Despite all the advancements that humans made with technology innovation, the drudgery of work remains a constant pressure in our modern society. In fact, over the past two decades, productivity growth stalled after enterprises adopted a myriad of software technologies intended to help worker productivity. Instead, it led to more mundane and swivel chair tasks such as data entry and monitoring across multiple systems. But what about the promises of the digital utopia? When would humans be working an average of 15 hours a week and dedicate the rest to leisure and creative activities?
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) aims to deliver the future of work, where software robots would be taking care of all the mundane and repetitive tasks that humans hate and giving us the time back to enjoy recreational activities with family and friends. How? In this article, we will go over the evolution of this technology and its impact on our world so far.
First, let's take a look at the history of RPA.
The concept of automation can be dated back more than 5,000 years ago. However, enterprise automation began with the inception of computer macros, which was first developed to make processes more efficient using .NET-based programming. But with the wake of the 4th Industrial Revolution driven by digital transformation, a new wave of technologies called RPA emerged in the early 2000s as a task-based automation tool riding on the shoulders of screen scraping and workflow automation technologies. It allowed business users who lack coding knowledge to use simple drag-and-drop and out-of-box automations such as data scraping and execute them quickly without the help of the IT team.
The definition of RPA can be simplified as the category of software that automates tasks traditionally performed by a human, using software robots that follow a specific set of rules and interact with existing systems via user interfaces; these software robots can replace repetitive tasks, do system integrations, and automate transactions from task level to enterprise level via scheduled orchestration.
There are two main categories of RPA robots: attended and unattended. The main difference is that attended robots run on employees' workstations, serving as a digital assistant to support your human staff on various repetitive processes. This type of automation is typically found in the front office, such as customer support contact centers. On the other hand, unattended robots run on virtual machines and do not require any human supervision; they can handle long-running and advanced processes and be scheduled to run within specific timeframes. The robot notifies humans if any exception handling arises. Unattended automation has been the most widely adopted type of automation due to the high impact on operational efficiency.
It wasn't until 2015 that RPA finally entered the mainstream market, with early organizational adopters taking notice at the benefits of using RPA to increase operational efficiency, enhance customer experiences, and an overall desire to accelerate digital transformation. Because RPA was considered UI driven automation and carried low-code and non-intrusive scripting, organizations were able to implement and deploy RPA solutions rapidly and enjoy the value realization of their investments significantly faster than traditional technologies. And due to the simplicity and speed of implementation, early adopters could perform a proof of concept with minimum financial investment before it decided to scale its adoption across other business units and geographies.
It would not be long until RPA became the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market today. With the growing digital business demands, and RPA's ability to appeal directly to business leaders with proven impact in productivity and ease of use and deployment, vendors have successfully managed to bypass the traditional IT buyer and expand its adoption at monumental scales.
A research report by the World Economic Forum concluded that 89% of businesses reported having already adopted a 'digital first' strategy, heavily impacting today's work landscape.
Source: World Economic Forum's "The Future of Jobs Report"
The value of RPA explained
Robotic Process Automation has enjoyed a skyrocketing adoption rate unlike any other enterprise software category we've seen before; the reason why can be explained in the myriad of benefits that it presents for modern organizations. It can cut costs, eliminate keying errors, speed up processes, and revive legacy applications by integrating data without using any APIs.
One of the most compelling aspects of RPA is its ability to simplify data integration from legacy systems, making a considerable contribution to an organization's digital transformation initiatives by unlocking past investments' value. With RPA, an organization can integrate and automate interactions between different systems seamlessly without the need for disruptive and costly integrations. For example, a software robot can pull an MS Excel file from an email, extract the specific data needed to be entered into a cloud-based CRM and then input the same data to an on-premise ERP platform.
With RPA, organizations have been able to tap into a new pool of digital workers who never take coffee breaks or ask for PTOs, they don't produce typos or have any workplace dramas; all they do is work in precisely what they're programmed to work on, carrying out every single transaction flawlessly and in a fraction of the time than humans would.
