By automating many of the rote, routine and repetitive manual tasks common to many workplaces, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a key catalyst for enhanced business productivity. With the power to unlock operational efficiency and drive down costs while relieving human workers of mundane low-value assignments, RPA has been adopted globally across industries and functions.
And with the trading environment’s volatility showing few signs of easing, enterprises are on the lookout for any competitive edge to armor them against the prevailing conditions – business process automation offers just such an edge. Which is why RPA in one guise or another looks set to be a mainstay of digital transformation strategy for years to come.
In the article we’ll do a quick fly-by of what RPA is and some of its benefits, before settling in to take a look at some popular use cases, the impact of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and how Celonis can help with your RPA implementation.
As indicated above, RPArefers to Robotic Process Automation. RPA is applied for the automation of repetitive, rules-based, and high-volume activities. This is achieved through the deployment of specialized software robots that are programmed to perform a set task, process or workflow. An RPA bot is capable of executing manual tasks faster and at a far greater scale than a human worker. RPA technology doesn’t tire, it doesn’t get distracted or bored with even the most repetitive task, and it reduces the risk of human error. As a result, processes are optimized and costs minimized – and these are just the headline benefits of robotic process automation, there are many more.
However, it's important to note that while both highly productive and reliable, the software bots can’t think for themselves, they can’t improvise to overcome any obstacles outside of strict operational parameters. In short they do as they’re told, they’re drones. Any shift in remit or change in process requires human intervention to set the RPA tool back on track.
At least that’s true for what might be termed ‘traditional RPA’ – that is, RPA software without any integration with AI or machine learning technology. In recent months options for more cognitive or intelligent automation have become available, with AI orchestrating workflow automation and RPA robots executing the individual tasks. We’ll get to that.
Whoever or whatever is providing the brainpower behind the automation, an RPA solution can have a transformative impact on business operations.
Think of every routine, repetitive task in every process in every workflow of every function in every sort of business: each one of those is a potential RPA use case. It’s possible to deploy automation anywhere across an enterprise and new applications are implemented every day. So any account providing examples of RPA is unlikely to be exhaustive, but what follows are some of the most common uses.
Finance functions tend to have strict rules and frameworks governing their operations. Across accounts payable, accounts receivable and beyond, many financial processes involve highly repetitive data entry or calculations. RPA excels at automating routine tasks including:
Account reconciliation: Bots can pull data from multiple systems, match transactions, and identify exceptions for human review. This saves countless hours compared to manual reconciliation.
Invoice processing: An RPA workflow can pull invoices, extract key data such as amount owed and due date, cross-reference with databases, update accounting records, and approve payment. Streamlining the tasks in these processes supercharges the function’s operational efficiency and accelerates the invoice-to-cash cycle.
Payroll processing: By integrating with existing HR and payroll systems, RPA software can calculate pay, deductions, withholdings and net pay for all employees as well as generate payments. This frees up human payroll staff from routine processing so they can focus on more value-added tasks.
Compliance: Process automation enables the finance function to stay compliant with all internal internal policies and external regulations. RPA bots can be programmed to apply any updates in finance legislation, for example. Alternatively, they can process and review payroll or expense reports and ensure consistent enforcement of policy across the organization – flagging anomalies or exceptions for human intervention.
Fraud: RPA can reduce an organization’s vulnerability to fraudulent financial activities by screening and processing transactions in real-time, irrespective of volumes and without the need for increased human resources.
While increasingly associated with AI’s predictive analytics and machine learning, customer service functions around the world have improved the speed and consistency of their customer interactions thanks to RPA. Here are a few examples:
Onboarding customers: A customer’s first impression of an organization is vital. Far too many successful customer engagements fall at the final step before transaction due to poor onboarding. RPA technology can ensure customers receive a swift, simple, and smooth onboarding process. Bots are deployed to input customer data from applications, verify identity, check watchlists for sanctions or other risks, establish accounts across all required systems, and ultimately to activate new accounts.
Chatbots: Chatbots leverage RPA to retrieve data from multiple backend systems in real-time to answer customer questions on order status, account balances, product inventory, delivery tracking and more. This provides customers immediate access to information instead of waiting on hold or exchanging emails. As indicated above, such solutions are increasingly leveraging AI’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities to allow dialogue that is closer to human interactions – and less rigidly constrained by rules-based responses.
Query processing: By automating routine processes, RPA reduces response times, leading to quicker query resolutions and improved customer satisfaction. From gathering data to process returns claims, to provision of relevant customer or product data to human agents, a software bot can enhance customer experience by streamlining back office tasks.
The human resources function of most organizations is inevitably admin heavy. Managing and optimizing workforce welfare, overseeing recruitment, employee relations, training…it all involves a lot of data processing that has to be executed in a timely, legally compliant, and accurate manner. Alleviating this type of admin burden is an ideal RPA use case.
