Robotic process automation has higher-value IT tasks in its cross-hairs but could be the best antidote to outsourcing yet
A quiet revolution with a potential impact on the IT workforce reminiscent of outsourcing may be under way in the form of robotic process automation.
Geared toward automating a variety of business and computing processes typically handled by humans, RPA will stir passions at organizations that deploy the technology, with its potential to slash jobs, shake up the relevant skills mix, and if implemented strategically, stave off the specter of outsourcing.
The reason: Thanks to advances in software and artificial intelligence, automation has its sights on higher-value tasks than ever before — and it’s already having an impact at organizations currently deploying these systems.
What exactly is robotic process automation?
At its core, RPA is “robotic” software that organizations configure to capture and interpret the actions of existing applications employed in various business processes. Once RPA software has been trained to understand specific processes, it can then automatically process transactions, manipulate data, trigger responses, and communicate with other systems as necessary. The technology is designed to reduce or eliminate the need for people to perform high-volume IT support, workflow, remote infrastructure, and back-office processes, such as those found in finance, accounting, supply chain management, customer service, and human resources.
RPA software is composed of multiple components. First, for collection, they employ a variety of tools for grabbing digital data, which can include screen scrapping, digital image recognition, or the ability to access a server or be linked to a website. They also make use of rules engines similar to those found in business process management tools.
“This is the basic requirement, that it works at the graphical user interface layer and doesn’t need much, if any, IT support,” says Cathy Tornbohm, vice president BPO (business process outsourcing) research at Gartner. “RPA tools can be built from combining tools that perform the various elements of these tasks.”
On the one hand, RPA promises huge cost savings and the elimination of tedious tasks for IT infrastructure workers. On the other hand, it threatens the very survival of many of the jobs held by those same infrastructure workers.
Not long ago, RPA was “a total mystery” to most organizations, but its potential is now grabbing the attention of IT consulting and advisory firms, outsourcing providers, and enterprises alike, says Grant Geminiuc, a long-time outsourcing expert, an educator at the Centre for Outsourcing and Education (CORE) and Managing Director of R3P Consulting Limited.
RPA is most likely to replace data entry and data rekeying or data assembly and formatting tasks, which are rules-based, Gartner’s Tornbohm says. “Almost any type of computer-related process which is rules-based and which a human performs today could be affected at some point in its lifecycle, where RPA could mimic what a human does,” she says. “It has affected IT in many ways, often in software testing.”
The silver lining
Experts say RPA doesn’t represent all gloom for tech workers. For one, the technology itself will provide opportunities because organizations will need people who are skilled in implementing, managing, and maintaining the programs.
“There is going to be a need for new skill sets in lower and middle management, for people who are able to work with RPA platforms and understand how to manage them,” Geminiuc says. He has talked with people who worked in IT support and were displaced by RPA systems who received training and went on to become experts in process automation.
In addition, companies could move some of the displaced workers into more interesting and challenging types of jobs — either in IT or other areas of the business.
“Absolutely RPA will free up time to do more important and more demanding jobs in IT,” Geminiuc says. “The demand for experienced IT people is so incredibly high and cannot be fulfilled by the current supply from universities and other education programs. Especially on the experience side, moving people up the value chain is most important, and RPA will be a major enabling factor here. In some ways, we see the use of RPA as having a greater potential to retain levels of staffing that you might not have if you outsourced the entirety of the work to a traditional BPO.”