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Robotic process automation (RPA): How it works
How does robotic process automation software handle repetitive tasks? Does RPA require coding? Where does it fit? Let’s break it down in plain terms
“Do more with less” might be a timeworn excuse for a business mantra, but robotic process automation (RPA) is a tool that could actually help teams do just that in the right circumstances.
That’s the big selling point of RPA. The phrase itself might sound complicated or scary, but the possible benefits of RPA are pretty simple: Use software to automatically handle repetitive (and often boring) computer-based tasks that previously hogged a person’s time.
Moreover, the processes that make good fits for RPA usually take up human hours with work that requires minimal (or no) skill or creativity. It’s ultimately about efficiency.
[ See our related post, How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English. ]
How RPA software works
But how does RPA software actually work? As usual, the short answer is: “It depends.” For starters, the specifics vary based on the tool you’re using or, of course, the process you intend to automate.
By “RPA software,” we mean the growing menu of tools and platforms that organizations can choose from to test and implement RPA use cases. RPA software was the fastest-growing enterprise software segment in 2018, according to Gartner.
The “robot” in robotic process automation is software running on a physical or virtual machine.
“RPA is a form of business process automation that allows anyone to define a set of instructions for a robot or ‘bot’ to perform,” says Aaron Bultman, director of product at Nintex. “RPA bots are capable of mimicking most human-computer interactions to carry out a ton of error-free tasks, at high volume and speed.” Think copy-paste tasks and moving files from one location to another, for example.
There are some basic principles of how most RPA software works, as well as some good news for IT teams stretched thin across other initiatives: In the hyper-competitive RPA vendor landscape, there’s been a big push to make RPA software as usable as possible, so that it doesn’t require hours upon hours of engineering time to automate a process.
Does RPA require coding?
“Getting started with RPA is relatively easy,” says Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax. “Most RPA software companies have created rather intuitive and aesthetically pleasing user interfaces that leverage ‘drag-and-drop’ software to build automations.”
Indeed, RPA software can be thought of as a specific frontier of the “no code” or “low code” trend, which means exactly what it sounds like: software that requires little to nothing in the way of original coding. The idea here is to enable to non-programmers, whether a business analyst or someone outside of IT altogether, to effectively create software – in this case, RPA bots can handle repetitive, rules-based computer tasks.
“While RPA vendors vary in the degree to which they can accurately claim no-code or low-code, the consensus is that [most] RPA software allows a business user to design and develop,” Huff says.
To that end, multiple vendors offer drag-and-drop interfaces for building RPA bots; some also offer the equivalent of an app store, with pre-built bots for specific use cases or processes.
Where RPA fits
This is a good point to remind everyone that not every process makes a good fit for RPA. You want to look for highly predictable (some RPA experts like the term “rules-based”), repetitive processes; variability is your enemy here.
“RPA is very effective for automating tasks and sequences that execute the same way, time after time, without variation,” says Bultman. This is why you’re seeing RPA adoption transcend industries and gain particular steam in operational areas such as finance, accounting, procurement, customer service, call centers, and HR, according to Bultman.
[ See our related read: How to identify Robotic Process Automation (RPA) opportunities. ]
Want an RPA analogy? Let’s explore a good one you can use: