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The Essential Guide to Robotic Process Automation and Related Technologies

Posted by on April 28, 2020

Robotic Process Automation

Business process automation (BPA) technologies play a critical role in enterprises that are undergoing digital transformation. With robotic process automation (RPA), organizations can reduce costs and save time by automating manual, rules-based processes that are typically performed by human operators.

RPA is one of the fastest-growing areas of the enterprise software market. A 2019 Gartner report found that the global market for RPA software tools grew by 63 percent in 2018, with banks, insurance companies, and telecoms among the leading robotic process automation use cases.

While RPA has its niche among BPA technologies, it may not be the best option for all organizations. IT and business leaders moving towards automation technology should understand how and when to implement RPA and when it's best to seek an alternative solution.

This essential guide will serve as a roadmap for organizations assessing the viability of RPA solutions for their task automation requirements.

We’ll explain how RPA works, identify the benefits of robotic process automation, highlight the most common RPA use cases, then compare the capabilities of RPA to other automation technologies.

What Is Robotic Process Automation?

RPA Definition

Robotic process automation is an approach to task automation that uses software bots to execute routine knowledge-based tasks, frequently spanning across several applications, using a programmed, rules-based framework.

RPA Platforms Incorporate Several Technologies

While other BPA technologies automate tasks through application programming interfaces (APIs), RPA bots are used to automate tasks for applications that do not have an integration interface. Instead of application APIs, an RPA platform uses tools like operating system APIs, image recognition, and optical character recognition (OCR) to automate tasks.

Some RPA platforms can be combined with cognitive technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and speech recognition to enhance their capabilities.

RPA Bots Mimic Human Operators

While some RPA bots are programmed using a platform-specific dedicated scripting language, others are designed to capture a list of actions for a specific task by “watching” a human user perform the task through the user interface. The bot can then automate the task by repeating the actions that were performed by the user. Because they interact directly with the computer user interface, RPA bots can automate virtually any task that a human operator can complete, even when it involves several non-integrated applications.

Attended vs Unattended RPA Bots

Some bots are designed to run unattended, automating routine tasks without any involvement from a human operator. These RPA bots can be run in the cloud, on virtual machines where economies of scale make them less expensive to deploy at scale. Other RPA bots are designed for attended applications where they might perform ad-hoc tasks for an employee at their workstation.

RPA Bots Follow Structured Rules

RPA bots are programmed to follow structured rules when executing automated processes. They can take actions to access information, interpret that information, trigger responses based on that information, and interact with several applications—all as part of a single task.

What Can RPA Bots Do?

RPA task automations can incorporate many different types of actions, all mimicking human user interactions with the computer GUI (graphical user interface). With the leading platforms available today, RPA bots can be programmed to:

  1. Fetch data from multiple applications
  2. Pass information between multiple applications
  3. Copy and paste information from one application into another
  4. Move files and folders
  5. Log into secure applications
  6. Scrape data from the Internet or search engines
  7. Extract content from email, documents, and other media and collate it or convert it into field data

How Does Robotic Process Automation Work?

A typical architecture for a robotic process automation platform consists of a process library, controller dashboard, and a pool of bots.

The process library contains all the routines and scripts that have been defined by users. Users can define routines by interacting with their computer user interface directly or using the chosen RPA platform’s dedicated scripting language. Automated routines can include rules-based decisions with if/then/else statements based on structured data.

The controller dashboard is the user interface for the RPA platform where users can allocate routines to bots, either on a fixed schedule or ad hoc.

RPA bots that automate business processes can be run on a local machine or on virtual machines in the cloud. For virtual RPA deployments, the controller dashboard directs the allocation of RPA bots to specific virtual machines in the cloud. These virtual machines provide the processing power, memory, and data storage necessary for RPA bots to execute their programmed intelligent automation routines.

What Are the Benefits of Robotic Process Automation?

