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10/23/2015
12:15 PM
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Your Robot Replacement Has Arrived

Robotic process automation can help companies operate more frugally and efficiently, though potentially at the expense of human workers.



These 8 Technologies Could Make Robots Better
These 8 Technologies Could Make Robots Better
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

When is a robot not a robot? When it's robotic process automation, or RPA.

In a new research paper, "The IT Function and Robotic Process Automation," the Outsourcing Unit at London School of Economics finds that RPA can provide a variety of business benefits, and it anticipates accelerated deployment in the years to come. The paper followed three case studies of customers of RPA-provider Blue Prism. In addition, Blue Prism partly funded the paper.

RPA is similar to business process management, but it doesn't require developers to create code. It's software.

As implemented by firms such as Automation Anywhere or Blue Prism, RPA allows people to generate code through a menu-driven drag-and-drop visual interface. That code can then handle structured, repetitive tasks like onboarding employees at a large company. Think of it as software that can be trained to operate the business applications a human would use for routine clerical or administrative work.

(Image: Blue Prism)

(Image: Blue Prism)

As the paper explains:

RPA software is ideally suited to replace humans for so called "swivel chair" processes; processes where humans take inputs from one set of systems (for example, email), process those inputs using rules, and then enter the outputs into systems of record (for example, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems).

Implemented correctly, RPA can make routine human resources work, for example, more efficient and affordable by taking people out of the loop. The report concedes this could reduce the need for human resources employees.

"There would be fewer HR specialists needed overall if the volume of work was constant, but those HR specialists remaining should have more challenging work," the paper says.

This acknowledgement underscores the angst surrounding advancements in automation and artificial intelligence: Technology may allow people to focus on higher-value, less easily automated work, but it's not clear whether there will be enough of these improved jobs to go around. Nor is it obvious that what cannot be automated today will remain the province of people tomorrow.

RPA occupies a middle ground between shadow IT -- tools deployed without the oversight of IT -- and traditional IT. The paper characterizes it as "lightweight IT" in the sense that it can be begin as a project that doesn't require IT involvement, but may need IT support as it spreads through an organization. Though it tends to be business-led, it's clearly an option that IT should evaluate.

[See the real-world application of RPA. Read Using RPA in Banking to Streamline Development.]

Despite its employment implications, there's little doubt that companies can find value in RPA. The paper notes that some companies surveyed have automated more than 35% of their back-office transactions. The benefits include reduced costs, greater process efficiency and accuracy, and improved customer satisfaction.

Having analyzed the financial impact of RPA deployments at Telefonica O2, Xchanging, and an unnamed major utility, the paper cites ROI figures of 650% to 800% over three years for Telefonica OS, 30% per process (14 automated) for Xchanging, and 200% over one year for the utility.

However, the paper doesn't explore the challenge of asking people to train their computers to replace them.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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