I can’t remember when my birthdays stopped being a special occasion. At some point, the excitement of unwrapping presents turned into a recurring reminder of another lost year. Somewhere along the way, I received The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A present from an aunt who had clearly noticed my interest in science fiction. This book introduced me to Arthur Dent and his sidekick, Marvin the Paranoid Android. Every page turn transported me to a weird and wonderful universe. Back on Earth, people were listening to The Police and struggling with Rubik’s cubes. The 80s had arrived and Douglas Adams has definitely got them off to a good start.

His book describes a conversation where Arthur was particularly frustrated by Marvin’s negativity. A beautiful sunset had failed to inspire the miserable machine. ‘I think I’ll just take another walk’, said Arthur. Trying desperately to escape from the tedium. ‘Don’t blame you’. Said Marvin and counted five hundred and ninety seven thousand million sheep before falling asleep again a second later. I remember thinking how awesome it would be to live amongst robots with such incredible processing power.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Fast forward to 2016 and we find ourselves in a world not too far removed from the one that Douglas Adams created. My interest in robotics continues and recent technology is really pushing the boundaries.  RPA is a particularly effective abbreviation for Robotic Process Automation. It’s basically a way to perform repetitive and mundane tasks – quicker and more accurately than a person is able to. The robot, in this case, is not a physical robot like Marvin – and it’s almost certainly not as paranoid. It’s also unlikely that our robot will be able to count sheep quite as quickly – at least not yet. RPA is simply a program that is able to interact with a computer in the same way that we do. And in many cases, much more efficiently.

We can’t replace everything with RPA,  that’s not the aim. The office would be a really boring place without anyone in it.  However,  if we can automate some of the important but boring tasks that life throws at us,  people will have more time to focus on what really matters. With the robots taking care of day to day activities,  your people can concentrate on driving innovation into your organisation.

What benefits can RPA provide?

There are more potential benefits than you (or a robot) can shake a stick at.  Many of them will depend on the nature of your business. Let’s list some of the possibilities to give you an idea:

  • RPA processes can run 24 hours a day,  365 days a year.  They don’t need sleep or toilet breaks. You won’t find them sunbathing around the pool at your favourite holiday resort.
  • Robots are very good at repeating things and they don’t get easily bored. If you train them well,  they will very rarely make a mistake. Even after a 168 hour weekly shift at the office.
  • Most of us have experienced the joys of filling in timesheets at some point in our lives.  Those Monday mornings trying desperately to remember what we did last week – before the weekend fried our brains and made us forget it all. Robots aren’t party animals, They don’t have social lives or family responsibilities.  They will diligently record every action they take at whatever level of detail we need. In this way,  we can examine our processes and improve them over time.
  • Robots can use something called machine learning to improve all by themselves. They look for patterns in data and identify better ways of working.  They are unlikely to come up with the perfect solution – the idea is to do just enough to be useful.
  • Programming robots does not require a PhD in software development or an intimate knowledge of hexadecimal number theory.  With training and support,  your business people should be able to create a robotic process for themselves. The people that understand your business best will be able to contribute effectively. Over time, you become self sufficient and rely less on expensive consultants.
  • Robots interact with your systems in the same way that you do.  They simulate key presses,  mouse movements and other physical actions. Although they are less likely to spill coffee over your keyboard or forget their login details. This means you don’t have to take the lid off your critical systems and rewire them. Where appropriate,  RPA processes are less intrusive than traditional software development.

There are other ways that RPA can help your business.  It can save you time,  free up key resources,  reduce costs and decrease errors. With a sprinkle of creative thinking, you may be able to transform your business in new and innovative ways.

The future ain’t what it used to be

RPA is only the beginning of this new technical revolution. As computers become more powerful, they are able to process vast amounts of data in less time than ever before. IoT, the Internet of Things, is collecting information from weird and wonderful places. TVs, cars, refrigerators, coffee machines, even our beloved pets are able to collect data from their surroundings.

Machine Learning can process this data, looking for patterns in an endless sea of ones and zeros. It does this with the same unwavering attention as our automation robots. But now, instead of mining data for reports, computers use what they find to adjust and improve their own algorithms. Machines are able to teach themselves without being explicitly programmed to do so.

RPA, IoT, big data and machine learning are evolving at a high pace in their own right. Together, they are complementing each other to provide a rich ecosystem for intelligent processing. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be”.

To be or not to be – that is the question

Time is mischievous, it constantly tries to stop us from getting the job done. We counter this problem by continuously looking for better ways to do things. We take existing processes and design ways to do them more efficiently. Effectively turning what we have (‘as-is’ processes) into what we would like (‘to-be’ processes).

RPA provides a different option. Some processes can benefit from automation without the need to change them. Efficiency comes inherently from RPA. Of course this should be addressed with caution. Automating an inefficient process can accelerate inefficiency. However, for simple scenarios, RPA can lead to a quick win without a great deal of effort.

Empowering your business

Perhaps best of all, RPA shifts capability back to your organisation. Your employees know your business better than anyone else does. They are best suited to identify processes that may benefit from automation. Moreover, with the right training your people can implement RPA directly. You don’t have to write comprehensive requirements documents or spend time handing over domain knowledge.

RPA does not answer all the questions. It won’t solve all of your business problems. It will make some of your challenges easier and help you to derive more value from your investment. The answer may not be as simple as 42 but I’m sure you’ll find it if you start thinking a little differently.