It’s a cliche, but like so many cliches, it’s true: You can’t truly understand where you’re going without understanding where you’ve been. Whether in life or in today’s global business climate, this statement rings true now more than ever, particularly in the emergence and development in Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in a number of industries across the globe.
We’ve previously discussed how RPA is a disruptive technological development that has changed the way companies both large and small manage their back-office processes, operational duties, and even customer-facing tasks. Whether it’s removing the number of keystrokes employees must deploy to complete tasks or using advanced, intelligent robotic systems to completely reimagine how a company conducts internal audits or reviews detailed analytics on company performance, RPA has been embraced as a key driver in leveraging efficiency and productivity.
But how did we get here? How did RPA evolve into such varied, wide-ranging technology platform deployed in such a variety of industries from insurance to global finance? In an effort to understand the development of RPA - and where perhaps it may be going in the future - here are five key moment in the history of RPA and their significance in the growth of this technology.
To trace the lineage of RPA in the global business climate, it’s important to begin before RPA was a known term. Beginning in the early to mid 1990’s, computers, software programs, and robotic platforms began to emerge as cutting-edge methods of cutting operational costs and improving overall efficiency. While there were a number of platforms that attempted to engage in automation practices during this period, three of the most formative for the development of RPA include:
Screen scraping. The ability of these early systems to scan large sets of static information or other visual representations of data to pull key terms, integers, or other important analytics is not only a core function of RPA in today’s context, but it was an important development in how RPA would integrate screen scraping capabilities into a larger suite of functions.
Workflow automation tools. While the origins of the term “workflow automation” dates back to the 1920s during the industrial era and emergence of manufacturing, the term has become more frequently used since the 1990s. Workflow automation software can, for example, aid in order processing by capturing certain fields of interest, such as customer contact information, invoice total, and item ordered, translating them into your company’s database, and notifying the corresponding employee.
Artificial intelligence. Despite earlier advances in robotics, the term “artificial intelligence” was not coined until 1956 at conference at Dartmouth College. Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to the capability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intervention and intelligence. The tasks that can be completed by AI machines are those that were previously highly dependent on humans for their judgement and decision making ability and include, for example, financial planning and fraud detection.
While RPA has its origins in the early 1990’s, the emergence of term “robotic process automation” can be dated to the early 2000. Though we’ve established RPA is built on several existing technologies, RPA’s true value stemmed from allowing users to establish automation and manage workflows using drag and drop features in a visual way that can be entirely independent of coding knowledge. Also unlike many web scraping tools, some RPA software makes use of optical character recognition (OCR) technology to adapt to changing websites without requiring intervention from a human employee.
In addition, RPA built and improved upon artificial intelligence. While automation and AI are competent technologies on their own, the collaboration between RPA and AI allows for complex capabilities to emerge.
While automation is able to streamline repetitive, rules-based business processes, the software is largely unable to deal with exceptions on its own or make decisions outside of how it has been programmed. These more mature, evolved capabilities is a large part of what differentiated RPA from the platforms that came before, but it’s also why so many companies began to recognize the value proposition of RPA in becoming more agile, nimble, and responsive in an increasingly global business landscape.
As RPA began to tackle more complex tasks via simple operating systems easy enough for average employees to use, more and more industries jumped at the chance to adopt this technology on a large scale, particularly business process outsourcing (BPO) and other operators in the shared service market.
This moment - where BPOs began viewing RPA as a key driver in efficiency and productivity - is a benchmark in the evolution of RPA.
For BPOs, RPA allowed for even further innovation and progress in the world of outsourcing. BPOs are quickly automating their back office functions in a way that is more cost effective and responsive than ever before. The benefits of RPA for BPOs—and other players as well—included:
Dramatic reductions in cost (RPA robots are typically about 50% less expensive than offshore players)
Enhanced efficiency (RPA bots are able to operate on a 24/7, 365 basis with little human intervention)
Increased client satisfaction and retention (the agility, transparency, and responsiveness provided by RPA fosters better customer relations)
Will these goals materially improve the business as a whole, or should we set our sights higher?
But it’s not just widespread adoption by BPOs in the early to mid-2000’s that set RPA apart. In fact, the future of RPA and BPOs has great potential. In the coming years, industry experts believe RPA will continue to evolve and become more advanced, further allowing BPOs to improve their offerings.
Even with the development of RPA, client needs for outsourcing will not disappear, especially for certain front-office tasks that still cannot be fully automated using RPA.
As with any emergent, disruptive technology, there comes a moment when the experts and insiders began serious evaluations as to how this technology can be improved or applied in contexts or situations previously not considered.
Beginning in 2010, and still continuing in some sense today, RPA has been placed under the microscope an in effort to discover new applications for automation - whether in new industries or in existing industries to automate new processes.
With the former example, RPA has seen robust growth in a host of new industries in recent years, particularly in the insurance, healthcare, and financial service industries. These business sectors - each of which is inundated with manual data entry and management, integer-based tasks - have seen drastic reductions in costs, enhanced productivity, and fewer instances of errors as a result of recent RPA implementation. Whether it’s creating, managing, and processes invoices, claims, receipts, or template-based instances of documentation, RPA experts have successfully shown how RPA can impact industries far outside the tech sector.
With the latter example, RPA is now more than ever automating and simplifying new tasks in existing contexts. Email, for example, and the ability to automate the sorting, data mining, and even responding to emails and other digital correspondence has become a critical pain point for a number of globally-operating industries. Intelligent systems and platforms are now being used to automate email-based processes that once required time, resources, and manpower to address.
The ease with which RPA can accomplish these menial, administrative tasks provides companies with significant competitive advantages in today’s digital, connected era.
Cognitive computing. Big Data. Industry 4.0. Machine learning. While these may seem like industry buzzwords, they’re in fact exciting developments in the business world where RPA has the potential to once again significantly disrupt the status-quo.
Pairing RPA with these new and emerging technologies and concepts will not only provide companies with greater power to accurately analyze and act on important data based on key performance indicators, but it will also provide companies with greater insight into the efficacy of their practices - how companies currently function, especially in terms of operations and the back office, and how these practices can be refined and reimagined to create increased visibility across each touch point in the value chain.
RPA is also beginning to see implementation in the front office or with more customer-facing tasks. Through its automation capabilities, RPA allows organizations to deliver higher quality services to their customers in a timely manner.
Whether it’s creating receipts, confirmations, invoices, or other forms of documentation on a customer relations level, RPA will allow organizations to deliver higher quality services to their customers in a timely manner. This in turn will drive more effective practices and functionality on a cross-organizational basis, making companies better suited to compete in a global environment.