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Understanding the differences between desktop automation, RPA and RPA by design

There are four factors that should be considered when evaluating robotic process automation:

  1. Which robotic process automation software should be used to run a digital workforce operation?
  2. Which area inside the organization has or plans to incubate a digital workforce?
  3. How does the RPA software platform enable other technologies?
  4. How do the new robotic workflows offer a differentiated performance advantage?

White-collar workers, whose line of work requires “thinking for a living,” constantly feel inundated by the amount of information which must be dealt with before a decision can be made. When running a search on “automation software” it becomes clear that some of the “thinking for a living” that people do each and every day can now be offloaded to some type of automation utility.

From the end-user’s perspective, finding the right tool for the job is nothing more than software tool selection – find tasks to automate, test a range of the most popular applications, compare the output, negotiate the price, and finally wrap it up then press “Go.”

User driven desktop automation technology quenches a buyer’s thirst for dedicated assistance. McKinsey has provided an interesting statistic based on its assessment of work activities across 800 occupations performed at nearly 2,000 companies. They have concluded that 5 percent of the occupations can be lifted and shifted and fully executed by some automation solution.

Also, hypothetically speaking, it’s possible to automate 1/8th of all activities. This requires breaking up the existing business process workflows before work can be separated into “for people” and “for robots” work queues. Consider an average middle-market company employing 10,000 people. Focusing on labor arbitrage and striving for automation of 1/8th of the work yields a conceptually achievable target estimated at $50 million per year.

Automation ideas typically originate from a person with a specific need and expectation. Consolidating ideas and scaling automation from the bottom up is where companies start to face the reality – it’s difficult to do alone.

Consider a company that has purchased several automation software licenses, trained several people on the software, and compiled a list of automation opportunities. They’re making the most out of their desktop automation technology, but would they be served better by the more strategic, automation by design?

“Automation by design” is the framework which tends to be used in conjunction with an RPA installation in order to adopt an archaic operation into something that can host a business operation, which is co-curated with customers, partners, and suppliers.

Unlike desktop automation, robotic process “automation by design” is not for everybody. This is a more strategic capability that originated at “the top of the house” and not from grassroots ideas that would quench everyone’s automation thirst.

What does this mean? The initial entry point can target a closed block of work. The objective for this work pool is to operate through oversight, rather than hands-on execution. “Closed block” may immediately evoke the thought of an outsourced operation.

Depending on a commercial model there might be sufficient business case for transitioning the block to an RPA platform. Business case alone, however, doesn’t qualify an operation as RPA-ready.

In order to generate the most value from RPA, first focus on the closed operational blocks, and not customer journeys, which cut across a wide range of business units. This allows a kick-start of new robotic capability without impact on the core business.

RPA integrated into a closed block sets the precedent and becomes the foundation for the legacy core operation later.

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An attendee working on an Apple Inc. laptop computer participates in the Yahoo! Inc. Mobile Developer Conference Hackathon in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. The Hackathon is an opportunity for mobile developers to come together and hack around the Yahoo! Inc. Mobile Developer Suite. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

An example of an alternative approach would be throwing RPA in the midst of the shared services. It is a common practice, which requires major effort. Aligning protocols for security management, software release management, change management and software delivery cycles with the digital workforce operation is a major program.

Initializing robotic process automation inside a closed operational block helps demonstrate its purpose to the wider organization. Having a scalable foundation is the initial success.

Once such capability exits, additional business units can begin to leverage RPA. The rest of the organization can begin leveraging a digital workforce without having to completely reinvent the core business.

It’s recommended that companies start their RPA journeys at department levels, or specific operational closed blocks.

RPA champions introduce technology to the stakeholders in various departments. They in turn volunteer automation ideas. Initially, most people do not understand the distinction between previously used script-like automation and robotic process automation. The differences manifest themselves at scale.

The majority of what is referred to as “tactical” RPA initiatives arising from the grassroots ideas actually impact up to 1 percent of all the work performed inside of a 10,000-person operation. The issue for such low returns is not with the technology. User-triggered desktop automation and robotic process automation by design require two radically different frameworks of automation.

The market is flooded with desktop automation and labels are misconstrued with terms like RDA (robotic desktop automation), RPA (robotic process automation), IBA (intelligent business automation) used interchangeably.

RPA is packed with features which can be applied on small tasks (i.e. scripts). However, RPA has been designed to scale up to an enterprise-size platform, to seamlessly execute hundreds and even thousands of parallel work activities. Organizations can observe the difference when the automation pool becomes sufficiently large.

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