The above creates a significant contrast with the practice of labor arbitrage we've seen in the past decades, where large enterprises choose to outsource standard back-office operations to offshore labor in order to cut costs for operational functions. But with lower costs came plenty of downsides, including poor quality and lack of direct supervision from the client organization, which led to dissatisfied customers and high limitations for regulatory compliance; for example, organizations that are in highly regulated industries have to ensure that their operations are in the hands of on-site resources and can not outsource any information work to offshore establishments. RPA software can be hosted in a data center in any jurisdiction, enabling them to be geographically agnostic, bringing new opportunities for client organizations to reduce costs and operate more efficiently. With the introduction of RPA, we've seen a broad trend of repatriation for offshore processes with organizations taking back control of their back-office and a decline in the demand for BPOs.
The other benefit of RPA that has contributed to its massive proliferation is the low entry-barriers it holds. Organizations don't need to have an enormous IT budget to implement automation in a target process, be it in IT, Finance, or HR. And while enterprise-level organizations were the early adopters of RPA, small and medium-sized businesses were also quick to hop on the automation bandwagon. According to a survey by The Economist, 93% of organizations say that automation kickstarts digital transformation.
RPA benefits include:
- Accelerate benefits from digital transformation with rapid deployment and ROI
- Maximize operational efficiency and reduce costs
- Eliminate keying errors and minimize incidents related to data inaccuracy
- Optimize bottleneck processes with lean workflows, data, and documentation
- Enhance business process accuracy and speed
- Better customer experience and improved employee satisfaction
- Ensure audit trails and reduce compliance cost and risk
- Boost legacy integration and records digitization
- Enable data-driven decision and path to cognitive technologies
Examples of RPA Across Job Functions and Verticals
The opportunity to apply RPA is broad within every enterprise. RPA has proven to add value across all industries, geographies, job functions, and target applications. It has offered countless organizations the ability to optimize ad hoc business processes in isolated areas instead of applying change holistically across the entire enterprise, which could imply a significant amount of time and money to accomplish.
Let's begin with some examples of horizontal RPA use cases:
There are many tasks within any organization that can be easily automated and generate significant business impact quickly. Finance and Accounting tend to be the first department to adopt RPA because of the high impact that automation can generate. Often, organizations start by proving the value of RPA in F&A and then expand and scale across HR, IT, and Legal.
Finance & Accounting
Streamlining routine and high-volume tasks in finance can be the fastest way to deliver value with RPA. From accounts payables to receivables, software robots can help digitize operations, drive down costs, and maximize compliance, allowing your staff to free up time to do more strategic work. RPA can speed up customer onboarding, invoice processing, monitor inventory turnovers, and manage the supply chain.
HR departments have significantly impacted automation, reclaim their time from redundant tasks, and made their workplace more human-centric. From hire to retire, RPA can enable organizations to automate digital processes within HR systems, streamline the recruitment processes, speed up employee onboarding, and manage payroll and benefits.
Enterprise IT teams carry out many routine and time-consuming activities on a daily basis, from user account creations to terminations, password resets to virtual machine provisioning; RPA can help offload the burden of IT professionals in a number of operational areas so they can focus on work that generates business value.
Many other job functions are seeing the benefits of automation, including inhouse-legal departments, logistics & supply chain operations, customer service, and contact centers. Even sales & marketing have enjoyed the benefits of attended automation – albeit with lower automation potential than finance and accounting.
In the next section, we highlight some of the vertical success stories with RPA:
Despite not being known as early adopters of emerging technology, one of the industries that have seen accelerated digital transformation because of RPA has been the public sector. Thanks to the nature of RPA working with all types of applications, and the ability to connect disparate legacy and proprietary systems while offering the highest level security standards, governments have already started to show proven benefits in agencies worldwide, improving operational efficiency across the back and front offices, and delivering enhanced citizen services.
RPA process heatmap for the public sector
In the words of Jim Walker, the federal CTO and director of public sector marketing at the leading RPA vendor, UiPath, "RPA is making tremendous head roads into government. We have seen it go from one state to 16 in less than eight months during the Covid19 pandemic. It has helped residents of Georgia renew their SNAP program; it has accelerated the receipt of unemployment checks in New York, allowed the New Jersey courts to reopen, and even received an award for the California DMV robot.
