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Not so long ago, the process of filling out orders or putting together a product was always nerve-wracking, to the point where the employee really didn't have to think.
Building a car, for example, was essentially a practical endeavor. The axles were hand cut and installed, the seat covers were sewn and manually installed, and even the motors were mounted right on the assembly line.
Now, manufacturing robots have taken over those and other repetitive tasks previously performed by human workers – fitting tires, applying paint, and welding frames – allowing automakers to dramatically increase production, cut costs, and free up their workforce for higher value tasks.
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But far too many of today's information workers are doing 21st century tasks with a tire being fitted over and over to a new car. Instead of answering more calls or attending to customer needs while on the line, employees in a range of small and medium-sized businesses, from call centers to financial services to other professional service providers, copy and paste basic information that should be filled in automatically.
This overhaul is monotonous – sending follow-up emails after sales calls, processing contractor invoices, logging phone calls, and hundreds of other little things – and making inefficient use of seasoned employees' time. They live in the information age, but are more comparable to early factory workers.
So the natural progress is to automate these tasks just like the manufacturing industry. This is where Robotic Process Automation (RPA) comes into play, which is used more and more frequently.
This is because the tools that were previously only intended for advanced computer scientists are being democratized thanks to new platforms and infrastructures that make it easier to integrate RPA into organizations with little development effort.
Let's call it “citizen development” or whatever you want, but the fact that access to the automation of robotic processes has become more important in recent years alongside the growth of artificial intelligence.
This type of automation technology offers important advantages:
Reusing human work
Many companies have a ticket for everything. If something breaks in the kitchen, a repair ticket is created, which is fixed by the service department, and the ticket is closed after the work is completed. The process works seamlessly to the end when someone has to manually go through all the tickets to verify that the order is complete and the ticket can be closed even without knowing whether it was properly or actually completed. RPA can simplify this entire process by automating approvals based on actual order fulfillment.
Improvement of digital systems
Believe it or not, a lot of work still involves a tremendous amount of non-value copying and pasting or re-entering from one system to another. A good example is consumer loan processing. Many banks and credit unions, whose core banking and customer relationship management systems do not communicate with each other, require staff to manually review both systems to get the necessary information that is not stored in both. This problem is more common than anyone can imagine. An RPA-based system would replace human involvement in this entire process, getting the right pieces of data every time, and feeding everything straight into the system for review and next steps.
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Rationalization of existing processes
Accounting is still a very manual process in many companies. Invoices need to be printed, verified, and then the correct information from each invoice entered into the accounting database. This opens up the process for data entry errors, backlogs, and other issues that RPA can better address. These improvements give employees time to resolve customer issues and increase their commitment to your company.
RPA still has its limits. As early robotics adopters learned more than 30 years ago, these technologies fail when asked to work on complex tasks. It doesn't work for grayscale and processes that involve many individual decisions, but is characterized by simple tasks or a series of tasks that do not require interpretation.
Why aren't all companies already doing this? For one thing, companies that don't have solid processes run the risk of automating bad processes and making the situation worse. That won't save them anything. The other problem is overcoming the inertia of never adopting robotic technology. Too often, leaders can't see the benefits of automating redundant tasks until they see it in action.
But using RPA is snowball.
As more information companies embrace automation, it's like opening the floodgates – those who use these tools gain a competitive advantage and those who don't risk being left behind. Those who can automate and spend less time on redundant activities open up to higher quality work. They have more capacity to do new things and help keep their lagging behind.
Achieving this level of efficiency means in particular cost savings and quality improvements. Adopting RPA to streamline day-to-day work, eliminate human error, and free up time to improve the customer experience results in higher quality of service, better data for making decisions about productivity and inventory control, and better business bottom line.
Boyd Bell is the founder and CEO of Useful Rocket Science.