What’s an RPA tool?
Robotic process automation (RPA) uses software bots to emulate human interaction within a graphical user interface (GUI) to automate repetitive and manual tasks, saving businesses time, effort, and headaches. An RPA tool is software for defining workflows and configuring bots to perform designated tasks in a logical sequence. A robot can perform any multi-step process that occurs in a GUI faster and without errors. Therefore, a robotic process automation tool helps you speed manual, error-prone workflows so employees can work on more high-value tasks.
For example, your HR department can deploy an RPA tool to automate how it processes vacation requests. Instead of an employee spending five minutes to process each request, an RPA bot can extract the data from the company’s enterprise resource planning system and process the request faster into another system—even those that don’t have APIs—and with no mistakes.
Bots that a robotic process automation tool creates can perform assigned actions and interact with other systems through copying information from digital displays (screen scraping) or by using APIs. For example, your business can use an RPA tool to create bots that sign in to applications, manipulate files and folders, copy and paste content, complete forms, work with structured data, and even interact with other applications.
The benefits of adopting RPA tools
Any organization that deploys an RPA tool can expect to experience some or all the following benefits:
- Better use of human resources. RPA frees employees from repetitive, low-value tasks, such as data entry, so they can focus on work that delivers greater value to the business.
- Improved customer touchpoints. When RPA is used to expedite customer-facing processes, the added efficiency improves the customer experience and drives loyalty.
- Lower costs. RPA bots perform the work of humans at a fraction of the cost.
- Improved analytics to understand your workflow management. Each bot generates a log file of its activities so you can monitor how effectively it’s performing its functions.
- Improved scalability. It’s simply not possible to scale a team of employees the way you can scale the scope and reach of a group of automated bots. Using RPA software, bots can easily be duplicated and programmed to accomplish a similar but slightly different set of procedures.
- Better security. RPA bots never forget to sign out. They can also be set to “time out” so your systems are inaccessible when they should be, reducing vulnerabilities to malicious hackers.
How do RPA tools compare to other process automation solutions?
To understand the advantage of RPA tools compared with other workflow automation solutions, it’s helpful to understand the difference between automation and RPA. Workflow automation uses technology to reduce the manual steps in a business process, but it still requires a person to complete the process. RPA tools create robots to work through the GUI so that no human intervention is necessary. These can be attended processes in which humans must still initiate the tasks, or they can be unattended processes, which are fully automated.
RPA tools require little or no coding, and because the bots use the same infrastructure and solutions that employees use, you don’t have to alter your underlying architecture. Business users drive RPA solutions. In fact, some RPA solutions are designed for citizen developers—employees without technical backgrounds—who can automate the manual processes they work with every day. With minimal or no IT involvement, you can optimize operations and improve employee satisfaction without paying the costs of traditional development.
RPA also differs from traditional process automation tools in the following ways:
- Traditional automation processes can require changing part or all of a technology infrastructure. RPA bots work in the GUI and interact with other systems in the same ways as humans.
- RPA bots are flexible enough to automate processes for multiple applications.
- Because RPA bots are for repetitive, generic processes such as data input, they’re scalable and more easily upgraded than a workflow solution that’s designed for a single process.
While RPA software creates value by improving the efficiency of repetitive, rule-based workflows, some processes are best left to your employees. In general, processes that use a lot of unstructured data or graphical information and are contingent on rapidly changing parameters are best left to your creative employees to manage.
RPA’s role today and tomorrow
Currently, RPA software is earning a lot of visibility as companies learn to use it and observe firsthand the benefits it offers, such as time and cost savings. But like all technologies, RPA will become more sophisticated and change as business needs change. Here are a few predictions for ways in which RPA tools might evolve:
- Deeper integration with AI. As RPA advances, businesses will likely discover new ways to marry it with next-level technology like AI, machine learning, or even the Internet of Things (IoT)—and some companies already have. Hyperautomation, or intelligent automation, expands the kinds of tasks RPA tools can perform and gives them the power to automate a variety of complex duties.
- More intricate automations. Businesses use RPA to automate all kinds of mundane tasks, but merging it with AI and machine learning will unlock a whole new range of tasks that it can streamline. For example, businesses can currently use RPA tools to digitize documents, but AI-infused RPA tools could also understand the documents’ content and classify it efficiently with no errors.
- Less expensive and more accessible. When RPA tools first came to market, they were harder to come by and could be pricey. But because demand for RPA software has increased, more companies now offer it. With more options available, prices are likely to fall and features will become more competitive.
Key functionalities of RPA software
Many RPA tools are on the market now, all with different features. But at a minimum, these are the core functionalities that good RPA software should offer:
- Interoperability. Your RPA software should work with your existing desktop applications, web applications, and other major software applications. It should also be able to connect to system APIs and read/write to databases.