In the federal space, UiPath has been adopted in 79 agencies now. The USDA is so excited about their program they pushed it out the general public (www.usda.gov/rpa), which is the first time a federal agency has been so open about a government initiative. The impact it has made in GSA, NASA, SSA, CBP, Navy, Air Force, and 70 others are just incredible. Even the amount of retraining and reskilling of government employees has increased tremendously. Using Gartner's definition for hyperautomation, RPA is the backbone of the digital workforce, and I am excited to have been part of it from the beginning."
NASA was one of UiPath's earliest adopters from the public sector; following the implementation of RPA, they reported increased revenue by ensuring 100% compliance, better customer satisfaction with increased reporting accuracy, and happier employees who got to focus on higher-value work, which contributed to a higher revenue stream.
NASA case study by UiPath
Banking and Financial Services
Due to the high level of competition and pressure in today's digital-first market, banking and finance organizations have led the way as the earliest enterprises to adopt RPA; their focus was to invest in digital solutions that can drive digital transformation, optimize operational efficiency and deliver a superior customer experience.
By leveraging RPA, organizations can become more operationally efficient. With financial and banking institutions processing a high volume of customer service requests. Agents can use RPA to have a centralized source of truth so that they can streamline customer service. They were saving up to 60% of processing time and costs. They can also integrate legacy systems and reduce the need for manual labor to validate information from multiple systems and keep that information updated.
With RPA, banking and financial organizations can also ensure compliance with their business processes since robots follow the rules they are given and do not make mistakes.
Automation enables banking and financial institutions to transform the customer experience while robots take care of searching for information, and answering customer queries, helping customer service teams be more agile and effective.
Nearly any process can benefit from automation. The fastest ROI usually starts from automating highly manual and repetitive processes, high-volume / low variability, rules-based, and have common data types and formats. Some of the most common processes that banking and financial institutions can automate include:
In the United States, leading banks like Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase are already investing in Intelligent Automation (IA). IA is RPA enhanced with Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies.
The healthcare industry is predicted to have a 60% automation potential. This means that close to two-thirds of healthcare tasks—especially managerial, back-office functions—could be automated, removing administrative burden and allowing healthcare providers to offer more direct, value-based patient care at lower costs and increased efficiency.
The industry's main pain points are managing inventory levels, supporting patient files digitization, optimizing patient access, facilitating prior authorization, and executing billing and claims processing. RPA has proven to be a solution healthcare providers can leverage to solve these pain points in order to redirect their employees to higher-level tasks that drive innovation and deliver a better patient experience.
With RPA, healthcare organizations have been able to provide better health IT interoperability by decreasing the manual labor requirements and automating daily batch extractions from electronic medical record (EMR) systems in multiple data formats, including unstructured data such as HL7 and scanned forms. It also improves the patient experience by automating admin tasks such as patient scheduling and insurance verification and helping to speed up process turn around times and create a superior patient journey.
Amid the peak of the Covid19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) approved hospitals to become testing sites. The testing protocol requires a patient is registered, and test kits are correctly labeled for collection and reporting. However, the demand proved overwhelming, with long queues of people waiting to take tests daily. With social distancing, a remote registration admin must validate if the patient is new/existing and register the patient in the EMR. The registration admin also needed to print the test label to one of 10 remote printers across the front line. In combination with accidental printer routing, this manual process added an average of 6 hours of waiting time.
To solve this challenge, the Cleveland Clinic decided to deploy an attended UiPath RPA robot to automate the patient intake process. The robot would collect the patient data, check if the patient is already registered in their EMR-EPIC via a Citrix environment, register the patient and correctly select the printer for label creation; the entire implementation and deployment of this robot took less than 48hours. After automating this process, what used to take 2-3 minutes for a human to execute, the UiPath robot could carry it out in 14 seconds. Saving an average of 9 minutes per patient and adding up to thousands of hours saved helped accelerate the testing cycles, reduce hospital backlogs, and keep critical workers focused on patient care.
