This is an era of unprecedented upheaval across the business world. Rapidly changing customer expectations and enterprise capabilities are provoking radical change. At the centre of this new industrial revolution is a slew of powerful, integrated and revolutionary digital technologies that are changing the rules of engagement.
In this next phase of evolution for the information age, a business’ ability to survive is becoming more and more closely tied to the ways in which it manages its two most important resources: data and human capital. From artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to data lakes and advanced robotics, the value of a cutting edge piece of technology increasingly lies in its ability to efficiently enter, process, analyse and draw insights from data - and do it in a way that frees up the human workforce for higher level tasks that add value to the company.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA for short) is one of the most promising technologies to develop, from the concept stages into a more mature business solution, in the last few years. In short, RPA incorporates AI, ML, natural language processing (NLP), image recognition and a host of other technologies to perform high-volume, repetitive tasks that were previously done by humans. As Navin Mittal, Director of Product Marketing at RPA firm Automation Anywhere, puts it: “RPA lets you have the ability to create a bot that can do anything you can do on a computer.”
Applying what Gartner describes as hyperautomation to low-level digital tasks is one of the first steps towards a future where intelligent machines take care of repetitive tasks and allow a greater focus on high-level activity. According to a Gartner report from last year: “Most employees view the work best suited for RPA as mundane and tedious. RPA enables organisations to take this work away from individuals and redeploy their talents to more analytical, high-value activities.” Give RPA a few more years to develop, and so-called “digital workers” could be taking care of everything from data entry and onboarding to customer management.
We are, however, not quite there yet. Around the world, most industries have yet to fully embrace the power of this new technology. This is particularly true of those with high levels of business rules and an emphasis on factors like compliance and process reporting - like the healthcare, finance and insurance sectors.
More than 40% of workers claimed in a recent survey that they spend more than a quarter of their workweek on repetitive tasks. In a 2019 report, it was revealed that only 24% of large companies had adopted RPA-powered solutions (with SMEs even further behind at 9%), even though almost 50% reported significant investment into the technology. By 2022, Gartner predicts that annual spending on RPA capabilities will exceed the $2.2bn mark. In a survey of 500 top-level executives, McKinsey found that, “companies that deploy automation technologies can realise substantial performance gains and take the lead in their industries, even as their efforts contribute to economy-level increases in productivity.”
However, the companies at the leading edge of this technology transformation are making great strides towards a revolutionised, digital workplace, where humans work side-by-side with a virtual workforce. “Never before has there been such a transformative shift in the way we work,” commented Automation Anywhere co-founder and CEO, Mihir Shukla, “with artificially intelligent software bots changing how people, processes and technology interact for productivity gains.”
Here, we consider five ways in which RPA is driving the global digital transformation, and explore the companies at the forefront of this trend.
The digital worker
RPA-powered solutions can tackle a number of specialised functions in much the same way that a trained human worker can. In the back office, a pre-programmed digital worker can be tasked with handling payroll, processing insurance claims, monitoring compliance, and a huge variety of other jobs. These roles are specialised and, in much the same way that a company wouldn’t hire a graphic designer to run an HR department, different RPA solutions have different specialisations.
The result is that RPA providers like Automation Anywhere and UiPath function as much like a recruitment and talent agency as they do software companies. RPA companies are offering their customers the ability to download “ready-to-deploy digital personas that combine task-oriented, cognitive and analytical abilities to automate repetitive activities.”
In contrast to traditional software bots, which work separately to human workers, digital workers are designed to work with a human coworker, augmenting their capabilities with regard to specific business functions.
The benefits of a digital workforce are numerous. Due to the global COVID-19 crisis, the global healthcare industry is facing an unprecedented challenge. From patient onboarding to order processing for PPE, RPA-powered digital workers have the potential to take the strain off overworked healthcare professionals currently suffering from the crisis. At the Mater Hospital in Dublin, attended bots are being used to process COVID-19 test results in a short amount of time. By providing a digital robot to each human nurse, the unit saves three hours per day, enabling healthcare staff to spend more time looking after patients rather than doing paperwork.
Automation from front to back
As RPA has developed, its early functions were constrained primarily to back office functions: payroll automation, invoice processing and so on. Now, developments in integrated technologies like NLP and ML mean that those back office automation benefits are moving closer and closer to the customer.
From sales to tier one tech support, repetitive tasks like data entry and customer management take away valuable time that should be spent creating value and delighting the customer. RPA-enabled digital workers have the power to take on those tasks, increasing productivity, reducing human error and freeing up customer facing roles to spend more time actually facing the customer.
Agility, efficiency and scale
Digital transformation is a global arms race towards more efficient and agile operations. Technologies that enable companies to adapt faster, be more resistant to disruption and capable of making smarter decisions in less time are going to be key. In order for large companies to leverage their digital and human resources with the speed and agility of an SME, the digital solutions they adopt need to enable this agility, while also being as resilient and adaptable as their users.
“Unfortunately,” according to Pegasystems, “most enterprises weren’t designed for the digital world. Their systems are too fragmented, their operations too complex. Maybe that’s why digital transformation is so easy to talk about but so difficult to actually achieve.” With its emphasis on cloud-native platforms, segmented downloadable products, and unified, versatile back-end software that drives efficiency, the RPA industry has the potential to be a great enabler of agility at scale.