At its core, every business is a set of processes. Their purpose is to deliver value by transforming resources (materials, data, etc.) into products or services for customers. Thus, these processes define what a business is and determine how it performs.
Optimized business processes can help efficient and effective utilization of resources resulting in improved performance. The easiest way to improve process performance is to leverage technology and automate as much as you can.
Typically, customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications have workflows to manage some processes or portions of process. However, these operate within the bounds of the application. They are typically confined to a business function such as sales, manufacturing, finance, etc. They do not span multiple applications or departmental boundaries.
Traditional methods to bridge these gaps often result in a clumsy mix of manual steps, isolated tools or applications that can be cumbersome to manage and control. In recent years, improvements have allowed technology to make great strides in tackling these problems. For example, you can build integration between these systems using tools like Enterprise Service Bus or Business Process Management Suite.
Depending on your application landscape, these options may be expensive and resource consuming. Integration may be straightforward if your applications have modern interfaces like web services, APIs, etc. But that is not always the case. Technology used by some of the legacy applications may make it difficult to leverage these integration tools. They may not afford you the luxury of easy integration. (This scenario is common in back office systems).
What should you do then? Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to the rescue. “Robotic” refers to software robots (popularly known as “bots”).
Often users will get data from one application, turn around and enter it into another system. When performed manually, such tasks are prone to errors and can be time consuming. With RPA, these routine, repetitive tasks are automated using bots. This eliminates the possibility of human error and can greatly speed up the entire process.
How Robotic Process Automation Works
Most robotic process automation tools support drag and drop interfaces that allow you to build out processes that need to be automated. Usually, a good number of tasks can be automated with just configuration without any need for coding. For complex processes some coding may be required, but this is typically limited to scripting.
Often, RPA tools can observe the user perform tasks in the application’s graphical user interface (GUI), and then perform the automation by repeating those tasks directly in the GUI. Thus robotic process automation can automate tasks to integrate systems that don’t have any programming hooks available.
Common RPA Use Cases
RPA can be used to automate repetitive, time-consuming tasks. For example, it can be used to automate the new employee onboarding process, such as IT service desk personnel setting up new accounts in various applications such as Active Directory or the company’s ERP and CRM.
The IT staff would typically use a graphical user interface (GUI) to manually set up these accounts, but with robotic process automation, RPA bots can use the same GUI screens to set up these accounts and make it more efficient, completing the tasks in seconds, not several minutes.
These days suppliers or vendors normally send invoices for products supplied and services rendered through email. Someone in the accounts payable department receives these emails, goes through the attached invoice document and enters the relevant data into an accounting system. This can be easily automated using robotic process automation.
RPA bots can receive an email with the invoice attachments, extract important details from the documents and enter data into an accounting system in the same way a real person would do it, but the RPA can do it in seconds. Any unusual situation can then be escalated to a real person to review and resolve.
Another common scenario is Excel automation. In every organization, there are users who grab data from reports or exports, drop it into an Excel spreadsheet, and massage the data for analysis. While this is a more complex scenario, robotic process automation can complete it quickly and more efficiently than human users.
The RPA bots grab data from the source, load it into a spreadsheet, massage it according to pre-established algorithms and formulas, and have it ready for a real person to review. This frees users from routine and repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on more valuable analysis.
Time and cost savings and improved accuracy are the obvious benefits of RPA, but they accomplish so much more. Automated tasks can even have an audit trail, so you can see what was done; nothing is hidden from the system administrators. This can greatly improve monitoring and governance for these kinds of processes. It also makes post-facto analysis much easier.
You can use robotics process automation as an intermediate automation strategy, reaping the benefits of process automation without any changes to your existing systems until you figure out if (and how) you want to build its interfaces and integration.
Photo credit: PXHere.com (Creative Commons 0)