Everything you ever wanted to know about Robotic Process Automation, but were afraid to ask!

Robotic process automation is a technology that is being widely hyped in the media and actually being adopted by many companies. If you have ever wondered what it really is, read on!

Although the term RPA includes the word robotic, generally speaking and especially in its pure form, robotic process automation actually does not involve robots as such. The simplest way to describe Robotic Process Automation is to hark back to the days when we used to use Macros to automate some of our key strokes while using Word or Excel or one of those files idiot robotic process Automation in something similar.

Robotic Process Automation ImageIf you take a keystroke macro and extend it a bit further so that it would retraced not only your keystrokes but also the trajectory of the mouse and the clicks that the mouse makes on the screen, then you would get a better picture of what RPA actually is. The problem that one would encounter in doing this, just as in any other macro, is that if the screen that is being used by the automation app, is not exactly the same as the screen that was used to record strokes and the mouse trajectory and the clicks, then the automation app would not find by itself where to make the clicks and where to copy or put the keystrokes.

For this reason, in its initial stages of development, RPA was primarily used for structured data where the source forms needed to be identical to have data extracted from them and then input into other forms which also needed to be identical to each other. This way, there would be no doubt as to where the keystrokes would have to go and where the mouse would have to retrace its trajectory and where the click would have to be. So initially this was what RPA could do best. It could record the keystrokes and the trajectory of the mouse and the clicks and transfer data from one source to another, provided the source documents were identical and the destination documents were identical.

Now, if you imagine using RPA to enter invoices, that you received electronically from a supplier, into QuickBooks for example, you would take the first invoice and copy and paste the numbers in the right fields in QuickBooks and the RPA would then trace all the steps and transfer the data for the next few invoices.

Consider however, that different suppliers were to be recorded and each had a different format for an invoice. This would mean that for every supplier that was different, a new process would have to be recorded and used and this would involve accounts payable staff to check each invoice and initiate a different process for each one of them. Enter the logic flow: the next level of sophistication came, when a logical decision node was introduced in the process flow for RPA. In this set of sequences, the process would first read the supplier account number and then make the decision to go to the right format to record or copy the data for posting into QuickBooks which would have the same format for all the suppliers.

If however, the data to be entered into a database has to be sourced from textual material that did not have any structure to it, or not a logical structure. In this case the RPA would now have to, not only make decisions as before but also try to figure out from unstructured data what to select and copy and what not to and this is where the need for artificial intelligence so called becomes a factor. This is the later stages that RPA is now entering, where not only can it handle structured data with logic sequences but also can read and understand unstructured textual material so to speak, or graphical material, using artificial intelligence. In this sense, RPA is now rapidly graduating into becoming a truly robotic automation process.

I hope that this gives you a good idea on what RPA is and where it's headed and how it might be used in the various different operations in a business. In my next discussion I will touch upon the various different companies that are the pioneers in this field, what they offer and how to make a good selection for what you need. Suffice it to say, that the many companies that have started using RPA have realized significant Savings in terms of man hours for the routine and repetitive operations that have to be done in their back offices and elsewhere.

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