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Blog Post Dec 16, 2021

What Is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

The idea that robots are coming to take our jobs has been a staple of the modern media landscape for decades. From books to movies, video games, and more, anxieties about artificial intelligence and the automation of American industry have been at the forefront of the country's collective consciousness. Now, robotic automation is here—and the reality is much more positive than most of these works of fiction envisioned.

Robotic process automation technology sits at the heart of this transition. Rather than taking jobs away from the population, the virtual "robots" this technology provides are making the jobs people hold more enjoyable, less mundane, and more open for innovation. This means workers can pay more attention to optimizing business processes rather than the drudgery of clicking the same set of forms over and over again.

What Is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic Process Automation, commonly referred to as RPA, is an emerging technology that makes the automation of digital tasks accessible to workers across industries. RPA software is built to automate repetitive tasks for users. While this may sound like a traditional macro or script, it differs in two significant ways.

1. The first difference—and the one that makes it so enticing to users—is that RPA software doesn't just automate tasks, it also makes the coding of the bot much easier to accomplish. The idea of “low code” or “no code” has been around for a while, but essentially it is a democratization of teaching a computer how to do something, which used to only be in the hands of skilled developers rather than in the hands of skilled practitioners of the actual process. The software's visual programming language learns the steps in the process by watching the user perform the task once, then builds out the appropriate code to complete that task over time.

2. The other feature that sets RPA apart from previous automation solutions is its interoperability. Similar automation tools have been available in specific programs (like Microsoft Excel, for example), but those are limited to that program. With RPA technology, users can create automations that operate freely across their digital ecosystems. Possible use cases for these bots include tracking invoices and payments, processing payroll, onboarding employees, completing forms, running enrollments, managing schedules, and more.

An example of robotic process automation would be an administrator using an RPA bot to keep track of RSVPs to an event. The administrator could teach the software bots to do all of the following without having to write a single line of code:

1. Watch an inbox for emails containing an RSVP attachment.

2. Read the email and attachment to extract the relevant data (e.g., email address, names, number of guests, and dietary restrictions).

3. Open the file used to track event planning.

4. Update the file to reflect the RSVP information.

Equipping just one employee with a solution of this nature could improve efficiency and help streamline processes considerably. Think about the number of hours human workers spend on tasks like the above and the benefits of redirecting that time and effort toward other tasks at scale! That being said, this type of automation technology does come with a few crucial considerations.

Security Considerations

Every solution comes with possible complications, and RPA is no exception. One potentially dangerous complication of these bots is their need for diverse, varied access across digital ecosystems. This means that credentials of all form factors, including digital certificates, need to be readily at hand for the RPA processes to do their job.

Furthermore, RPAs can automate tasks that utilize multiple applications, accounts, and devices, and even cross-functional workflows. They must authenticate many times within a single RPA session, which means users may need to share credentials with these bots. This can open a gap in security when not handled correctly. It's integral that companies who adopt this technology develop procedures around secret management, the dangers of hardcoded credentials, and the need for vaulted credentials.

What RPA Means for Employees and Businesses

Employees need not worry about RPA's move into our offices worldwide. While these virtual bots may take some work off of employees' plates, they are unlikely to replace any given employee. Bots work best for repetitive, straightforward tasks that don't need much interpretation.

The most likely change for workers whose companies adopt RPA is a shift in job responsibilities. Those individuals who were previously performing data entry will be spending time focusing on other initiatives such as monitoring the bots' progress and developing a keen eye for errors in their processes.

These individuals will essentially be training as IT professionals. Think of it as the digital transformation of everything, including employees who weren’t usually considered information specialists.

Considering the current labor shortage in the United States, it's likely that RPA utilization will become increasingly common in enterprise environments. The benefits of RPA could help businesses struggling with understaffing and other workflow issues. Companies are wising up to the fact that adopting these processes can help them increase productivity, improve accuracy, and boost employee morale in one fell swoop.

To learn more about robotic process automation, listen to Root Causes, episode 191, "What Is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?"