You’ve probably heard a lot of mention recently about Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in your business, or amongst your professional network online. Perhaps you have a few questions about how this is going to impact you and your work life, and you feel it could threaten your job. On the other hand you may be keen to get involved to futureproof your career, but feel it could be a bit too technical for you.
To put your mind at ease, firstly this definitely is a tool that you can leverage in your career. Also, it is a lot easier than you think to get involved with RPA and AI. A lot of it is not the complex and scientific development of mathematical matrices and neural networks that you’ve read about online or seen on TV. To use these technologies, you and your team can start getting involved in right now.
The reality is Automation and AI is the future and it’s here to stay so let’s help you swim with the tide!
Let’s look at the hottest, fastest growing technology in the digital transformation space and that is RPA, robotic process automation. Where did it come from? Why is it gained so much traction? Where are these trends heading? How is this going to impact your work in your job and how you can use it to enhance your work life?
Digital transformation is essentially how businesses adopt a handful of different technologies to modernize how their business runs to modernise their old processes, applications and approaches that they use to service their customers. Many in this space see RPA as the backbone of Digital Transformation which can be used to accelerate these trends that we’ve been seeing working in the background for the last decade or so.
This new era is what they call the “fourth industrial revolution”, so once you get a handle on what automation is and how this can be used in your company, then you can start getting involved in automation activities and projects to future proof your business and career.
what is RPA?
Simply put RPA is low code software that can be programmed to follow a simple process and then repeat that process over and over again. If you’ve ever created or used a macro in Excel, you record a few steps, you can add logic for “IF THEN” decisions, press play and then you can see that process run in a loop until it’s completed the list of work that you’ve set it.
If you’re an Excel VBA macro whiz you can actually go into the underlying code and build complex processes from scratch, pulling data from websites and different applications. RPA is a similar concept, and not just tied to Excel or Microsoft office applications, you literally can program RPA to get data from or enter data into any combination of desktop applications, web applications, website pages, web forms, APIs etc.
Think of RPA as an automated person that rather than a piece of software, as it actually uses the user interface just like you and I would to clicks on buttons and links, or type into forms, as if it’s using the keyboard! An analogy I’ve heard about what RPA potentially can do for you, would be to imagine if you had to a new apprentice (with no experience of your industry) that you could train to do a specific task over and over again. You could just hand them all your simple tasks over to them all the tedious repetitive tasks and they will just get on with it. Such things like copying and pasting data from one system to the next, entering data into an application from a spreadsheet or a web form, or even taking information from say an invoice and update your financial spreadsheet.
They don’t have to know anything about your industry and can just get on with the work straight away. Then you can just spend your time focusing on more complex intuitive tasks, the more interesting parts of your job you enjoy.
This is just a glimpse of the power of robotic process automation, as RPA can do much more. If you can map out each step of a process and logically define each decision point (i.e. it’s a logical decision that doesn’t require human judgment), then it could pretty much automated.
Where did process automation actually come from?
RPA was created by Blue Prism a software company back in 2003, and they launched their first product called “Automate”. The underlining functionalities of RPA are like macros, screen scraping and recording – which have been around since the 90s – was finally packaged into a user-friendly platform. There were two reasons that drove the need for this software; firstly businesses that had been outsourcing, especially overseas, to keep their costs down were looking new ways to save costs due to the rise in labour costs. Secondly, companies themselves were becoming overly data hungry – demanding more from IT in line with the rising demand of the customers wanting faster services, more ways to purchase things, and better customer service and experience. There’s only so much that IT departments can in this new fast paced world.
RPA became a much faster solution to solve technical issues, as technical roadblocks, integrations and data fluidity could be solved in a matter of months or weeks, rather than the years it can take to implement IT overhauls and upgrades. And with it’s comparatively lower costs, RPA arguably became the backbone of digital transformation to modernize businesses who had slow clunky ancient applications and processes.
Very quickly business processes could become faster and smoother to reduce queues, reduce errors and save time on mind-numbing manually-intensive tasks, so that staff could spend more quality time on customer service, human to human interaction and creative activities.
Though RPA has come a long way, there’s still much more to go. The growth of RPA and AI is exponential. In the graph you can see that $1.1 billion was the RPA market back in 2020, and is predicted to be worth 2.4 billion in 2022. AI is even more massive at 1.2 trillion in 2020. Obviously the US is leading the race and followed by the UK, Japan and Germany but countries change all the time and clearly China is really making waves in the AI space.
The top RPA players
The top players right now are UiPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere. They pretty much have similar underlying code. From my experience UiPath is my favourite followed by Blue Prism. A lot happened in 2020, UiPath had its IPO in the states and US investors look to bid for Blue Prism.