- Data augmentation. Your software should be able to extract data from websites and social media.
- Processing of different data types. It’s important that your software can extract and input data, combine data from multiple sources, and follow conditional statements such as if/else.
- Programming interfaces. A programmable interface is important. RPA software can provide intelligent, or cognitive, capabilities for configuring bots to make decisions, helping your business run more efficiently. For example, bots can help respond to IT support tickets, relieving the IT team from some administrative burden so it can focus on other initiatives. Some software options even provide no-code methods for programming bots, but all RPA tools should be able to interact with different kinds of applications, emails, files, and folders.
Choosing and working with RPA software
When you begin evaluating the available RPA tools, keep in mind what kinds of processes you plan to automate. Different controls and commands are built into each robotic process automation tool that dictate its capabilities, so make sure they match your workflow automation goals. Also, try to find reusable components and make sure that your bots can easily function in your existing systems.
Consider the following criteria when selecting the right RPA software for your organization:
- Easy to use. RPA software should be easy enough for someone with limited programming skills to build the automation and then configure a workflow in the RPA software. There are even some low-code RPA offerings that citizen developers with no IT skills can use to automate their workflows. Whatever software that you choose should offer built-in, extendable commands, wizards, and GUIs.
- Flexible. The software should allow you to configure custom features without having to pay the vendor extra for customization. It should also be able to handle different use cases and varying amounts of data while maintaining consistent performance.
- Scalable. RPA software should scale quickly to meet your business’s operational requirements and accommodate updates. The software should also be able to run multiple bots and multiple workflows.
How industries use RPA software
All kinds of businesses have found a way to benefit from RPA software. For example, industries like healthcare can use RPA to make appointments, perform patient data entry, process claims, and manage billing. Here’s how other industries are using RPA tools to transform their processes:
- Retail. Updating orders, shipping products, and tracking shipments.
- Telecommunications. Monitoring, fraud data management, and updating customer data.
- Banking. Improving work efficiencies, data accuracy, and security.
- Insurance. Managing work processes, entering customer data, and helping run applications.
- Manufacturing. Helping with supply chain processes, billing for materials, customer service and support, and administration.
The limitations of RPA tools
RPA software offers many benefits, but it can’t do everything. While the technology is growing, it still functions best as part of a network of other technologies; it isn’t yet an all-encompassing solution that can resolve every operational challenge.
For now, RPA is a rule-based technology that works best with structured data, or information that follows a predetermined data model. For it to work successfully, you must program the bots to do what you want them to do, and they’ll operate within only those parameters. Unless you layer it with AI or machine learning technologies, your RPA solution is capable only of following the rules that you assign, not of understanding or interpreting the content that it accesses.
For example, for an RPA tool to process information from invoices or other paperwork, that paperwork must all follow the same format. The tool can’t process any files that deviate from the format. For this reason, RPA tools aren’t a good fit for unstructured data, or information that doesn’t follow a predetermined data model.
Additionally, RPA tools don’t learn or adapt. If your business processes change, you’ll need to reprogram your bots to work with the new processes, which can be time-consuming. And if your RPA tool isn’t compatible with your new processes, your investment in it might be short-lived. To avoid this problem, consider how likely it is that your processes and technologies will change before you adopt an RPA tool.
How to help ensure success with RPA tools
Like any other technology, your success with RPA software depends on how you apply it. Even the best tools can’t fix a fundamentally broken process, so it’s important to be thoughtful about which tasks you automate. Applied in the right context with a specific, measurable goal in mind, the right RPA tool can redefine what efficiency looks like at your company. Keep in mind the following best practices as you begin using RPA technology to automate your processes:
- Know the process that you want to automate. Audit all your operational processes to figure out which tasks are the best fit for RPA. Remember that RPA tools can’t generally understand information, so unless you also plan to incorporate AI, choose a process that has clearly defined parameters and doesn’t need much human involvement or oversight, such as scheduling appointments or processing invoices. Some software, like Microsoft Power Automate, offers capabilities to help you identify the right processes to automate.
- Choose the right tool. After determining the processes that you want to automate, find the tools that best support that kind of work. All tools have different strengths, so evaluate them based on capabilities, price, ease of implementation, and how well they work with your existing software.
- Train your employees. Teaching your staff how to use—and eventually change or maintain—your RPA tool is a great way to help ensure its continued value and to increase adoption companywide.
- Measure your results. Before and after implementation, monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) like employee productivity, accuracy of data intake, number of appointments scheduled, or documents processed. If your KPIs don’t improve following implementation, it might be a sign that you’ve chosen the wrong processes or given your bots the wrong parameters.