Employee onboarding and offboarding: Just like the customer service use case above, an RPA solution can be used to ensure employees experience a smooth welcome to (or exit from) an organization. For onboarding, bots can collate new hire data entry from the multiple systems needed to establish payroll, benefits, email, and systems access. This frees up HR personnel to focus on orientation, training and other high-value activities. Similarly, when an employee leaves an organization, RPA can ensure the admin aspect of the separation process is swift, consistent, and thorough. This includes the removal of employees from email distribution groups, cancellation of benefits, handling transfers or terminations in payroll and HR systems, and completion of all offboarding tasks across platforms.
Updating employee databases: When an employee moves to a new department or location, RPA software can update their personnel records simultaneously across all relevant systems like payroll, HRIS, access control, facilities, and the like. This process automation removes an otherwise tedious and time consuming process from human workers.
Data entry and aggregation: Bots excel at transferring data between systems. They can rapidly extract information from documents, forms, emails and other unstructured sources and transfer it into databases, CRM systems, customer data platforms (CDPs), or similar. This can unlock siloed data from across a company’s techstack.
Given it’s heavy reliance of software tools, one of the most intuitive RPA use is within IT itself. Organizations rely heavily on their IT teams, so the opportunity presented by process automation to boost speed, efficiency and compliance has been grasped by many in areas such as:
User provisioning and deprovisioning: The IT aspect of employee onboarding and offboarding, RPA software enables the automatic setup of new employee accounts and access when they are hired, and removal when employment is terminated.
Password resets: Password reset requests tend to be among the commonest tickets to reach the average IT help desk. RPA enables a quicker resolution of such requests while freeing up IT resources to work on more business critical tasks.
Monitoring IT infrastructure & cyber security: Preventing, detecting and addressing any IT system performance issues, outages or attacks is critical to business continuity for the majority of organizations in the digital age. With RPA a bot or bots can be deployed to continuously monitor infrastructure and applications around the clock, triggering alerts when any problems are detected. Similarly, an RPA workflow can be set up to automatically scan log files from servers, networks and applications, looking for errors, security events or policy violations. A software robot can execute this type of crucial business process at far greater speeds and in far greater volumes than human counterparts – providing real-time reporting on any issues.
Training AI systems: Artificial intelligence platforms need to be fed with – and trained on how to process or interpret – huge volumes of business data. A more recent application of RPA technology is doing just that: channeling up-to-date information from across organizations’ data ecosystems to enhance AI applications’ effectiveness.
Many of the tasks, processes, and workflows that form crucial links in the supply chain can be enhanced by RPA. Process automation can be a key component of any organization’s supply chain optimization initiatives. Such opportunities include:
Inventory management: RPA software can be deployed to track stock levels across multiple warehouses and even to automatically place replenishment orders when certain inventory thresholds are reached. This ensures optimal stock levels and avoids outages.
Supply chain streamlining and coordination: Status updates, shipment notifications, customs documentation and other communications to smooth handoffs between suppliers, manufacturers, shippers and customers are all ideal tasks for automation. In this way RPA helps avoid supply bottlenecks and minimizes delays.
Quality assurance: Integrating RPA into quality assurance enhances efficiency by automating tasks like data entry, defect testing and reporting. This reduces errors, saves time and money, and ensures higher, more reliable product quality.
Production scheduling and monitoring: RPA bots can be assigned to reschedule production runs in response to any supply delays, equipment breakdowns or other disruptions to maintain optimal throughput. This kind of business process automation enables agile responses to supply volatility.
The preceding examples are just the tip of a vast iceberg of example use cases for RPA. Wherever there’s a process with a repetitive or manual element, there’s a potential opportunity for automation. This begs the question(s), where should an organization start RPA deployment and how should it prioritize the order of automation?
To answer these questions you need a clearly defined understanding of your target outcomes for automation, which processes are involved and, crucially, how these processes currently operate.
Successful RPA deployments are dependent on a data-informed picture of as-is processes. Only by knowing how an organization’s processes operate in practice (not theory), how they interrelate, and impact on key business goals or success criteria can you decide what processes in what function to automate – and in what order.
This understanding is critical to any successful RPA implementation (and for RPA to generate the desired return on investment). It should also be fixed clearly in your mind before going anywhere near an RPA vendor.
The need for this forensic level of process clarity is one of the main reasons a lot of businesses turn to process mining for answers. This technology analyzes data from systems’ event logs to visualize business processes in high definition.
Celonis’ object-centric process mining (OCPM) goes several steps further than most solutions, providing actionable insight on end-to-end cross-business processes.
This level of detail provides a solid foundation on which to plan and execute your robotic process automations.
What’s more, the Celonis platform provides real-time monitoring of process performance, before, during and after RPA implementation, generating a cycle of continuous improvement and maximizing the likelihood of a positive ROI.