programming free. You still need to implement some complex logic through scripts and programming. On top of it, maintaining, monitoring of RPA environment would still require technical expertise. Join all of this with Analytics and insights – you see a bright spot on the other side of the tunnel.

Leadership – There is a lot of cost cutting waiting for you to grab. Jump into RPA and adopt it. It could mean a very fat bonus for you at the year end.

Closing Remarks

I don’t put RPA and Artificial Intelligence in the same bucket as of today – they are two different worlds. On the contrary, RPA has nothing intelligent in it. However, it’s only a matter of time before they complement each other.

Nevertheless, RPA is going to be a disruptor if it’s not already. There is still an early mover advantage on the table if you are ready to adopt it.

PS: I welcome all constructive comments. Please feel free to leave them here. Thank you.

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