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What is RPA technology and what can it do for your business?

RPA tools play an important role in modern companies because they can automate manual or repetitive human tasks, freeing workers to focus on more important work.

One of the hottest emerging technologies in recent years has been robotic process automation. Companies are investing a lot in process automation in order to save both time and money.

At a basic level, RPA is software that partially or fully automates human activities that are manual, rule-based and repetitive.

As defined by the Institute for Robotic Process Automation & Artificial Intelligence (IRPA AI), an independent professional association for buyers, sellers, influencers and analysts, RPA "is the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a 'robot' to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems."

Any organization that uses labor on a large scale for general knowledge process work, where people are performing high-volume, highly transactional functions, can boost their capabilities and save money and time with RPA software, according to IRPA AI.

Just as industrial robots are revamping the manufacturing sector by increasing production rates and improving quality, RPA software is revolutionizing the way we think about and administer business processes, IT support processes, workflow processes, remote infrastructure and back-office work, the organization said.

Gartner estimated, in a November 2018 report, that global spending on RPA software would reach $680 million in 2018, an increase of 57% from the previous year. It also estimated that 60% of organizations with revenue of more than $1 billion would deploy RPA tools by the end of the year.

The report went on to detail that RPA technology spending is on pace to total $2.4 billion in 2022, and by the end of that year, 85% of large organizations are expected to have deployed some form of RPA.

Organizations adopt RPA technology as a quick and easy fix to automate manual tasks. Some workers will continue to execute mundane tasks that require them to cut, paste and modify data manually, the firm said. But when RPA tools take over those activities, the margin of error decreases and data quality rises.

The biggest users of RPA today include banks, insurance firms, utilities and telecommunications companies, the Gartner study detailed.

How does RPA technology work?

RPA software uses bots to automate routine tasks within software applications that human workers normally perform.

Among the benefits of automating these tasks are the reduction in time necessary to complete tasks and elimination of the need for employees to conduct time-consuming, repetitive and tedious tasks.

RPA software uses bots to automate routine tasks within software applications that human workers normally perform.

In many cases, organizations are able to transition workers away from the mundane tasks and retrain them to take on more interesting and innovative work within their departments or in other areas of the company.

RPA software replicates the actions of a human worker interacting with one or more software applications to perform tasks such as data entry, processing standard transactions and responding to simple customer service queries.

The technology is applicable to a variety of business functions, according to IRPA AI. For example, in process automation, RPA can expedite back-office tasks in finance, procurement, supply chain management, accounting, customer service and human resources.

That includes tasks such as data entry, issuing purchase orders or creating online access credentials.

In IT support and management, RPA can automate processes in the remote management of IT infrastructures as well as investigate and resolve problems faster. It can improve both help desk operations and network device monitoring.

Furthermore, with developments in how machines process language, retrieve information and structure content, RPA can provide answers to employees or customers in natural language rather than in software code, the institute said. The technology can therefore help to conserve resources in large call centers and for customer interaction centers.

Types of RPA technology

RPA software comes in three major iterations, each applicable to different scenarios and each performing automated processes through the emulation of human workers.

One type of RPA is attended automation, which requires human intervention. Attended RPA is suitable for use cases such as front-office activities and when admins are unable to automate entire processes. One example is contact centers. In such a setting, automated programs run on a service agent's desktop and the users can invoke, via context-based screen triggers, an embedded screen button or hot key, according to consulting firm DMG Consulting LLC.

An attended RPA application operates alongside agents to improve productivity and quality, DMG said. It provides employees with real-time process guidance and automates routine activities associated with processes in a fast and accurate manner.

For instance, RPA technology can assist an agent in near real time during a customer support call. The attended bot could locate relevant customer data from an application and automatically enter it into another application to perform a task. This allows the agent to focus on addressing the customer's issue rather than spend time working with multiple applications.

Another type of RPA is based on unattended automation, where the software tools are intelligent and possess decision-making capabilities without human involvement.

Unattended automation is useful to fully automate high-volume transaction-based activities and processes and is common in back-office environments that involve lots of tasks, DMG said. A use case of unattended automation might be when a batch of new customer data comes in on a spreadsheet and needs to be entered into a variety of business applications -- a task that this type of technology can perform. Unattended RPA can run on a dedicated workstation, server or other computing platforms.

Editor's note: Using extensive research into robotic process automation technology, TechTarget editors focused this series of articles on vendors with product offerings that cover attended, unattended or hybrid RPA. Vendors also needed to possess considerable market share. Our research included Gartner and Forrester Research.

Once admins program unattended RPA, it does not require human intervention, delivering fully automated processes that replace work that human workers would perform manually.

The third type of RPA is a hybrid model that combines the capabilities of both attended and unattended automation. With this model, an agent begins a task, and then attended automation enables this same task until it shifts to unattended RPA for process completion.

Attended bots can offload portions of tasks to unattended bots, as appropriate, to more quickly complete work. The combination of both types of RPA ultimately builds a more complete RPA offering.

Regardless of the type of RPA in use, this technology has the potential to significantly change the way organizations perform many of their basic business processes.

This was last published in May 2019

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