The new buzzword: what is robotic process automation?

If you’ve ever typed ‘automation’ into Google, you’ll likely have come across the term ‘robotic process automation’. (RPA for short.) But what is robotic process automation? It sounds innovative; cutting-edge — but is it?

Some explanations involve the notion of ‘software bots’ or even artificial intelligence workers. This is what earned it the name ‘robotic’. As of yet, the reality is somewhat less futuristic.

In fact, the perceptions surrounding the buzzword differ rather drastically from its true meaning. So, to clarify, here’s a simple overview of what robotic process automation really is.

What is robotic process automation?

On a practical level, robotic process automation is the same as business process automation. It’s software that automates tasks so that your team can spend less time on manual, repetitive work. What makes RPA new is that it automates on the user interface level, not via back-end integrations. (More on that later.)

The idea behind RPA is that employees can pass their routine or predictable processes over to a ‘robot’. To extend the metaphor, this means that RPA adopters then get a virtual workforce running processes in the background of their business.

However, it’s important to remember that this virtual workforce is invisible. Unlike the industrial robots you’d find in a factory, RPA takes up no space in the physical world. These particular robots are better described as software applications with robotic accuracy and efficiency.

So, what is robotic process automation? Basically, an exciting new name for the same kind of task automation that you probably already know about.

What is robotic process automation used for?

RPA typically handles monotonous, mundane and repetitive tasks. But what is robotic process automation capable of, exactly?

You might use RPA for feeding data from one application to another. It can capture information, interpret it, and then trigger the relevant action in response. As a common example, robotic process can extract key data from an inbound email and enter that data into your database or CRM automatically.

This is just one example, and it would take more time than you have today to list every single usage possible. In a nutshell: if it’s rule-based, if it requires manual data input, if it follows a formulaic pattern: robotic process automation can handle it.

But for all its uses, RPA can’t replace humans entirely. It’s a servant; a support system – not some scary supplanter. RPA is a tool to help you increase the efficiency of your workplace and cannot work without human team members there to support it.

How does it work?

It’s impossible to answer the question ‘what is robotic process automation’ without looking at the way it works. This is because there is a clear difference between the images the name conjures up and what is actually at work.

Robotic process automation – at least in the office – does not involve a physical, mechanical robot. There is no gleaming robot sitting at the desk handling all that admin and back-office processing. RPA runs via software, not hardware.

It works by interacting with applications and following logical ‘if’ type rules to make decisions. (If this happens, then run that action.) So, robotic process automation is not quite as futuristically thrilling as it may at first sound. But it does offer something futuristic in terms of its setup.

That’s because, rather than relying on integrations into various systems, RPA can work via the user interface. So, it mimics the actions a human worker would make as they navigate an application.

RPA still automates the same kind of routine work that has been possible for decades, but it does so in a new and more intuitive way.

It’s all automation

What is robotic process automation? It’s a shiny name for a useful business software tool.

Whether you call it ‘robotic’ or not, using automation can help you make workflows better, work life more engaging, and tedious tasks easier. It’s all automation software.

See how automation fits into your own office workflows with a 30-day free trial of ThinkAutomation.

Useful links
How does RPA work? Same stuff, different way? Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in
What are software bots? Business process automation is not AI
AI vs automation: why you (probably) only need the latter A history of automation: The rise of robots and AI