Realising the potential of robotic process automation

, January 23, 2018

Realising the potential of robotic process automation

The business process services industry could be in for a transformation as robotic process automation (RPA), combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies, disrupt existing work flows and start to contribute not only to cost reduction but also to top-line growth.

Gartner defines RPA software as “tools that are designed to mimic the same ‘manual’ paths taken by a human by using a combination of user interface (UI) interaction or descriptor technologies”.

“An RPA tool operates by mapping a process for the software ‘robot’ to follow via computer pathways and various data repositories, so RPA can operate in place of a human,” said the research firm.  

A blog on the Institute of RPA and AI’s (IRPAAI) web site cited IBM’s Watson as “one of the most significant examples of how RPA was evolving into a practical, extremely powerful tool”. Developed back in 2006, Watson is an automated system that is able to “gather information, solve problems and interact in human-like ways”.

Today, RPA is a small but growing market. According to Gartner, RPA software spend is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 41 per cent from 2015 to reach US$1 billion in 2020. In tandem with this, the proportion of large enterprises using RPA software is expected to grow from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.

Some common use cases for RPA include the automation of finance and accounting processes such as billing, accounts payable and taxes; HR processes such as payment processing, benefit disbursement and onboarding; IT processes such as software development and helpdesk ticketing; and procurement processes such as requisition approvals and invoice processing.

With the inclusion of technologies such as Internet of Things, predictive analytics, cognitive computing and artificial intelligence, RPA is also presenting businesses with new opportunities not only to improve productivity and reduce reliance on manpower but also to develop new products and services.

For example, RPA solutions with cognitive computing capabilities will be able to “learn, recognise complex patterns and become more powerful as they are used”, said the IRPAAI blog. “As these capabilities mature, automated tools will become increasingly flexible and able to take on practically any task that a human worker could do.”

These developments allow the value proposition of RPA to be re-cast in terms of top-line business growth and outcomes instead of just being focused on cost-savings. Writing for CIO magazine, Clint Boulton pointed out that “RPA is often propped up as a mechanism to bolster return on investment or reduce costs”, when it should be about improving the customer experience.

He cited the example of airline customers still being put on hold to have their calls answered despite the airline employing thousands of customer service agents. RPA, fronted by a chatbot, could help reduce the wait time and deliver a better customer experience.

Another example is a virtual customer assistant (VCA) which combines RPA and AI to help businesses better manage customer spend. Armed with total spend visibility, the VCA is able to manage the customer experience more effectively and better support the organisation's business outcomes.

As Gartner pointed out, when implemented correctly with process redesign and digital transformation at its core, automated services can act as catalysts for further automation with the potential to establish new digital business models. In so doing, they will transform the value proposition of business process service providers to focus less on the process and more on the business.