Jan 11 2019

What Robotic Process Automation Can Offer Small Businesses

With the ability to automate repetitive tasks, this tool can provide significant returns to those who invest time and energy into making it work for them.

Robots are truly beginning to make their way into our world and, probably sooner than many think, our businesses as well. One example is robotic processes automation, which has emerged as a promising tool that can help businesses of all kinds streamline operations and cut costs, while freeing workers from repetitive tasks.

What Is Robotic Process Automation Technology?

Robotic process automation can, essentially, help businesses to automate certain repetitive tasks — often mundane and tedious undertakings that workers aren’t clamoring to do.

“The average knowledge worker employed on a back-office process has a lot of repetitive, routine tasks that are dreary and uninteresting. RPA is a type of software that mimics the activity of a human being in carrying out a task within a process,” Leslie Willcocks, professor of technology, work, and globalization at the London School of Economics’ department of management, tells McKinsey.

The tool itself can be designed to perform several tasks specific to a company’s needs. 

CIO explains:

Using RPA tools, a company can configure software, or a “robot,” to capture and interpret applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems. RPA scenarios range from something as simple as generating an automatic response to an email to deploying thousands of bots, each programmed to automate jobs in an ERP system. 

What Are the Types of Robotic Process Automation?

There are four streams of RPA, according to Willcocks. The first is a “highly customized software” specific to certain processes. The second is what Willcocks refers to as “screen scraping,” which might pull and synthesize data directly to a document on a desktop. The third is a “self-development kit where a template is provided and specialist programmers design the robot,” usually for a specific organization and its needs. The last is a scalable and reusable enterprise-safe software.

“You can multiskill each piece of software,” Willcocks notes. “It’s lightweight in the sense that you don’t need a lot of IT involvement to get it up and running. Business-operations people can learn quite quickly how to configure and apply the robots. It’s lightweight also in that it only addresses the presentation layer of information systems. It doesn’t have to address the business logic of the underlying system or the data-access layer.”

The Benefits of RPA Technology for Small Business

For any business, RPA is what they make of it, and if used correctly it can help SMBs compete against larger competition.

Small businesses, in particular, can apply RPA “to stubborn business processes and whole business models,” Stephen J. Andriole, the Thomas G. Labrecque professor of business technology at the Villanova School of Business, writes in a guest column for BizTech.

Andriole suggests tapping RPA alongside another tool, business process management, which if used correctly can help improve small business agility.

Andriole explains:

BPM widens and deepens the understanding of business processes, fueling the creation of disruptive models. RPA translates these models into software solutions that can disrupt entire industries. Together, they are core competencies for small businesses, especially those focused on improving and disrupting the business processes of large incumbents that find change challenging on so many levels, for so many reasons.

Many organizations are already reaping the benefits of RPA, particularly financial institutions. In fact, a July 2018 survey of capital market firms by Nasdaq noted that 70 percent of respondents are already using the technology in their operations. 

The Challenges of Implementing RPA Technology 

As with any technology, RPA does have some downsides. Among other drawbacks, the cost and complexity of an RPA implementation can make it difficult to jump-start and scale the technology and keep it afloat amid tech or policy changes.

“The platforms on which bots interact often change, and the necessary flexibility isn’t always configured into the bot. Moreover, a new regulation requiring minor changes to an application form could throw off months of work in the back office on a bot that’s nearing completion,” CIO reports.

Moreover, by automating tasks, RPA can eliminate jobs. In fact, a 2017 report by Forrester Research found that RPA bots would ultimately replace or augment “311,000 office and administrative positions and 260,000 sales and related positions,” Forbes reports.

Tips for a Successful RPA Implementation 

To help them avoid many of the issues that can accompany an RPA implementation, Jim Shand, director of digital practice at AlixPartners, suggested several steps businesses should take:

  • Standardize processes
  • Commit to a clear return on investment
  • Prepare to reorganize workers and the workplace
  • Maintain a pipeline of automation opportunities
  • Clean the organization’s data

Moreover, it’s important to implement RPA only where it promises to improve processes and show a clear ROI; it shouldn’t be pulled out for every problem.

When used appropriately and in conjunction with the right partner technologies, this tool can boost savings and streamline operations for small businesses everywhere. 

“BPM and RPA define small business agility,” Andriole says. “SMBs can fire these weapons directly at large incumbents with great effect and can use them to modify and disrupt small businesses processes and models for competitive gain.”

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