Robotic Process Automation and the Back Office – What You Need to Know
Not so long ago, businesses turned to offshoring to reduce the operational costs of the back office. They bundled up the data and sent it overseas for lower-cost workers to process it. However, outsourcing and offshoring have become politically charged, driving businesses to seek alternatives that won’t break the bank.
Back office operations have always been viewed as a cost center, which lent itself to reducing overhead by eliminating much of the in-house expenses. Although it’s unlikely that those outsourced back office jobs will come back to home soil, businesses still need alternatives to outsourcing and offshoring many of those tasks.
In addition to the political aspects of offshoring, newer concerns — such as privacy laws, compliance, and cybersecurity — have increased business responsibilities when it comes to data, and keeping that data in house is one of the first steps for better control over data.
The Robots are Coming
Machine learning, artificial intelligence and other technologies are coming to the rescue in the form of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), a technology that can be summed up as automated scripting driven by machine-based decisions. RPA holds a great deal of promise for businesses burdened with tedious and repetitive tasks, which in the past could have only been accomplished by humans. Many of those tasks required basic decisions to be made in how the information was processed — something that was well beyond the artificial technologies of the past.
Today, machines have gotten smarter and now have the ability to learn some simple steps based upon AI algorithms. Although machine intelligence can’t approach what humans can do natively, it has come pretty far in the last few years, making it suitable for many basic tasks that require some form of a decision to be accomplished. That’s exactly where RPA comes in.
Getting Started with RPA
Leveraging RPA means understanding how RPA works and then assessing where automation can improve a business’s operations. RPA products incorporate three fundamental elements: a developer tool set, a robot controller and the robots (or bots) themselves.
Developers use the development tools to define the jobs to be executed by the bots. Jobs are basically step-by-step instructions that a robot follows to accomplish a task. Those jobs (or instructions) must be detailed and can include conditional logic, Boolean logic, and business rules that define how the bot operates. Most of the vendors in the RPA space offer drag-and-drop functionality and simple configuration wizards, which enable business users who have no coding experience to define jobs quickly.
Yet, defining jobs often takes more than leveraging drag-and-drop tools and wizards. Those defining jobs must focus on the exceptions to the rule, creating the logic that deals with events that fall out of norms. Spotting those exceptions up front is a critical task, otherwise the bot may fail to process. Some tools include a “process recorder” that helps to build a job based upon capturing a sequence of user actions. Developer tools are used only for initially modeling processes and modifying those processes to deal with changes.
The robot controller takes on multiple roles. It acts as a master repository for defined jobs and facilitates version control. It also safely stores credentials for business applications and provides them to robots as required. The robot controller also assigns appropriate roles and permissions to users, and it provides controls and workflows to govern the processes of creating, updating, testing, reviewing, approving, and deploying jobs to the robot workforce. Finally, it assigns jobs to single or grouped robots, and monitors and reports on their activities.
Software robots (also known as “bots”, “clients” or “agents”) carry out instructions and interact directly with business applications to process transactions. Robots can perform as many as 600 actions, with additional actions being incorporated using custom coding techniques. Robots also can keep detailed logs of their actions and decisions, which are useful for compliance, auditing, and troubleshooting, as well as helping companies identify additional process improvement opportunities.
The Benefits of RPA
Although RPA may not be the cure-all for all back-office problems, RPA undeniably brings immediately recognizable benefits to most any business. Obviously, cost efficiency tops the list, but RPA’s many nonfinancial benefits include:
- processes that are more predictable, consistent, and less prone to errors than those handled by people
- decreased cycle times and improved throughput: Software robots are designed to perform tasks faster than a person and do not require sleep, making 24/7 operations possible.
- flexibility and scalability: Once a process has been defined, it can be scheduled for a particular time and use as many robots as required
- reassignment: Robots can be easily reassigned when more important processes arise because each robot is typically capable of performing many types of processes.
- improved accuracy: Robots are programmed to follow rules and don’t make mistakes. Robots only do exactly the defined job, but won’t apply intuition to problems and anomalies that a human would.
- strategic resource deployment: The tasks and processes suitable for automation are typically the most onerous and least enjoyed by employees. Employees relieved of these activities can be refocused on higher-value activities that are often more rewarding.
- detailed data capture: The tasks performed by a software robot can be monitored and recorded at every step, producing valuable data and an audit trail that enables further process improvement efforts and helps with compliance.
The benefits offered by RPA are clear, so it all comes down to whether your business is ready to deploy robots in the back office or continue to rely on offshoring tedious tasks to the lowest bidder.
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