A guide to Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Software robots are on the rise: Here is your complete guide to Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

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Ian Hawkins

RPA guide

What is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic Process Automation is a software-based technology utilising software robots to emulate human execution of a business process. This means that it performs the task on a computer, uses the same interface a human worker would, clicks, types, opens applications and uses keyboard shortcuts.

Robotic process automation (RPA): software robots that mimic and integrate human actions within digital systems to optimize business processes. RPA captures data, runs applications, triggers responses, and communicates with other systems to perform a variety of tasks - UiPath.

It is predominantly used to automate business processes and tasks, resulting in reductions in spending and giving businesses a competitive edge, all considered of which are proving crucial during the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic.

RPA is versatile and flexible enough to be used in a business of all sizes, from start-ups to enterprise organizations. Here is a rundown of the two common types available in the market:

  1. Programmable bots – A programmable robot is defined by set rules and instructions. Parameters need to be defined by programmers before the bot can get to work. Ultimately, this involves mapping out a process – step-by-step – which can be very time consuming for more complex tasks.
  2. Intelligent bots – Bots with artificial intelligence can analyse data – both historical and current – to learn how employees perform a process. The robot will follow your clicks, mouse movements and actions. After a period of time when enough data has been analysed, the bot will have enough data to complete the process itself. Intelligent and self-learning bots are better suited to perform processes involving unstructured data and processes that involve fluctuating parameters. 

How does RPA work? 

Automation technology has been a staple of business for the last decade, but in recent years, RPA technology has reached an impressive level of sophistication while retaining ease-of-use and its benefits have taken an stronger significance during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is no longer a tool that is solely used to facilitate the automation of simple and repetitive IT tasks. RPA is maturing, and with the convergence of other technologies – such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML) – we are beginning to explore new possibilities.

Figure 1: RPA compared to traditional process transformation approaches

RPA Vs traditional approches

Source: Deloitte Analysis

The potential for the benefits of RPA are considerable – but the risk is that with any new technology, it won’t be thoroughly understood, and projects will not make the best use of the approach. At RPA Live 2019, Graham Penman, senior technical specialist at K2 emphasized the need to be objective when investing in projects.  

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Source: RPA Live 2018 - Why Companies Go into RPA; and Why They Are Wrong

Unlike other forms of automation, RPA has the intelligence to decide if a process should occur. It can analyse data presented to it and make a decision based on the logic parameters set in place by the developer. In comparison to other forms of automation, it does not require system integration.

RPA is a broad field and there are a wide array of technologies in the market that greatly differ from one another. However, most RPA products will comprise of RPA developer tools, a controller and the robot itself.

Businesses can leverage RPA in a multitude of different ways. Flexible and easy to implement, some businesses may find that they use it in a way that is unique to their organization. Determining what processes should be automated is a key strategic point. There is no point in automating a process just for the sake of it.

Whilst it is great at driving operational excellence, some processes are more viable for automation than others. It is always a good practice to roll out RPA slowly to mitigate teething issues that often come with technology implementation. The most viable candidates for automation are those that tend to process in a way that is simple, repetitive and easy to define. These processes will likely be rule-based and comprised of easily definable structured data.

Do you love your clients? Do you have a passion for your clients? Do you want to go the extra mile? listen Bart van de Sande the Head of Operations Transaction Banking for ABN Amro, as he discussed the RPA journey.


SEE ALSO: 4 reasons companies are NOT adopting AI (and how to resolve them)

Top 3 benefits of Robotic Process Automation

1. Automatable work

One of the predominant draws of RPA is that it enables automatable work – relieving human workers from repetitive clerical processes such as data entry and data manipulation, allowing human workers to focus on complex value-adding tasks that elevate a business.

2. Reduction in human error and costs

Foibles to which human workers are prone – particularly during long repetitive tasks – caused by tiredness and boredom are completely mitigated with RPA. This results in work that is more accurate, timely and consistent, ensuring that time and money isn’t lost correcting old work or creating duplicates.

