A relatively new field, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), is best thought of as robotics. The key difference is that the thing being manipulated at lightning fast speeds is data, not automobiles or electronics.
RPA is the performance by bots of repetitive rules-based processes that involve databases and other forms of structured data (such as data captured in databases). It is used in data-intensive industries such as banking, financial services, insurance and health care, according to Adam Devine, vice president and head of marketing for WorkFusion. “In fewer words, RPA helps companies do with technology what they did before with people.”
It is a technology whose time has come. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data – interrelated disciplines that collect and analyze huge amounts of data, respectively – makes RPA a necessary tool, not something that is nice to have, but not mission-critical.
A Booming RPA Market Potential
Ian Barkin, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Symphony Ventures, holds an even more upbeat view of the category’s potential. “[W]hite-collar office jobs are everywhere; this is a service economy after all,” Barkin wrote. “So, yes, RPA robots have a much bigger impact. Our estimates are that there is a $2.5 to $3 trillion market for middle and back-office work addressable in Shared Services centers alone.”
RPA and Jobs
The impact of RPA mirrors concerns about automation and physical robotics. It is impossible to say exactly how it will play out, but the early indications are that the outcome will be positive.
The negative interpretation is simple: RPA will replace people. The more positive (and perhaps more nuanced) outlook layer, though, starts with the idea that the emergence of Big Data and the IoT will make it impossible for people to accurately process enough data to keep up. Humans would become the limiting factor. Thus, RPA doesn’t eliminate jobs – it makes new areas of work possible.
These people will be freed up for advanced training and, ultimately, more challenging jobs. “For every task that a machine automates, a human is elevated to a new, more complex task,” Devine wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. “By redistributing repetitive tasks to robots – even those that can’t be scripted with rules – companies can use their human capital for tasks that really need human intelligence. This promotes capacity and competitive advantage within a company thanks to cost reduction and speed gains (robotics complete these tasks faster, and with fewer errors). This means more jobs, deeper skill sets, improved productivity, and the chance for humans to put their creative power toward future innovation.”
While a technology that starts by reducing the work force seems threatening, the end result could be to free people from mental drudgery. “We should embrace the technology of automation as not only a digital revolution, but also an intellectual revolution where we allow robots to take over repetitive, boring tasks and move forward to more challenging roles that involve problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity that will deliver more value to our work and even enrich our lives,” he wrote.
Francine Haliva, the head of marketing for Kryon Systems, listed dozens of new work titles that RPA will make possible. She added that there are different levels of RPA technologies. Some run on virtual machines and are more or less self-contained. Others are deployed on the employees’ desktops to support work that he or she is doing. “With ‘attended’ automation, human workers can trigger automation processes right from their desktop, at the time of need,” she wrote. “This dramatically cuts time to proficiency for anyone operating new applications or software release, reduces errors, increases productivity and improves job satisfaction.”
Schatsky agrees that the idea of RPA may be freeing. “Over time, we may see people’s jobs evolve, from interacting with systems in routine ways to performing tasks that require more judgement and flexibility,” he wrote. “But we haven’t seen large-scale job losses associated with RPA so far. Automation often, but not always, evolves, changing people’s jobs, rather than entirely eliminating jobs.”
Whatever the details are, RPA as a category is expanding rapidly.
“From our vantage point, it’s exploding,” wrote Symphony Ventures’ Barkin. “All major enterprises are now asking the question, ‘Can we automate this?’ first, rather than ‘Can we centralize, nearshore, offshore, outsource, etc.?’ That has happened only in the last two years. 2017 is going to be a frantic race for all enterprises to prove that transformation is going digital in meaningful and impactful ways.”