The business information technology landscape has seen many changes and developments over the last 50 years, since a large accounting firm implemented the first business application (payroll) at GE Appliance Park in Louisville, KY (January 1954). It took several trucks to transport the machine that processed that simple application because it weighed 30 tons. The Univac I processor was the size of a 25- by 50-ft. room — technicians actually walked inside to work on it — and it had more than 5,000 vacuum tubes. Since the Univac I, we have witnessed the development of mainframe computers with punch cards/readers, dumb terminals, mid-range computers, open systems, personal computing connected by local area networks, the Internet and World Wide Web, internet search, generations of programming languages, and cloud computing.
Today, organizations large and small are on a path to “digitize” portions of their businesses for the purpose of continually optimizing their operations and gaining efficiency. One method of digitization is known as Robotic Process Automation.
What is Robotic Process Automation?
Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, is the use of software tools or modern-day programming languages to partially or fully automate human activities that are manual, rules-based, and repetitive.
For example, think about the process of paying a vendor invoice:
- Manually open Outlook or Gmail (or another email platform);
- Manually open an email with an invoice attached;
- Manually open the attachment in the email (normally a PDF file);
- Manually save the email to a network folder;
- Send the invoice to the appropriate person for payment approval;
- Manually key the invoice amount into the accounting/AP system;
- Manually complete the transaction in the AP system.
Now perform this function 25, 50, maybe 100 times a day, five days a week. This repetitive, rules-based task could easily be automated with technology/automation. This is the most basic example of a process that is very manual, repetitive, and a good candidate for automation.
Said another way, RPA is the automation of manual tasks that interact with any business systems, in the same way a human would, to perform rule-based work. This includes:
- Mouse clicks
- Data entry in fields
- Copy & paste functions
- Navigating computer screens
- Logging in/out of systems
- Database queries
One reason why this new computing phenomenon has just recently (within the last five years) begun to gain traction in the business world is due to the cost-effective programming tools and methods being employed today that simply were not widely available more than five years ago. Today, you can surgically deploy bits of code or software without having to re-platform an entire business application or architecture.
Please use these links to navigate to use cases and good candidates for RPA for the following industries:
- Healthcare organizations
- Manufacturing companies
- Construction & engineering companies
- Food & beverage companies
Getting Started with Robotic Process Automation
One of the greatest challenges of starting a digital transformation initiative through RPA is answering the question, “where do I begin?”
The old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” is apropos for your RPA journey. Getting a quick and early win that demonstrates the return on investment (ROI) is critical. This allows your company champion to demonstrate the value of the initiative and an ROI to drive excitement and acceptance within the business.
We often ask clients, “what is your biggest headache that recurs on a daily, weekly or monthly basis?” Tasks or functions that require a lot of time (hours), have a history of errors, are very repetitive, and are potential drags on morale may be good candidates for partial or full automation.
Once you have obtained your first win, it should be evangelized throughout the organization. The ease of implementing the automation tools and the demonstrable benefits (cost savings, error reductions/increased accuracy, customer satisfaction improvements, etc.) should be measured and celebrated.
Once the leaders of the organization see the obvious benefits obtained from the pilot project, you’re ready to establish your strategy (or goal state). Department leaders, based on their new understanding of the technology and what makes good candidates for process automation, should begin looking at their business process and making proposals for process automation. Running these proposals through a cross-functional team of leaders to debate the ROI of each proposal should provide you with the roadmap to implementing your strategy.
Some other considerations that should be taken into effect include the complexity of the process and the amount of judgment involved versus rules-based decisions.
Do it yourself or get outside help?
As you consider your initiative, you need to ask the question, “do we have the skillset internally to accomplish this?” If you are interested in securing that first win quickly, you may want to consider hiring an organization with existing expertise in RPA. The following are some advantages and disadvantages of outsourced and do it yourself (DIY) approaches:
What to consider before choosing what’s right for you:
There’s certainly not a “one size fits all” solution. Several considerations should go into your decision about DIY or outsourcing this initiative, including the following:
- Capacity – How complex is the process of integrating automation to your business? And what is the capacity of your internal team?
- Quality – Based on your evaluation on your own or your provider’s automation software demo, which best suits your business?
- Time – How much time is needed for your company to learn and understand how RPA works? How fast do you want an automation solution to begin and bring in results?
- Cost – How much are you willing to spend on RPA?
A hybrid approach may be best for most small and medium-sized businesses – a combination of both approaches, with your internal team learning from outside experts as they work together on development. Think of it as on-the-job training for your internal team, working almost like interns next to experts. While the cost will initially be higher (lowering your initial ROI), once your employees have learned and gained experience, the ROI quickly increases. This is depicted in the graphic below:
Digital transformation through the use of process automation can resolve many challenges in any business including lowering costs, increasing efficiency, creating capacity for growth, building demand, reducing errors, reducing staffing headaches, making existing employees happier, and creating more satisfied customers.
So, be ready to ask the questions that will determine whether RPA is ideal for your operations, and where it will work best. Which use cases make sense? Will RPA increase employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction? Will it help your team hit service-level agreements? Will it increase compliance? The more you think about it in advance, the more ready and the sooner you can create another differentiator between you and your competition.
Looking for examples of good candidates for your industry? Use the links below to navigate: