Robotic Process Automation – the intermezzo of digitization

6 min read

Media frequently tell us, in big bold letters, that “the robots are coming”. A whole lot of experts have a variety of opinions about whether robots and artificial intelligence will make jobs appear or disappear, but nobody really knows for sure how fast the development of AI will be in the coming months, years and decades.

When it comes to robots, hardware or software, the picture is a little bit different. Robots as such are not intelligent. They become intelligent only when they get some kind of artificial intelligence embedded into them. Most physical robots in the world are different versions of industrial machines, programmed to do highly specific, and very often complex, but still strictly rule-based tasks. Even the impressing robots from Boston Dynamics, full of sensors and programmed to perform exceptionally complex movements, are as brainless as a bag of potatoes when it comes to normal human everyday tasks.

Through our work as strategic advisors within new technologies, we see a lot of confusion among our customers. They observe that new technologies are changing the rules and dynamics in their markets. They experience that their customers are becoming more and more demanding. They breath, live and feel the board’s expectations for digitization strategies and programmes. And last, but not least, they are fed up with consultancy companies overflooding them with fancy power points and heaps of fancy buzzwords about artificial intelligence.

The robots mentioned in media these days, are typically software robots, and very often within the domain of Robotic Process Automation (RPA). These software robots are not really intelligent. In simple words, they do exactly what they are programmed and trained to do, based on a predefined sequence of activities and according to an explicit set of rules. The really great thing about software robots, is that they may automate tasks that don’t really create value, that are considered as tedious and boring, but still have to be executed, such as invoice control, email handling, document verification, processing of forms and applications, updating customer information, executing error handling etc.

Our key message in this blog post, is that although media is full of examples of the advancement of artificial intelligence, the majority of businesses are still struggling with digitization of everyday tasks. In our experience, Robotic Process Automation is a smart first step in digitization of your business. It allows you to take small and controlled steps, with substantial return on investment within weeks or months, and at the same time give you leeway to take on large investments in digitization.

Robotic Process Automation technologies, such as UiPath and Blue Prism, are mature and well-tested, and the implementation approaches are typically based on lean methodologies. This means that there is very little risk involved, and the business case may typically be calculated in a matter of minutes. Large volume tasks with high frequencies easily provide very attractive business cases. Imagine that your accounting department receives 160,000 invoices annually. Then it goes without saying that the slightest time reduction per case eventually adds up to pretty figures. This is what happened at Stavanger Municipality where they saved 1.2 million NOK during a Proof of Concept.

But one must acknowledge that a pilot project does not necessarily give millions of dollars in return without further action. Getting started with a project can have other advantages such as anchoring support in the organization. When Systembolaget startet their RPA-journey, experience and learning outcomes were in focus rather than financial return. The robot «Elon» was set to take over monthly reporting of incidents. The benefit of being able to show the rest of the organization a digital employee in action, is that it proves its capabilities, making it worthy of its own desk.

See Elon in action

Humans are not machines. Obviously. This has some interesting implications with regards to digitization; in our interaction with customers, we come across tasks with no need for judgement or critical thinking, performed over and over and over again, day after day. We’re talking 2018 here, and still a lot of companies pay employees to not use their brains at work, but instead do repetitive and dull routine tasks. Over the last few months, we have helped a

wide range of companies to deploy software robots as part of their work force, with increased (human) employee satisfaction as an important side-effect.

Implementation of software robots is in most cases not an IT department decision, but a business decision. One of the great advantages of RPA technologies, is that they do not interfere with the underlying architecture, and they do not require any kind of integration. To make the decision even easier for the business management, you can also just rent the robot to do the desired task, and let some external company handle the employment of the robot workforce. However, it is important that IT is onboarded early in the process for the implementation to be successful. IT is important stakeholders to ensure proper technical guidelines and governance of the solution. You do not want to have the IT department working against you…:-)

A typical counter-argument from IT departments is that it would, after all, be more robust to set up the proper integrations and develop new system solutions to remove the need for the manual routine activities. We kind of agree, because it is not really viable over time to set up numerous software robots to solve basic system deficiencies. On the other hand, though, changes in core systems, seamless communication between production systems and complete real-time mirroring of customer data to the web tends to be extremely costly. In fact, so costly that most companies have chosen not to do it. And hence the tedious manual operational routine tasks survive. So, what do you do; ignore operational waste of resources or bite the bullet and let the software robots solve the tasks?

Let us be very clear on our view; we do not believe that all system deficiencies causing operational routine tasks should be solved with software robots on a permanent basis. However, allowing software robots to handle significant volumes may create some leeway for both the business operations and the IT department whilst preparing for more future oriented core solutions.

To summarize our perspectives, Robotic Process Automation is very often a key component of digitization strategies, as one of the first steps. Over time, we believe that many of software

robots will either be exchanged with new core system solutions and/or complemented with artificial intelligence.

For now, don’t worry, be happy, and let the robots do the tasks that just have to be done, but no human colleague really wants to do.

About Vincent Aardalsbakk Elin Hauge

Vincent Aardalsbakke is EVRYs Head of Intelligent Automation. He has substantial experience with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and other automation techniques to improve business processes within a wide range of sectors. He holds a MSc from Norwegian School of Economics (NHH). Elin Hauge is Head of Emerging Tech Navigators in EVRY. The main task of her team is to help customers, and colleagues, navigate in the landscape of ‘emerging technologies’, such as Internet of Things, Machine Learning, Computer Vision, Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language Processing, Robotic Process Automation, and x-reality. She is an experienced public speaker and strategic advisor.