Robotic Process Automation Part 1 – History and Introduction

My plan is for this post and my subsequent posts to be one of a series of blog posts which aim to provide a high-level overview of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), how it came about, what RPA is, how to start your journey to Artificial Intelligence, RPA considerations … that sort of thing. If you have a keen interest in RPA or want to understand the key concepts then you might have found the right place for it. Not all posts will land at the same time, they will come in instalments 🙂

If you happened to attend my presentation on RPA at UKOUG TECH 18 (or wanted to and couldn’t make it), then these posts will basically cover the exact content I did during that session in textual form.
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Recent years have seen constant improvement and innovation for technology and business.. However, there has been little change in the way that we deploy our people. People today are different:

  • We blend how we spend out time like never before… when we work, when we learn, when we play, and, when we socialise
  • We work on the move, checking business emails even on the weekends and evenings
  • We want to bring our new devices to the office and use the familiarity and ease of them whilst we work
  • We share knowledge and learn through new channels – we can easily find the answer to a problem through a simple google search or by sending out a message to our slack channels
  • We want to access social media

The same is true for businesses – they are different too… :

  • Company valuations have less focus on physical assets and more focus on soft assets – like the size of online communities, the data assets that organizations hold and the ability of a business to convert “clicks to cash”
  • Cloud computing is allowing organizations to become more digital and to scale faster whilst streamlining business process and evolution to save money
  • Now, more than ever, it is possible for businesses to reach audiences much larger than before thanks to the evolution in the world wide web and mobile computing.

It’s strange then… given the significant changes in the way organizations go about their business and the changes in the way people achieve communication and productivity in their everyday lives, productivity of workforces in the office has not necessarily improved.

A study from a university in Amsterdam reported that:

“Since the 1980s, productivity in the office has improved by 3% compared to a 75% productivity increase in production line factories over the same period of time”

VrijeUniversitet, Amsterdam – Explorative study into Information Logistics

It’s relatively easy to imagine a production line factory with robotic arms building a shiny new Mercedes or BMW – we see it all the time on television! – but, I guess, it’s not so easy to imagine how a robot would fit into the computing world and the office. Office workers continue to complete mundane and time-consuming tasks which can certainly relate to the productivity figures seen above.

  • We still fill in paper forms
  • We still create spreadsheets to gather, organize and report on data
  • We still re-key data from one system to another
  • We still aggregate content on PowerPoint slides to share information
  • We still find workarounds to everyday problems that impede on the way that we do our jobs

SO WHAT? What are the consequences to businesses (and the people that work for those businesses) of the continued operation of sub-optimal data handling and processing tasks within an office environment?

  • The cost to businesses – Payroll remains THE biggest expenditure item for most organizations. McKinsey & Co conducted research and suggested that adoption of the existing automation capabilities could save around $2 trillion in annual wages
  • The burden on people – Ultimately, the teams within an organization and the people within those teams are what keeps a business afloat. Without the people, all operations would grind to a halt. Failure to automate data handling/processing tasks is not a victimless crime. Lots of people have to work with data. Mundane, time-consuming tasks keep people away from the work that really matters to their employer
  • The wasteful office – The use of desktop office applications and hard-copy documents is both unproductive and wasteful
    • DID YOU KNOW? The average spreadsheet or word-processed document is read less than 5-times in its lifetime
    • Relying on hard-copy documents to bridge weak points in processes, increases paper waste
    • Use of paper increases demand for storage and space – for example, filing cabinets, rooms dedicated to archival activity or perhaps even an employee to maintain those archives!
    • It places further demands on resources – such as having to scan hard-copy documents to electronic files

Historically, advances in the world of technology have largely shaped and changed the labour market, sometimes destroying and sometimes creating jobs in the process. Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, described this process as “creative destruction”. Technologies in the autonomic, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cognitive technique spaces are maturing… fast …. We could be described as being on the cusp of another wave of creative destruction.

We are in an era of constant innovation, created by new methods of automation in which business processes are being redesigned, rewritten and… where possible… eliminated. The traditional outcomes that are typically sought by businesses in their IT strategy (increased productivity and cost-effectiveness) still exist. However, they are being married with NEW drivers like business agility or creativity for example.

BUSINESSES NEED TO DO NEW THINGS.
PEOPLE WANT TO WORK DIFFERENTLY.
AUTOMATION IS MAKING IT POSSIBLE.

How many times have you heard the concept of automation being talked of or viewed in a negative light?? How many times have you heard of “predicted job losses” as “robots take over”?? Ironic really, often those comments come from people who enjoy using their mobile devices. People who enjoy using communication mechanisms such as email, skype or slack. People who complain about repetitive and time consuming aspects of their lives. 

The technology industry is more optimistic. Automation is not as simple as replacing man with machine; it’s about businesses leveraging the technological advancements of the modern world, in the same way they did with the internet or email revolution. In leveraging these technological advancements, they can optimize the way that they operate and orchestrate new and innovative ways of working.

Looking back.. The software industry set up on this path to automation many many years ago (*cough* before my time *cough*) with the introduction of basic scripts to automate repetitive or slow to carry out tasks. However, automation is now reaching a level of maturity which can allow us to do far more. There are 4 levels of automation, each builds on the last with smarter capabilities that have the potential to release more and more human capacity:

  • Reliability, Availability and Serviceability –  design principles used to make systems more resilient through powerful script-based techniques.
  • Tool-based Automation – use of sophisticated tools to execute critical tasks and processes, reducing manual effort and optimising staff utilisation.
  • Autonomic Systems – Systems that can manage themselves, thereby attaining a higher degree of operational efficiency.
  • Cognitive Computing and Artificial Intelligence –  self-adapting and self-aware systems capable of performing a broad variety of intelligent tasks, emulating human intelligence and influencing key business outcomes.

The image above visualises a typical “general progression” from tradition IT automation as we all know it, through to Artificial Intelligence (AI). Starting with the “lower complexity” of traditional IT automation in the form of custom screen development, interfaces, APIs, batch modules and reporting up to the “higher complexity” in the form of self-learning robots, natural language generation and automated process documentation. For many people and businesses, Artificial Intelligence is considered to be “something for the future”, however, RPA can be a key enabler for businesses to begin their journey to AI. Ultimately, RPA could be considered as a good “starting point” for business to explore the possibilities and potential of automation.

It goes without saying that the technology industry and businesses are very much focused on moving to the cloud, if they haven’t already done so. However, for many businesses, especially those who sit on large scale, non-cloud, on-premises implementations, this may seem like a daunting prospect. Most of the time, they are fully aware that they need to modernise their IT estate and get faster in delivering business needs or reducing their operational costs. Large ERP programmes require clear sponsorship and direction, but, in some cases, the current climate is making this an unappetising prospect. Escalating costs, increased timescales and the need to deliver capability in a more agile way is putting pressure on these transformation programmes. Maybe RPA can bridge the gap, help to modernise and automate?
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If you have made it this far, thank you for reading, and stay tuned!

Amy xo



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