Improve Accuracy of Repetitive Processes

RPA can be an effective approach for organizations whose core business activities include repetitive, predictable, rules-based processes. The key benefit of RPA here is that while human operators occasionally make errors when performing a repetitive task, RPA bots are consistent and never make mistakes. Most RPA tools also keep an activity log of all actions they have taken and tasks that have been completed, making it easier to audit for task completeness and regulatory compliance.

Make Better Decisions

A study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of UiPath asked respondents to identify the biggest effects on their job performance that resulted from increased collaboration with RPA bots. Fifty-five percent of respondents identified that working with RPA bots helped them make better decisions while on the job. RPA bots support decision-making by fetching and processing data from a variety of sources quicker than a human operator.

Data Processing Cost Reductions

RPA can reduce the labor and costs associated with routine data processing. Deploying RPA bots in the cloud to perform repetitive, manual processes cuts the time required to complete tasks and reduces costs relative to paying a human operator to do so.

Scalable Automation Solution

RPA tools support scaling of data processing operations in times of increased demand.

When organizations that rely on human labor want to scale up operations, they conduct interviews, hire more people, train them, then work on ramping them up to the productivity levels of existing staff.

With RPA bots, organizations can increase their functional capacity by deploying more RPA bots into virtual instances. A few system administrative and deployment tasks replace the complex employee onboarding process.

Focus on Customer-Related Activities

In some cases, automating a single process can free up hundreds or even thousands of  staff hours for organizations. That saved time can be spent talking to customers, innovating new products and services, and optimizing existing processes—activities that provide more long-term value for customers and for the business.

RPA helps organizations shift their sights away from daily operational tasks and towards customer-focused improvement. (Although, as we will explore later, alternative approaches to automation may provide significantly greater benefit along these lines.)

Robotic Process Automation Examples

The need to integrate legacy software systems with modern business processes is one of the driving forces behind the adoption of RPA in industries like banking and insurance.

In other industries, businesses are focused on streamlining processes and driving down labor costs through automation. Let’s look at some more specific use cases and examples of how RPA is being deployed in contemporary business environments.

RPA in Banking

Banks process a huge number of transactions and have historically done so by hand. Most banks use more than one legacy banking system to keep track of consumer data and transactions. These systems are not integrated in any way, so agents must copy-and-paste information between them to ensure consistency throughout their records.

Complex tasks like evaluating a loan application require agents to transcribe the same data several times—into separate banking systems, an online credit report application, and into a government website—in order to verify applicant information.

RPA bots can be used to automate loan application evaluations and other banking transactions, reducing transaction processing times. RPA bots have been deployed in banking to automate direct debit cancellation, account closures, foreign payments, audit reports, and numerous other repetitive activities. RPA bots can also aggregate customer and transaction data from disparate sources to help agents detect potentially fraudulent activity.

RPA in Manufacturing

RPA software in manufacturing is used to execute routine tasks across multiple applications within an existing workflow.

Shipping inefficiencies are common in manufacturing organizations that rely on workers to manually track inventory, fulfill orders, process purchase orders, and complete vendor invoices. The need to manually transcribe data between separate applications and forms also leads to errors which impacts overall quality. By using RPA, manufacturers can reduce errors, effectively synchronize data across applications, and cut the time needed to process orders.

RPA in Insurance

Insurance companies handle a range of repetitive, rules-based tasks, especially things like underwriting, claims processes, and quoting on products/services. Many insurance companies also rely heavily on legacy applications that are poorly integrated with modern software tools, so there is a strong need for an automation solution that doesn’t depend on app integrations—a solution like RPA.

Robotic processing insurance has been used by insurance companies to automate functions such as:

  • Performing data entry into legacy software systems
  • Reading and scanning information (using optical character recognition)
  • Compiling data from multiple systems for quoting or identity verification purposes
  • Downloading plan member information
  • Verifying the coverage status of a group or individual

RPA in Healthcare

RPA is not yet seeing widespread adoption in the healthcare setting, but RPA platform developers have identified a range of use cases for hospitals that incorporate RPA.

RPA bots could be implemented to automate the process of scheduling appointments for patients. An RPA bot could set up appointments for patients based on their diagnosis/treatment need, location, physician availability, and other parameters.

RPA bots could also be used to deliver more accurate discharge guidelines to patients and to send them follow-up communications with self-care instructions following discharge. Even medical billing could be enhanced by an RPA bot that calculates medical bill amounts accurately, accounting for medical testing, drug costs, doctor fees, and other expenses

Robotic Process Automation vs Other BPA Technologies

A February 2019 Gartner Report entitled Comparing Digital Process Automation Technologies Including RPA, BPM and Low-Code posits a continuum of five BPA technologies, each with uniquely defined strengths and weaknesses across a spectrum of automation capabilities.

The proposed continuum of BPA technologies is defined by the scope of process that each tool covers. At one end sits RPA, an automation tool that’s fundamentally task-oriented and can complete a new task every few seconds. At the other end, intelligent business process management systems (iBPMS) are used by enterprise organizations to support high-level process discovery, monitoring, and orchestration.

In between the two, there are three additional categories of business process automation tools: built-in workflow tools, low-code development tools, and integration platforms. Let’s compare each one to RPA to discover similarities and differences in how these software tools approach the task of automating business processes. 

RPA vs Built-in Workflow Automation

What’s the difference between a process and a workflow?

A process is a set of tasks that can be executed in order to produce a desired outcome. Workflows are the systematic organization of processes into highly orchestrated and repeatable patterns of activity.

In the context of business process automation, built-in workflow automation capabilities are usually provided by software tools that digitize business functions.

For example, Cherwell IT Service Management (ITSM) software leverages built-in workflows to automate processes like ticket handling and request fulfillment for IT organizations. Cherwell  can support automation of a wide variety of tasks within service management workflows:

  • Create a change request from a problem report, eliminating the need for manual data entry
  • Escalate an incident from level 1 to level 2 (changing status in system, sending notifications, etc.)
  • Manage approvals, including generating email approval requests for changes and sending them to the appropriate parties based on rules-based programming
  • Perform basic request fulfillment tasks, like resetting a password
  • Create logs of resolved incidents and fulfilled requests to support knowledge management activities

While RPA tools focus on automating tasks that involve non-integrated software systems, built-in workflows are usually pre-configured features of a software-as-a-service (SaaS) or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) solution with a dedicated function. Unlike RPA platforms, built-in workflow automations are designed to make use of APIs and integrate effectively with the modern enterprise technology stack, including tools like email and customer-relationship management (CRM).

The methodology of mimicking human UI interactions to achieve automation is unique to RPA. Built-in workflows are less focused on task-specific automation and more focused on ensuring that the right information gets to the right places/people at the right time to promote efficiency, cost savings, and organizational agility.

RPA vs Low-Code

Low-code development tools were created to help streamline the process of application development for users. Low-code automation tools support the development of new functions in a visual drag-and-drop interface that users can customize with minimal knowledge of coding languages or syntax.

A low-code automation platform consists of three essential components:

  • A visual development environment that lets users define application workflows, user interfaces, data models, and incorporate their own code, if desired.
  • API connectors to enterprise technology and services, used to automate data storage and retrieval while maintaining the integrity of data across its entire life cycle.
  • Application management capabilities for building, debugging, deploying, and maintaining defined applications throughout their life cycle.

Cherwell CORE is an excellent example of a low-code development platform. The platform serves as the logical foundation for Cherwell ITSM and ESM (enterprise service management) solutions, offering users full flexibility to configure process workflows and task automations for service management needs throughout the organization—all from a single no-code interface. Cherwell CORE users can also customize dashboards and reports to simplify KPI performance evaluation.

In addition to a highly functional visual development environment, Cherwell provides an extensive mApp™ (mergeable application) library with hundreds of integrations that can be quickly installed to extend the capabilities of the platform. No-code development empowers citizen developers to build their own applications with ease, making it easier for business analysts and administrators to start creating and leveraging their own automations.

