Computer Business Review

Robotic Process Automation: Digital Panacea, or “Sticking Plaster Solution”?

The benefits of RPA (Robotic Process Automation) have been widely touted. And the sector grew 63.1 percent in 2018 to $846 million, making it the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market, according to the consultancy.

RPA involves the automation of mundane manual tasks that generally entail the input, collation and processing of data. The biggest adopters are banks, insurance companies, telcos and utility companies. These organisations, Gartner notes, traditionally have many legacy systems and choose RPA solutions to ensure integration functionality.

RPA typically replaces human labour previously used to conduct rule-based processes which can be expedited via modern software and computational processing power.

Good RPA combines a robust user interface with script creation capabilities that allows users to automate aspects of their work which involve predictable patterns and data inputs. It is increasingly being deployed in finance and insurance. But have the benefits of RPA been overstated? Those close to the sector have distinctly mixed opinions…

What are the Benefits of RPA?

Jurie Roux of software provider TEOCO told Computer Business Review: “RPA software bots can work by using image and pattern recognition algorithms to observe and learn from human performance. RPA bots learn to repeat tasks performed by humans directly in a graphic user interface (GUI), as if it was an actual person performing the same mouse clicks and keystrokes.

“An RPA bot is, essentially, another worker—perhaps more basic in its analytical understanding that a human is, but able to work much faster and find many more problems. Plus, bots can work 24/7, never get tired or sick or need a break.”

The Benefits of RPA in Action

One example of a successful implementation of RPA can be seen at the telecommunications firm Vodafone, which used the technology to consolidate a number of processes they had operating in a shared financial services centre.

This centre handled the vast majority of the firm’s financial management functions, including their transaction processing, purchase to pay and general ledger.

The software infrastructure of this systems was done via SAP protocols and in one specific section Vodafone was dealing with roughly nine million assets and a 100,000 posts per month.

Jeanette Mifsud, who works in product at Winshuttle, an SAP automation specialist, told Computer Business Review: “The [Vodafone] tasks included using five different SAP screens and two different transactions, so a 100-line item would take up to 60 minutes to process. However, using SAP-specific RPA capabilities, Vodafone was able to use an Excel-based solution and reduce the processing time down to 15 minutes. The results were seven times better than Vodafone expected.”

Peter Barta, an asset and project accounting team leader at Vodafone added: “The system works very well for us. Complicated processes are handled in fewer steps, which reduces time spent on complex postings and allows us to avoid any internal IT debt.”

Insurance and Finance

The insurance and financial services sectors are both still heavily dependent on previous investment into legacy systems that are often difficult to pull information out of. These systems are typically operated manually by employees.

Rajesh Kumar R, head of automation and global delivery (retail, CPG and manufacturing) at IT consultancy Mindtree told us: “The FS industry is ripe for the implementation of RPA technology – it is one of the most data-intensive industries which operates in a highly regulated market.”

“We can already see the volume of data and analytics which will need to be processed in the future exceeds the current human processing capabilities.

“The focus of robotic automation is now sharply moving towards regulatory compliance functions, and is destined to revolutionise the compliance landscape globally in the next couple of years. For the FS industry, RPA can offer equal, if not more benefit, in significantly less time and lower cost.”

RPA: Benefits are Welcome, but Limited..

Francis Carden, VP, digital automation and robotics at Pegasystems warned, however, that while RPA is an effective solution that enterprises can use to help reduce inefficiencies across the company and quickly instigate cost savings, it has its limitations.

He said: “RPA is a sticking plaster solution and so should be viewed primarily as a bridge to digital transformation rather than the end game.

“This is because assigning a bot to automate a manual task would mean a bot being trained to carry out the same step-by-step process taken by the human, a process that may be extremely inefficient, more complex or error-heavy in itself.”

However, Jeanette Mifsud of Winshuttle adds: “Generic RPA solutions are designed to automate processes across many systems, and therefore rely on surface-level record and execution mechanisms to mimic user interactions. This can cause the robotic solution to break when something as small as a change in screen resolution occurs.”

RPA:  Bots can be “Prime Targets” for Hackers

When deployed, RPA can send out thousands of bots to complete tasks that involves moving and sharing data as well as accessing databases in different systems.

All of these actions require high level permissions that can then be used by a hacker to further escalate an attack, and experts warn that close attention to security strategy is also crucial to avoid exponentially broadening your attack surface.

Rich Turner, SVP EMEA at security firm CyberArk told us: “These non-human credentials can become prime targets if they are left unsecured.

“Security teams must therefore enforce a strong privileged credentials management and security strategy when their companies embrace RPA, just as they would any other privileged user or process.”

Flaws Aside, Charities Can Also Benefit…

One unusual area in which RPA can be particularly helpful, say experts, is in helping charities claiming Gift Aid back from the UK’s tax authority HMRC.

Doing this is a labour intensive project, and labour, especially specialised labour, is something charities just don’t have enough of.

David Biden, CEO of human+ (the RPA consultancy for the public sector), told Computer Business Review: “A ‘digital worker’ can be set up to access all of the personal details required by HMRC from multiple systems if necessary and handle hundreds of documents in the time it takes a human to review one.”

See Also: The Advantages of Cloud Computing for Business Today