RPA is big business - but what is it?

Manu Sharma Manu Sharma

US tech unicorn UiPath has announced plans to train up to 500,000 students in India in Robotics Process Automation (RPA). The move aims to reduce the skills gap in the sector and reflects the growing interest in robotics as a part of day to day business processes.

RPA is a booming sector and UiPath are one of the leading providers, going from a valuation of $70m to $6.4bn in just two years, while competitors Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism are worth around $2.3bn and £1.5bn respectively. And RPA is rapidly being adopted across a broad range of industries – the NHS has 45 robots across 300 finance departments, the Co-Op Financial Services are using RPA for payment processing and Coca-Cola are using them to streamline HR and shared services operations.

But what is it?

The robots have arrived. But we aren’t talking about Johnny 5, RoboCop or Wall-E in this instance. RPA describes the use of a software robot that can be programmed to do basic tasks across multiple applications, that are typically time consuming for employees. Running on a PC, laptop or mobile device, RPAs follow strict commands to complete a function and are particularly useful for repetitive tasks such as processing invoices, updating spreadsheets, filing, generating reports and managing financial statements. Essentially, RPA can automate any process that is done using in-house applications or a website.

The software can’t teach itself like artificial intelligence programs can, but it can watch how people complete specific tasks and then copy that process to do them itself. RPA systems can be applied across both front and back office functions, and businesses should consider the areas where the greatest benefits can be seen when shaping their automation strategies. Typically these are areas of repetitive actions, but there are no hard and fast rules.

In their basic form, RPAs don’t need any complicated coding and can be done by almost any employee, without a need for specific technical know-how. But an RPA can’t adapt or teach itself based on changes to the process – so the bots have to be managed and reprogrammed for some system updates or software changes. There are also new developments of ‘Intelligent Automation’ or ‘RPA 2.0’. Companies such as Kofax are combining Artificial Intelligence with RPA to create bots that should be able to develop and grow with a business.

Why should we use it?

The idea of paying for software that would do things employees already do might seem unappealing. But the advantages are clear. Creating efficiencies is good for business and helps to focus resources on more challenging tasks - improving both engagement and productivity. What’s not to love?