How to identify Robotic Process Automation (RPA) opportunities

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) doesn’t suit every process. Here’s how to identify the best use cases in your organization.
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Robotic process automation (RPA) can make a big difference for organizations plagued by repetitive mundane processes – the kind that suck up the productivity of people whose time would be better put toward more important work.

[ Need a primer? Read also: How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English. ]

“There are a vast number of uses for RPA,” says Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax. “In banking, tasks such as opening accounts or processing mortgage applications can be automated, while insurance companies can automate health and injury claims and onboarding for new applicants or agents. In the transport sector, supply chain and logistics operations can be streamlined with RPA. The list of possibilities is nearly endless and beneficial to any business that deals with laborious or tedious manual processes.”

That sounds promising, but Huff and other RPA experts also note that the technology’s vast potential doesn’t mean it’s a fit everywhere.

“Not all processes are suited for RPA, so it’s important to select the right tool for the job,” says Aaron Bultman, director of product at Nintex.

How to identify RPA use cases

How can you best identify and evaluate processes where RPA can deliver tangible results? As a starting point, you need to fully understand the process you’re considering automating. If that sounds like table stakes, it is – and yet many organizations jump into RPA with significant blind spots in their existing processes.

“Most people don’t have clearly defined processes, so they start automating, and either automate the wrong thing or get lost in trying to reverse-engineer the process.”

“RPA automates a clear, defined process. Most people don’t have clearly defined processes, so they start automating, and either automate the wrong thing or get lost in trying to reverse-engineer the process,” says Antony Edwards, COO at Eggplant. “For example, you try and do RPA for invoice approval, but you didn’t realize that there are actually about 30 different approval processes in the company – because of acquisitions, because this SVP doesn’t like the new process, etc.”

With that foundation in mind, we asked several RPA pros to share with us their advice on identifying and evaluating potential RPA fits in your organization, starting with a series of questions IT leaders can ask to kickstart a discovery process.

What can RPA do for you? Questions to ask

David Landreman, CPO at Olive, starts us off with a four-point question to begin generating a list of processes that might be good fits for RPA. (Before you consider this question, make sure you fully understand the process. As Landreman noted in our recent piece on explaining RPA in plain terms, this also means that the process should have clearly defined inputs and outputs.)

Landreman recommends that you determine which of your workforce’s tasks are:

  • Repetitive
  • High-volume
  • Rule-based
  • Prone to human error 

“If a task checks every single one of these boxes, it’s probably a great fit for RPA,” he says.

Bultman from Nintex shares a set of seven questions for your discovery process. If you answer yes to these questions, you’ve probably got a good candidate for RPA:

1. Can the task be completed manually by a human sitting at a PC working with applications?

2. Does the business system lack an API or is the database behind the application inaccessible?

3. Does the core vendor charge extra for updating information in the business application?

4. Does a human worker perform the task more than once per week?

5. Does the task involve sensitive data? (In this case, Bultman notes that RPA bots may be better suited for working with sensitive information. Among other reasons, it can reduce the probability of that data being mishandled as a result of human error.)

6. Does the task need to be completed quickly with limited staffing resources?

7. Are there repetitive tasks that employees dislike?

Those last two questions also speak to the possibility for RPA to improve human job satisfaction. “Rather than calling team members in on the weekend, let the bots do the work,” Bultman says.

[ Also read: How to identify an AI opportunity: 5 questions to ask. ]

Where can RPA help? Qualitative questions

Let’s keep asking questions – this time a bit more broadly. Huff from Kofax has you covered, with some qualitative ways of thinking about where RPA can help.

  • Which areas are underperforming?
  • Where are rigid applications or information silos creating bottlenecks?
  • Do you have processes that can’t be scaled unless you hire more people?
  • Are employees performing manual repetitive tasks? (You should be noticing a theme here: If it’s repetitive and manual, it’s probably a good fit for RPA.)
  • Do you have highly paid knowledge workers dedicated to time-consuming administrative tasks?
  • Are human data-entry errors creating frequent rework or exception handling?
  • Is your company considering outsourcing processes that you would prefer to keep in-house?

You can use these questions to construct a diagnostic checklist to evaluate the suitability of a process for RPA.

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.