Disruptive By Design: Robotic Process Automation Invades the Workplace
Robotic process automation, or RPA, is a new type of business process technology leveraging artificial intelligence. Its uses span the realms of doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy.
If you are not familiar with RPA, then think of the way that Microsoft Excel allows users to record steps when creating a macro. The concept is the same with RPA. Results include efficiencies in both public and private-sector organizations. The possibilities for RPA application are all around us.
RPA is part of the intelligent automation spectrum. According to a recent article in the Journal of Government Financial Management, RPA exists in most government organizations and automates rudimentary processes and tasks involving repetition, multiple systems and explicit steps. RPA may use unattended or attended bots depending on the nature of the process and the workforce.
Some studies report hundreds of percent return on investment, which may explain RPA’s rapid evolution and explosive growth.
Early versions include screen scraping, data scraping and web scraping. Screen scraping involves the collection of screen display data from one application and translating it so that another application can display it. Screen scraping is useful for translating data from legacy systems to modern systems. Techopedia explains that, “In some cases, it is desirable to continue using a legacy application, but the lack of availability of source code, programmers or documentation makes it impossible to rewrite or update the application.”
Data scraping enables the collection of a large body of information from a particular source, a codebase or a program, for example, and converting it into useful formats, such as Excel spreadsheets.
Finally, Techopedia defines web scraping as a form of data scraping. It also is a form of data mining. It can be used to collect data from across the Internet. Web scraping relies on toolkits to gather content from web pages with text-formatted data. Web scraping tools, services and public data are often free for end users. Newer tools and services even use audio data feeds.
More recent versions of RPA have been anthropomorphized and treated as co-workers. For example, the London-based company Xchanging, which provides technology-enabled solutions to the insurance industry, employs a number of RPA systems, two of which have been named Henry and Poppy.
People may think that RPA will replace human workers, but studies show that it allows them to perform more interesting and important work. The results are more work and higher levels of productivity and employee retention.
However, some are still concerned that RPA will replace opportunities for low-skilled, offshore workers. Until more time passes, RPA deploys further and more studies are completed, we will not have an accurate picture of the scope of RPA’s disruption.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military touts the potential for advanced technologies and human-machine collaboration to enable the national defense strategy. I dare say RPA fits that strategy well. But constant evaluation and adaptation to stay ahead of our enemies is a must.
We must all be open to new ideas, such as grass-roots experimentation, to capitalize on this disruptive technology. In another recent article, the Journal of Government Financial Management offers this advice: Start with automating small and highly manual processes to achieve quick wins; build momentum among the right stakeholders, including information technology administrators, finance and end users; conduct a vendor assessment to obtain the best robotics software package; and communicate with users about training, feedback and the culture.
The disruption of RPA can be delightful or disastrous. Let us strive for delightful.
Jennifer A. Miller is a member of AFCEA’s Northern Virginia Chapter, a cost analyst and a deputy branch chief in the Resource Oversight Division of the National Guard Bureau’s Joint Staff. The views expressed here are her own.