As an RPA developer UiPath was always been my favourite so I was absolutely thrilled when Guy Kirkwood, the then-chief evangelist of UiPath gave my book a five star rating and said it was “highly recommended for anyone in the in the automation space”, and he even went on to write the foreword to the published version.
1 Citizen Development
Automation software companies are making it really simple to develop your own automation robots so that basically anyone can intuitively develop one, similar to how we can all use Excel
2 Intelligent Automation (RPA + AI)
The second is that Artificial Intelligence is becoming closely integrated with RPA platforms. Either AI is being built into the RPA platforms or RPA vendors are creating ecosystems in order to seamlessly ‘Plug and Play’ a plethora of AI Capabilities into an automated process. E.g. If your automation needs to ingest a scanned image and pass the data from the image to the RPA ‘Bot’, you can literally drag and drop optical counter recognition functionally into the workflow.
Vendors that build ecosystems can scale much faster than having to build AI capabilities into their platforms. They can focus on RPA and leave the AI to the AI companies and experts.
It is said that RPA can only automate about 20% processes in a business because RPA doesn’t think, so AI in process automation is of growing importance, so that you can scan a pdf document or categorise emails in a mailbox, engage with clients (and staff) with a chatbot.
3 AI in Applications
The third trend is that automated workflows and AI capabilities are now being built into applications like enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications and customer relationship management (CRM) software. In fact most enterprise software that you’re using now will see newer versions with Intelligent Automation built in.
How will RPA and Intelligent Automation affect our day-to-day work-life?
Soon you will be able to leverage these technologies to look like a superstar by smashing your targets, delivering better customer experience, and experience better user experience so that you can work more efficiently.
There is a big myth that Robots will take over all our jobs. Job loss is by far the biggest fear when introducing any new technology and intelligent automation is no different. No one wants to feel like their job is at risk, I felt this first-hand when multiple articles said how analyst roles (which are highly logical, and data driven) would be the most at risk of being automated.
Obviously that didn’t happen but in some organizations it’s been hidden and developed in dark corners, which just elevates staff suspicions. This technology should be celebrated due to how much pain and frustration and the laborious effort this will alleviate from so many people’s work lives, freeing them to do more interesting, creative, problem-solving, and human-to-human interaction activities.
Looking past the scaremongering, we’ve seen time and time again how new technologies actually created new jobs. Look at the personal computer, the internet, mobile phones. All of them created whole new industries, new jobs and new ways of working. I’m not niave to the fact that some jobs will be replaced or parts of jobs, but smart companies are investing in their staff, upskilling them on how to use automation to do their jobs better. Automation typically opens new avenues to meet customer needs, ambitious professionals are upskilling in technologies which are making waves so that they keep relevant and future-proof their careers. We’ve taught thousands of professionals in over 100 countries to upskill to get involved in automation or to advance their automation careers.
A good phrase to leave you with is that “Automation should take the ‘robot’ out of the human” so that we can spend more time on the actual job. Our brains work best doing creative, interactive, problem-solving tasks, not repetitive mind-numbing tasks – which are prone to human error.
A side note, I’ve written many articles about how real value of a business is its staff. The worst thing I’ve seen is when a business removed staff only to hire new staff some months later. This was a massive brain-drain, as they lost process and domain knowledge, they lost staff who had relationship with teams and clients, and had to re-trained new staff that had less expertise.
The key message here is to keep discovering the power of new AI technologies and how you can use them in your role, in your team and at your business. Soon we will be in a world where there are very few menial tasks as we will be equipped with “virtual assistance” that can compile information from multiple application, fill in forms, read/scan long documents for you, to get you the information we need. We will no longer need to do repetitive copy-and-pasting, form fill.
Covid in 2020 did accelerate a lot of the trends, and in my book “Business @ the Speed of Bots” I wrote in 2019 that “Business was going to change more in the next 5 years than it did in the last 20” …I didn’t at the time realise how right I was!
Like and subscribe to my YouTube channel Tony IA (Intelligent Automation, Simplified) for videos created to simplify intelligent automation for business leaders and professionals who are new to automation to level-up your knowledge. Become empowered on how you optimise your business and discover new technologies, in a lean and accelerate way. You can also learn more from my book, Business @ the Speed of Bots: The AEIO YOU method HOW TO IMPLEMENT ROBOTIC PROCESS AUTOMATION THAT SCALES. Get ready for the new digital transformation age for more information. The foreword is written by Guy Kirkwood, who is the Chief Evangelist at UiPath, and a very well-known advocate of RPA with over 20 years of experience in outsourcing.