Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – The Next Big Thing
In the 1960’s & 70’s we were promised a future where robots would do everything, and human beings would have endless leisure time and a better way of life. What that Nirvana did not address is the societal construct requiring everyone to be gainfully employed earning a living – “a hard day’s work for a hard day’s pay” and more importantly what the alternative model would be where nobody is working and earning.
In the press we constantly hear politicians whipping up prejudice and frenzy with comments like “all these migrants coming here and taking our jobs” followed by images of manufacturing operations full of robots performing menial, repetitive activities faster and more accurately than any human being ever could, and not a single person in sight, migrant or otherwise.
Robotics always impacts the lowest paid and least skilled individuals hardest and typically doesn’t free their time to do more productive value adding activity, it frees their employers from incurring the cost of employing them and frees the individuals time completely, often with detrimental long term societal effects. But this article is not attempting to address the societal challenge but highlight that RPA is moving out from menial repetitive tasks into higher value and more skilled endeavours.
In a recent article in Business Insider magazine it was predicted that 5 million UK jobs would be “killed off” by 2020. The article seeks to address the societal question by asking whether humans need a guaranteed “living wage” as robots take their jobs and whether companies should pay a “robot tax” as they are replacing human tax payers. Which is one way to fund everyone’s new leisure lifestyle.
The article also highlights 11 industries where employment is under threat and estimates the possible percentage impact on jobs, ranging from:
1. Manufacturing – 19%
2. Banking – 18%
3. Construction – 10%
10. Healthcare – 4%
11. Science 4%
Truthfully no industry, or person, is immune from the impact of Robotics, Process Automation, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. So, will the impact will be positive or negative? On one hand, increased automation means greater efficiency and productivity, better employee safety and even a higher standard of living (more free time, lower prices). However, it may also cause job losses and fundamentally change traditional employment.
What is Robotic Process Automation?
Robotic Process Automation is a term widely credited to a UK based Process Automation specialist Blue Prism headquartered in Newton le Willows, Merseyside. The business was formed in 2001 as a specialist Process Automation (PA) provider – PA having been around since the 1980’s – and focused on automating simple Macro or Scripted Process Automation, which became more and more interested in the potential of merging the discipline of PA with Cognitive Artificial Intelligence Robotic activities, bringing the first RPA product to market in 2014.
Whilst many Robotic Process Automation activities still focus on Macro or Scripted Process Automation with simplistic “Bot” front ends to provide clients/users with a humanlike interface – with obvious target applications such as online customer service agents and HR process agents – the RPA innovators have already deployed sophisticated algorithmic analytical decision tree technologies to deliver “next best actions” without following a prescriptive linear process. Thus, imitating human behaviour and thought processes.
However, the real RPA innovators are taking the Cognitive Artificial Intelligence concept and stretching the boundaries of human imitation with intelligent thinking behaviour merged with Optical Character Recognition, Intelligent Character Recognition, Voice Recognition and Speech Synthesis to completely replace the human being.
RPA is a rapidly developing and intrusive technology creating many business opportunities. The current core activities and focus are:
The RPA Market Place
Since the emergence of RPA in 2014 many specialist vendors have emerged to follow Blue Prisms lead, such as Automation Anywhere, UiPath, Thoughtonomy, NICE, Kofax Kapow and many others. All the large solution vendors covet this space with Microsoft embedding RPA into some of its Macro development and SAP deploying scripted process management into its ERP portfolio.
There have also been other major players like Pega swoop early to acquire Openspan to add RPA into their core CRM and BPM technologies. Both AA and UiPath have recently taken 1st round “series A” funding of hundreds of millions of dollars to further develop their UI and AI propositions, whilst endeavouring to fend off the attention of large potential acquirers, with IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and Salesforce all watching the developing RPA market.
All major consulting firms are watching the RPA/AI market very closely with many expanding their Process Automation practices to include RPA. Interestingly this offers a ready market place for newly skilled RPA consultants.
The Impact of RPA and the market opportunity
RPA is an automation technology that can handle rule-based and repetitive tasks without human intervention. It is rapidly gaining acceptance as it offers multiple benefits – incremental cost savings over traditional offshore delivery; improved service delivery in the form of process quality, speed, governance, security, and continuity; relatively shorter investment recovery period; is generally non-invasive and easy to manage.
RPA offers huge value with the inorganic reduction in costs and an increase in productivity. This value can be realised quickly with very rapid deployments at low risk. This is achieved with non-invasive integration which can be quickly reversed if necessary. As a consequence, many clients are assessing or implementing RPA technology.
The RPA market is growing very quickly with relatively unknown technologies delivering new solution features, deployment models and supporting frameworks, creating an ever expanding richness of functionality and business potential.
RPA threatens to be a most impactful technology with current headcount reduction estimates ranging from 10% to 25%. Early adopters of RPA obtain huge early mover advantage and suffer little pain of innovation. RPA compliments and augments many existing process management activity and if the deployments are done sensitively then end users and clients often do not realise that they are now being served by a “Bot” and not a human agent. All RPA deployments have a human based support infrastructure to ensure those special scenarios can still be handled directly, but as the levels of sophistication increase and the Cognitive processes develop then the need for this safety net also declines.
The market opportunity for RPA is endless and is something we should be encouraging our organisations to actively embrace.
So what do we do when Robots do everything? Time will tell but the future is very exciting.
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