RPA and low-code automation are similar in that they both provide plenty of flexibility for users. One of the key advantages of low-code development is that it helps drive innovation by minimizing the time required to customize, test and launch a new application. This stands in contrast to RPA where configuring a single bot can take weeks or even months.

Another benefit is that while RPA bots facilitate automation at the task level, low-code applications can be used to automate individual tasks, entire processes, or complex workflows with a wider scope that includes multiple sub-processes.

Unlike RPA solutions, low-code platforms use API integrations to facilitate data exchange between applications and would typically require an intermediary to effectively automate processes which include legacy applications.

RPA vs Integration Platform

As we move along the continuum of BPS technologies from RPA to iBPMS, we encounter technologies with the capabilities to exercise a wider scope of control over enterprise processes.

An integration platform is simply a software platform that integrates a variety of services from other applications to create new, customized workflows and automations. As enterprise organizations grow, they acquire and deploy more software solutions that meet business needs across a variety of domains (HR, accounting, ITSM, facilities management, security, etc.).

Complex workflows that necessitate process execution across several domains can be configured and automated using an enterprise integration platform. Integration platform developers recognize that enterprise workflows typically rely on several discrete components and sub-systems that are spread across separate software tools.

While low-code development platforms use a drag-and-drop editor along with APIs to configure workflows between applications, integration platforms use a variety of techniques to bring together the services and functions that support critical workflows in a way that focuses on increasing value to customers. An integration platform will typically allow organizations to forge point-to-point connections between applications and APIs using pre-constructed workflow templates. Organizations can use an integration platform to integrate a low-code development platform with their existing HR, ERP, or PPM systems, enabling robust data access and new opportunities for workflow automation.

Again, unlike RPA, integration platforms focus and rely on APIs as the primary method of facilitating information transfer between applications. They are highly effective at orchestrating interactions between applications and software systems without human intervention and maintaining data integrity across a range of enterprise data sources.

RPA vs iBPMS

Intelligent business process management systems offer users the opportunity to control and automate processes that span across departments, domains, applications, and disconnected services. These platforms typically combine the features of integration platforms, low-code development platforms, and built-in workflow applications to support high level process control over a broad spectrum of enterprise processes.

Sitting at opposite ends of the BPA spectrum, robotic process automation, and iBPMS could hardly be more dissimilar. One commonality they do share, however, is their strength in process discovery. Both RPA and iBPMS include functionalities that can monitor user behavior to discover and map processes for future automation.

Whereas an RPA tool would replicate that process by simulating human-GUI interactions directly, an iBPMS tool would be used to integrate the applications that provide data or other inputs for the process, configure application services into a customized workflow with low-code development, leverage built-in workflows from each application, and achieve high-level process automation with minimal human intervention.

Cherwell’s No-Code Platform Propels Digital Innovation

One of the major drawbacks associated with RPA is that it can stifle development and innovation.

RPA software bots can take weeks or months to build, test, and deploy. Because they automate tasks by interacting directly with GUI, small changes like application updates, UI modifications, or even switching to a different application can break RPA bots, requiring them to be reconfigured.

RPA bots are primarily beneficial for integrating legacy applications with modern software tools, but their implementation may disincentivize companies that would be better off in the long term if they modernized their legacy infrastructure, built APIs for legacy apps, and moved them into the cloud.

On the other hand, Cherwell’s no-code platform propels digital innovation, making it easier than ever for enterprise organizations to automate business processes. Users benefit from over 100+ built-in workflows, and the ability to quickly customize and automate simple or complex processes without any knowledge of coding or scripting.

New automations can be tested and deployed in hours or days—not weeks or months—significantly reducing the costs associated with automating business processes.

Cherwell CORE can help you:

  • Automate workflows to save time while preserving process and data integrity
  • Innovate more quickly while driving down development costs
  • Customize reporting capabilities and build dashboards to support effective decision-making
  • Fully leverage software capabilities, boosting operational efficiency and achieving greater control of enterprise processes

Are you ready to propel your digital transformation with Cherwell?

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