Robotic Process Automation (RPA): 6 things people get wrong

Robotic Process Automation (RPA): 6 things people get wrong

To avoid trouble with robotic process automation projects, explain these common misconceptions to your team – and to executives supporting your RPA work

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July 02, 2019
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4. “RPA gets smarter as it goes.”

RPA is good at following prescribed instructions; it’s not good at making decisions on its own.

There’s some debate in the industry about whether RPA should be considered a form of AI. Some of this depends on your definition of AI. A Harvard Business Analytics report, “An executive’s guide to AI,” points out that RPA qualifies as AI according to the criteria in its definition, for example. Others think of it as an early stepping stone to more cognitive technologies.

“RPA unlocks a basic form of AI where a bot is performing repetitive tasks previously done by a human – tasks that skilled employees spend hours each day performing,” says David Landreman, CPO at Olive.

Regardless, most RPA technologies aren’t intelligent like, say, machine learning algorithms that learn as they go. RPA is good at following prescribed instructions; it’s not good at making decisions on its own, though many in the industry expect RPA to be increasingly paired with machine learning and other AI disciplines.

5. “People will not not fear RPA.”

“RPA can feel like offshoring or outsourcing jobs to Robotlandia.”

So maybe no one says it in those exact words, but RPA – especially in acronym form, which disguises the word “automation” – can be problematic from a culture and change management standpoint. In particular, it’s one of those technologies that’s likely to bring out the skeptics.

“RPA can feel like offshoring or outsourcing jobs to Robotlandia,” Thielens says. “Don’t forget the human element.”

In general, people tend to fear automation as a threat to their job security. In the case of RPA, it might be even more visceral, because RPA success depends upon human input. If people mistrust RPA, that input might be incomplete.

“For process improvement, you often depend on those who are working in the trenches for the best insights into how things may be improved,” Thielens says. “But to those workers, an RPA project may not feel much different from an offshoring or outsourcing project where workers are meant to train their own replacements.”

6. “Where are my robots?”

It’s a fun(ny) and serious place to wrap up: “robotic process automation” is a partial misnomer. Anyone expecting R2-D2 or Johnny-5 to show up at the office will be disappointed.

As Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax, told us recently, “Robotic process automation is not a physical [or] mechanical robot.” Rather, RPA is software written to automate computer-based processes that would otherwise need to be handled, usually in repetitive, high-volume fashion, by a human. If you’re evangelizing RPA to non-technical folks, they may need this basic clarification to help wrap their heads around the technology.

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