23 Oct Brainstorm magazine, on RPA
In one episode of The Simpsons, family patriarch Homer uses a ‘dippy bird’ toy to repeatedly hit a button on his keyboard, venting dangerous radioactive gas before it explodes. The consequences are hilarious, as one would expect. But in the real world, this reflects a very current problem. At that moment, Homer dealt with something faced every day in offices across the world: a mountain of routine tasks that suck the vigour out of professional life.
“Very few people go home and say, ‘I was able to open 500 emails today’, or ‘I opened seven spreadsheets and extracted two pieces of information’,” says Jim Walker, director of public sector marketing at UiPath. “No, it’s, ‘I got to help Mr Smith or someone get their insurance lined up’. They don’t celebrate the other stuff they have to do.”
People are not keeping up with the demands of accelerating workplaces. Our environments need us: human scrutiny is a very important part of success. But we bring our own flaws into the mix. We are slow, we find shortcuts around processes, we make mistakes, and, crucially, we burn valuable willpower on rote and menial tasks. Mind over matter is a myth – we all have limited capacities. Mountains of emails, merging spreadsheets and verifying matters of record can suck the pep out of the best of us.
All over the world, companies sit with systems that don’t talk to each other. Subsystems – producing specific information – and core systems – consuming that information to be effective – are rarely integrated, often due to complexity and cost. The solution is to use humans who manually move data from one to the other, a phenomenon called ‘swivel chair integration’, harkening to the old ‘sneakernet’ concept of taking files via disk to someone instead of attempting to copy it across an unreliable network.
The solution? Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
“RPA has similar characteristics to other tools, so it’s like a software testing tool that can talk to any application,” says Cathy Tornbohm, vice president of BPO Research at Gartner. “It’s also like a macro in Excel that will do if-then transactions. But that macro can work with any application and isn’t gated to just Excel.”
Bot sees, bot does
Homer’s plan is like RPA, in that the dippy bird did exactly what he did: push a button. RPA software at its most basic mimics human actions. The software replicates the human sequence of interactions: open the spreadsheet, find the relevant fields, copy to another spreadsheet. If you can do it, so can RPA.
RPA software can record actions by the user or can be developed through a series of flowcharts. It can be somewhat technical, but anyone with a little time to watch You- Tube videos can get the basics down quickly.
What makes RPA remarkable is that integration with systems isn’t a base requirement. It relies on the same user interfaces as humans do. If you use Outlook, it can use Outlook. If you can log into a database, it can log into a database. The interactions are so human-like that RPA bots are often given names (Walker says the first true production bot used by the US federal government was named George Washington after their first president). This helps to articulate their value in terms of human activities and away from technical jargon.
In today’s overworked offices, this is a big deal. Low technical barriers mean that RPA can be implemented quite quickly to manage routine digital tasks. It’s creating great excitement.
“When they introduced it to me, it blew my mind,” says Steve Burke, CEO of DigiBlu, who has a long career in business transformation. “In the UK, I ran projects during the dotcom boom. It was a really exciting time and I haven’t experienced such excitement until now.”
The risks of bots
Many RPA evangelists don’t like the name. They prefer to talk of ‘digital workforces’ or ‘digital labour’. This is in part to get away from the mention of robots and automation. RPA practitioners prefer to cast the practice as a very business-centric one, not unlike how nobody refers to Power- Point as a technology.
It also helps to counter the narrative that RPA will take jobs. At face value, job loses – even of white-collar professionals – seem obvious. But a closer examination shows a different picture, at least in the short term.
“We have lots of clients with a different view on that,” says Burke. “One client is on a big cost savings drive and wants to make a material impact. So they want lots of bots in order to ‘release’ people. But other customers are looking for superior client services with wholly accurate processing. They are not looking to release anyone. They want high performance.”
When top players faced off against a Google AI trained in the game Go, they remarked how it made unthinkable moves – a true machine intellect. RPA is the opposite. It doesn’t improve on human tasks. It simply mimics them. It’s a labour-saving paradigm. This, of course, doesn’t negate layoffs. The Luddites infamously attacked Spinning Jenny machines, which replaced the manual labour of several thus unemployed people. But currently, an RPA bot replacing you is not the concern. They are, instead, the perfect example of how bots will work alongside us to make us more effective.
The risk of RPA lies elsewhere. The gold rush of adopting it could leave companies complacent about their structural problems, papering over the cracks of their inefficiencies.
“RPA is shining a spotlight on all your unautomated activities,” says Tornbohm, “everywhere you’ve not perhaps had the discipline to make better choices. So just because it’s shining a spotlight on it doesn’t mean it’s the answer. It’s an answer, not the answer.”