RPA process heatmap for healthcare providers
Other industries like manufacturing, insurance, telecom, retail, logistics, and transportation, and higher education have also seen a significant impact of RPA within their organizations. While some try to DIY the adoption of RPA, experts recommend that organizations new to RPA work with external consulting groups with the experience and knowledge of delivering high impact RPA solutions to ensure a timely and successful value delivery.
We've seen many organizations fail to identify high impact automation candidates, which results in a lack of ROI and undelivered expectations. One example is how a large US healthcare provider started their RPA journey purchasing the UiPath software and engaging with a system integrator for strategy and implementation of Insurance Eligibility and Optum Authorization. Still, due to the original system integrator's lack of experience, the client's automation journey never took off. Six months had passed, and there were zero automations in production, prompting the C-suite to propose putting an end to the entire RPA program. It wasn't until they brought in JOLT Advantage Group – An experienced pure-play RPA service provider – that the automation initiative regained momentum. After conducting a 2-week assessment, the JOLT team deployed their RPA specialists to optimize the as-is process, generate the technical design strategy, and deploy the unattended robots in production. Within 12 weeks, nine processes were automated, and the company was able to cancel outsourced offshore labor, minimize error incidents, and generate over half a million in savings under a year.
Where Is RPA Today and Where It Is Headed
Over the last five years, organizations have achieved the triple-win for shareholders, customers, and employees through RPA. With shareholders benefitting from high ROI, operational efficiencies improved compliance, increased resilience to change, and competitive advantages. Customers enjoyed faster service delivery, better service quality and consistency, and broader availability. And employees perceiving work to be more exciting and of higher value.
Today, we see a much more advanced RPA toolset, with capabilities well beyond the task-based automation RPA was initially known for. Due to the increased competition and market consolidation, RPA vendors have focused on creating differentiators with a number of innovations to enable Intelligent automation, embedding intelligent OCR, natural language processing, and other Artificial Intelligence technologies to their suites.
Gartner coined the term Hyperautomation and named it the #1 trend on their list of the top 10 strategic technology trends for 2020. In essence, hyperautomation is the expansion of automation from RPA to a combination of technologies that would enable the end-to-end automation lifecycle, democratizing the access to automation and allowing enterprises to mature their automation capabilities towards more advanced and exception heavy processes. According to Gartner's prediction, by 2024, organizations will lower operational costs by 30% by combining hyperautomation technologies with redesigned operational processes.
RPA will continue to act as the backbone of hyperautomation, but its capabilities will be significantly enhanced with the adoption of AI, process mining, and advanced analytics. This would allow organizations to quickly scale their automation footprint and expand its benefits to areas that were not possible before.
RPA vendors were quick to adapt their product suite to the hyperautomation trend. UiPath, for example, released new capabilities to facilitate the discovery of automation candidates with Process Mining, AI-powered Computer Vision to enable automation in dynamic interfaces and virtual desktops, a no-code development studio for citizen developers, a full-blown enterprise test automation suite, AI-driven analytics, and insights, and the ability to orchestrate out-of-box or custom machine learning (ML) models within the RPA program.
With AI-enhanced RPA platforms, robots can predict errors and solve exceptions; they can also learn and adapt to changing processes based on historical actions and data. This way, organizations will automate complex processes optimally across their value chain and scale their intelligent automation initiatives faster than ever before.
The future for automation looks bright, it has grown steadily to become a mainstream enterprise technology, and while there will be many innovations and disruptions in this market, we expect this technology to remain in the spotlight over the coming years, playing a key role in digital transformation by effectively taking the robot out of the human.
-  Gartner says worldwide robotic process automation software market grew 63% in 2018.
-  The Economist “Advance of Automation”
-  Service Automation: Robots and the Future of Work, Willcocks, L and Lacity, M, 2016
-  Gartner Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020, 2019
-  RPA Renaissance Driven by Morphing Offerings and Zeal for Operational Excellence report, Gartner, 2020