When most people hear the term “Robotic Process Automation (RPA),” images of giant robots performing complicated manufacturing processes might first spring to mind. What they may not realize is that RPA uses software (a “robot” or “bot”) to automate all kinds of rules-based business processes – including back-office processes, which makes it an attractive technology for a wide array of companies on the digital transformation path.
RPA is defined by IDC as “a combination of AI and automation, serving as a "virtual worker" — operating in place of a human. An RPA tool can be triggered manually or automatically, move or populate data between prescribed locations, document audit trails, conduct calculations, perform actions and trigger downstream activities.”
Applications for RPA can range from a simple bot transaction, like generating an automatic response to an email, to automating tasks in more complex software systems. For instance, according to CIO , insurers use RPA to populate policy management data into a claims processing application, rather than having humans do it.
As these examples illustrate, the benefits of RPA are easy to see. Automating repetitive, non-value add tasks enables more rapid processing and fewer human errors. RPA also supports digital transformation because it can seamlessly complement existing work environments and processes. It also allows business processes to run 24 hours a day without incremental overhead, thereby saving costs and allowing more rapid response times. Perhaps most importantly, RPA frees employees up for more valuable work that machines can’t do, which often leads to increased customer value and sales.
Despite the clear line-of-sight between RPA and the benefits it brings, companies are still struggling to implement it and reap those benefits. Ironically, some of the major reasons for that difficulty stem not from the technology, but from three decidedly non-technical barriers.
Barrier 1: Poorly defined processes
The foundation of RPA implementation is a well-defined, repeatable process. To automate a process, it must be highly repeatable with little to no human intervention. As some companies embark on the journey to implement RPA, they realize -- often after great investments of time and technology -- that the processes they want to automate aren’t good candidates for RPA because they simply aren’t consistent, well-defined or repeatable enough.
Lesson: Before you think about RPA, think about process. IT and business divisions should work together to identify well-established, highly repeatable processes with a bias toward those with little to no human intervention required. The process of implementing RPA on such a process will bring learnings back to the business that can be applied to other processes as they are designed and refined for possible RPA implementation.
Barrier 2: Failure to consider software licensing restrictions
Many ERPs, and other systems with which RPA technology is most effective, are SaaS-based, and licenses are typically granted (and paid for) on a per-user basis. Normally, we think of users and licenses in discrete, human terms, but your vendors, their contracts and your own architecture may not agree with you. Since RPAs are considered “virtual workers,” if your RPA interfaces with other SaaS systems with a per-user licensing requirement, those RPAs could be defined as users for purposes of licensing.
The consequences of failing to anticipate this contingency could include:
Lesson: Do your legal homework first. As you identify places in your architecture where your RPA may touch other systems, ensure your legal team has reviewed licensing agreements and terms. Since this is a relatively new issue, there may not be a black and white answer, but they can assist you in navigating this slippery slope
Barrier 3: Failing to get your employees on board
Even – and especially -- when it comes to changes involving automation, the biggest factor in determining the success of any change is managing it to ensure your employees understand and support the change.
In addition to the normal resistance that companies experience with any change, if there is a perception that the implementation of RPA is a case of “robots taking human jobs,” the incline to support and adoption will be steep, and the climb will be painful unless you can paint a compelling picture of the future that has good jobs for your employees in it.
According to IDC, among buyers of RPA solutions, 50 percent of U.S. buyers have indicated their workforce was retrained versus 38 percent of buyers who said positions were eliminated due to implementing process automation.
Lesson: Invest in change management efforts and ensure employees have a stake in making the change successful. Investing the time and resources to assess the impact of changes up front, along with a commitment to communicating with employees regularly about the change and how it supports the company’s journey and vision, will pay big dividends down the road.
Employees understand that change is constant. When they understand why you’re making specific changes, how those changes impact them and how they can individually support the company’s vision, employees can be a driving force to sustain and drive change rather than a barrier to it.
If the impact to employees is perceived as negative, the key is to communicate with employees honestly, early and often so those who are so motivated can make decisions about re-skilling and managing their career path for a successful future.
 IDC Market Note, AI, Robotic Process Automation, and Robots Changing the Way People Work, Interact, and Communicate, Allison Correia, Sept. 2017.
 Boulton, Clint, What is RPA? A revolution in business process automation, CIO.com, Nov. 13, 2017.
 IDC Market Note, The Strategic Role of Services in Realizing Business Value with Robotic Process Automation, Gard Little, Ali Zaidi, Michael Versace, Alison Close, Nov. 2017.