For several months now London School of Economics (LSE) Professor of Technology Work and Globalization Leslie Willcocks and his colleague Mary Lacity, University of Missouri Curators’ professor and visiting professor at LSE, have been hard at work on a series of case studies that examine how Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been deployed across industries (find the first two published case studies here). We recently conducted a Q&A with Professor Willcocks to gain greater insight into their growing interest in the field and the findings of their research.
BP: There are a lot of varying definitions of robots and, as a result, some confusion in the market about Robotic Process Automation. How do you define it?
LW: For some, the term “Robotic Process Automation” may conjure up the image of shiny, human-like robots moving about the office. In reality, RPA really is just software that can be made to perform the kinds of administrative tasks that otherwise require stop-gap human handling. The quality that makes it robotic is the utility of a machine to stand in for a human worker and handle disparate, discrete chores. One “robot” equals one software license and typically that robot can perform structured tasks equivalent to two to five humans.
BP: Many may argue that this is just business process automation. Would you agree?
LW: No, the application of RPA differs from classic business process automation in two important areas. First, the developer hoping to automate a task does not need to have programming skills. For example, business operations people who have process and subject matter expertise but no programming experience can, with only a few weeks of training, start automating processes with RPA-enabled software robots. Second, RPA does not disturb underlying computer systems. Robots access other computer systems the same way humans do—through the user interface with a logon ID and password—and there is no underlying systems programming logic. It truly is “lightweight IT.”
BP: Why is RPA emerging as a viable solution now?
LW: If you were to look inside the operations of any large organization today, you’d quickly see how little time their knowledge workers are actually spending on higher-order thinking tasks. Many companies have realized this and attempted to resolve it by doing one of two things: automate or informate, as pointed out by Shoshana Zuboff. Many have tended toward the former – transferring tasks from the hands of workers to machines, rather than endowing people with greater capacities and having them work symbiotically with technology. As a result, workers now spend substantial time dealing with what John Gall called systemantics — the quirks and shortcomings that are just as endemic to systems as their strengths. For example, it is a systemantic problem that the typical automated operations system (e.g., Enterprise Resourcing Planning, CRM, or e-commerce) is unable to complete a whole process end-to-end. For the technology to deliver value, knowledge workers must conduct menial tasks like extracting and moving massive amounts of data from one system to another, and they want to be liberated from such highly-structured, routine, and dreary tasks to focus on more interesting work. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is giving them that opportunity.
BP: What do you view as the biggest business benefits of RPA?
LW: Thanks to its ease of use and lightweight operation, RPA adoption can originate inside business operations, rather than requiring heavy Information Technology (IT) department involvement and buy-in. And because RPA projects do not require expensive IT skills, the threshold of processes worth automating is considerably lowered. Even if a monotonous task is not being conducted by a large number of human staff, RPA can economically delegate it to robots.
Take, for example, one of the companies we studied as part of our RPA research: UK mobile communications provider Telefónica O2. The company deploys more than 160 robots to process between 400,000 and 500,000 transactions each month. This not only yielded a three-year return on investment of over 650 percent, but did so by training only four people. In general, early adopters of RPA find that automation radically transforms operations, delivering much lower costs while improving service quality, increasing compliance (because everything the software does is logged), and decreasing delivery times.