Edmond Lai, Chief Digital Officer of the Hong Kong Productivity Council, on how the workplace can enjoy the benefits of robotic process automation
Imagine a robotic colleague taking up all monotonous jobs at work. This is not science fiction, but happening now.
Rather than a buzzword, robotic process automation (RPA) is a revolutionary solution that can replicate the actions of repetitive and time-consuming business processes. This is great news to the intensive industries, which require handling of abundant data inputs and analysis. Common office scenarios include an accountant inputing and processing enormous amount of financial data every day, and a customer service officer regularly generating customer data for analysis. Now, we can leave these mechanical tasks to a robot.
How does RPA actually work? Put simply, RPA uses special software to mimic a human performing tedious work. We can regard it as a software “robot” that repeats the actions of a person interacting with the computer interface. It is a rule-based solution derived from the fundamental principle of “If..., then...” as a default to the computer programming for automatic processing.
The impact of RPA
RPA could be industry-shaping. It enables a company to radically redefine not just what they do but how they work – to do more with less. From addressing particular process pain points to tactically considering the operation processes and resourcing approaches, RPA enhances productivity and competitiveness.
The tangible benefits of RPA are many. It not only reduces the need for staff to handle heavy workloads, but also accurately accelerates data processing. There may be worries about RPA putting people out of work. As I always say, the jobs of today will not be the jobs of tomorrow. While automation is affecting some roles, we are simultaneously creating more value-added opportunities, like strengthening communications with customers, exploring potential markets and enhancing customer services.
RPA can work around the clock, bringing accuracy and efficiency to high-volume and repetitive tasks. The robot can be relied on to reduce the likelihood of human errors, thus scaling up data quality. RPA also lays a foundation for integration with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) which an “enterprise 4.0-enabled” smart office needs.
The efficiency and improvement of workflows make RPA impossible to ignore. However, is it feasible for a small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) with limited resources to embark on the RPA journey? RPA is so sufficiently developed that it requires no complicated programming, and brings as little changes as possible to avoid disturbance.
It is always good to start with seeking expert advice. The Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) recently organized an RPA workshop designed to help enterprises plan and start their RPA initiatives. Upon receiving hands-on training, participants were able to map existing process and plan automated process with RPA. By leveraging RPA tools, SMEs can build a project that caters to their specific needs. The course was so well-received that we are planning to organize more. We believe that raising the knowledge bar of your staff will definitely help smooth RPA adoption.
Be a smart RPA shopper
The progress of RPA varies from company to company, depending on its technological adaptability. SMEs should reach out to RPA-focused vendors and then take into account several factors, such as user interface, experience and reputation of suppliers, as well as after-sale services. Choosing the right computer desktop robot is essential to attaining best results. The following checklist may be useful to you.
An RPA application should possess the following functions:
- Data sharing with other applications via screen scraping;
- Date sharing through an application programming interface;
- User-friendly interfaces allow users to customize application programming settings for their RPA software;
- Collect data from other programs, then decide the next step of production; and
- Compatible with AI or machine learning to facilitate flexible and pragmatic decision making.
It is worth noting that frequent change of RPA-enabled system will have an impact on its speed. So, changes or adjustments to the process should be well thought out. The volume of tasks needs to be significant enough, while data and information should be well-structured and in good shape, in order to make your RPA investment worthwhile.