How does RPA work? Same stuff, different way

Automation software has, in one form or another, existed for decades. But as of late, a new flavour has entered the mainstream. It’s known as robotic process automation (or RPA). RPA is the new buzzword on the block; the latest ‘big thing’ that businesses must adopt, or ail.

The thing is, RPA offers nothing intrinsically new. It does the same thing as traditional business process automation (BPA). For all its hype, RPA automates the same kinds of tasks and processes that have been automatable for many years.

But there is a difference between the two. To find it, you need to dig deeper into how the different automation options take on your tasks. So, how does RPA work?

A refresher: what is automation?

Automation software handles repetitive tasks and processes. In doing so, it allows your human team to focus on more fulfilling workloads.

If the task in question follows a formulaic pattern, requires data input, or is easy to break down into step-by-step rules, it’s automatable. And both shiny new RPA and traditional BPA can take on these processes.

As shiny and new as RPA is, then, the output it achieves isn’t anything ground-breaking. The key breakthrough is in how it reaches that output.

In other words, the difference between RPA and BPA lies behind the question ‘how does RPA work?’

The user interface

RPA works at a user interface level. This means that it interacts with your computer the same way you do.

For a simplified analogy, imagine a physical robot sat at one of the desks in your office. That robot is scrolling, clicking and typing away at the computer to handle the tedious processes you want to automate. In this scenario, the robot is using the computer in the same way as any other employee.

Now, make that robot invisible. That’s essentially how RPA works.

RPA consists of software bots (like that physical robot, but residing digitally in the machine). These software bots use your software programs and systems to complete processes in the same way a human would.

So, how does RPA work? The first part of that answer is: it digitally mimics a human employee’s actions on a workstation.

Setting up

The next way to answer the ‘how does RPA work’ question is to focus on how you configure it.

To set up RPA, you need to train it. You do this by letting software bots ‘watch’ your actions while you complete tasks. For example, opening files or emails, copy-pasting fields and inputting data. From this, the bots learn how to complete those tasks (by replicating your actions).

In comparison, traditional automation isn’t trainable. It doesn’t acquire knowledge over time. Nor does it watch how users behave. BPA takes its example from pre-set rules only. So, for traditional automation to function, you need to write the individual “IF” rules outlining each process you want to automate.

The post-configuration yields of automation are similar, whether you use RPA or BPA. It’s just that the former learns to automate, while the latter does so by obediently following instructions.

Handling processes

Another way to answer the ‘how does RPA work’ question is by looking at how it handles your processes once it’s up and running.

Because RPA works on a user interface level, it can effectively sit on top of your existing systems. This means that it can navigate between apps and programs just like you can. It uses the screens that you use; works with the same front-end options you work with.

Traditional business process automation, conversely, doesn’t operate on a user interface level. This means that it needs system integration in order to interact with your separate programs. You’ll need to hook your BPA tool into the various systems you need it to connect to.

So, RPA works up-front on the interface of your applications. BPA, meanwhile, works in the back via a system of integrations and nested ‘IF’s.

Same stuff, different way

RPA isn’t offering anything new in terms of the processes it can automate. The game-changer comes from asking ‘how does RPA work?’

With RPA, trained ‘bots’ deliver the results, rather than a series of manually set rules and conditionals. That’s the fundamental difference, aside from one final point to be wary of. Where BPA costs little, RPA is (sometimes enormously) expensive. For the privilege of automating the same stuff in a different way, you’ll be shelling out tens or even hundreds of pounds per year.

Whether you opt for flashy new robots or traditional business process automation is up to you. In the end, you’ll automate the same repetitive tasks.

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