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What You Needed To Know About RPA, 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 Robotic Process Automation (RPA) includes the word robotic, generally speaking and especially in its pure form, RPA actually does not involve robots as such. The simplest way to describe RPA is to hark back to the days when we used to use Macros to automate some of our key strokes while using popular Word or spreadsheet or other such applications. RPA in something similar.

If you take a keystroke macro and extend it a bit further so that it would retrace not only your keystrokes but also the trajectory of the mouse and the clicks that the mouse makes on the screen, then you would start 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 on which the original actions are being retraced by the automation app, is not exactly the same as the screen from which the original keystrokes and the mouse trajectory and the clicks were recorded from, then the automation app would not be able to find by itself, where to make the clicks and where to paste 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 repeatedly and then input into the destination 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 come from and go to, 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 re-trace all the steps and transfer the data for the next few invoices, relieving you of the tedium of having to do the same thing over and over again.

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. Up to this point, the process was still deterministic.

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 was only partly structured, what then? In this case the RPA would now have to, not only make decisions about the supplier ID, as before, but also try to figure out from semi or 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 stage 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.

Even tough clearly an oversimplification, I hope that this short note will give you some idea on what RPA is and where it’s headed and how it might be used in the various different operations in a business or other application. 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 processing hours for the routine and repetitive operations that have to be done in their back offices and elsewhere such as in BPO operations.