3. It works on existing IT infrastructure and is non-invasive

RPA works alongside existing IT infrastructure; it just needs to be trained on how to use it. This is a major benefit for organisations using legacy systems. It interfaces with front-end infrastructure and uses the same graphic user interface (GUI) that human workers would use to complete a task, ensuring that the IT landscape doesn’t have to be changed to accommodate RPA – keeping costs to a minimum.

Summary: RPA is the application of software as a virtual workforce. It is governed by set rules and business logic set by the RPA developers. It can perform complex tasks just as a human worker would, emulating interaction within a GUI, giving developers the opportunity to create a workforce that mimics the same manual path that a human would take at a fraction of the cost.

What do the experts say about RPA?

What is RPA?


Goretti Olivié Morgado is Senior Regional Marketing Director Southern & Eastern Europe, Israel, Turkey, Middle East & South Africa at Software AG Espania.

She says: ‘Some of the benefits of adopting RPA include remarkable outcomes: significant process improvements, cost savings, redeployment of resources to higher value functions, and improved productivity, quality and customer service.’

One of the perceived drawbacks of new technology is that it requires experts to operate it and it often fails to be backwardly-compatible. RPA, however, has the power to work more easily with non-technical users and legacy systems than has been previously possible.’

‘RPA should not only execute repetitive, rules-based processes at a fraction of historical costs, but it should also be capable of being implemented by non-technical users and compatible with all other enterprise systems. This will ensure organizational and technological disruption is kept to a minimum—resulting in lower TCO and faster ROI.’

Mick Ripley

Source: Mick Ripley, Partnership Director, Engie UK

She continues: ‘The benefit of RPA for the customer is they get a quicker service that is done accurately and without human error, our teams benefit from RPA because they don't have to do mundane data-entry tasks and can move to more value-added tasks.’

Rob king


Rob King, author of 'Digital Workforce Reduce Costs and Improve Efficiency using Robotic Process Automation', says: 'Robotic process automation (RPA) is the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.'

Let’s break this definition down into bite-size pieces:

  • The automation software is called a robot
  • It will need to be configured to automate your processes
  • It will communicate with existing IT systems, typically via the same graphical user interface (GUI) used by employees
  • The tasks it can complete are repetitive and easy to understand

Also, King writes that 'Most modern automation vendors are the natural evolution of End-user computing (EUC); they provide simple business tools that allow consistent, repetitive tasks to be automated across an increasing number of different underlying applications.

'The genius of RPA is that it can use exactly the same interface as a person would use sitting at their PC. You’re no longer limited to connecting a few applications but now almost anything that runs on your Windows PC can be accessed via these new RPA products:

• If you have a large list of files that need to be renamed, automation can now do this for you.

• If you copy information from your core customer system into your policy administration system, automation can now do this for you.

• If you have to collate information from several websites into a summary report, automation can now do this for you.'

SEE ALSO: 5 Lessons to Learn from Business Process Automation Leaders

What will the future of RPA look like?

More and more companies are planning to implement RPA going into 2019. As it becomes more widespread, the uses for it will become more varied. We are already seeing signs that RPA is being used beyond data input. It can be used for other time-consuming processes such as email recognition and file conversion. It will incorporate machine learning and cognitive algorithms to apply increasingly accurate judgement and learn how to perform processes at a faster rate. It will also likely reduce outsourcing as RPA becomes a cheaper solution.

Find out the biggest Robotic Process Automation (RPA) trends for 2019 here

One of the major discussions in the technology world at the moment is how human jobs will be affected by RPA. Critics argue that the widespread elimination of jobs will occur and that working environments will be turned on their heads.

There is no denying that some jobs will be replaced by RPA – the most likely candidate being data entry keyers. However, this would be ignoring the wider picture as there are a wide array of job roles that may emerge as a result of RPA. Historically, new technology has almost always resulted in the creation of more jobs, and the widespread incorporation of RPA will be no different. For example, RPA engineering and RPA developers are roles that wouldn't exist without the technology.

It won’t just create new jobs. It also has the ability to enhance current jobs, by providing human workers with the necessary robotic process automation tools to focus on high-value tasks.

Frequently Asked Questions 

1. Is RPA expensive?

RPA is often cheaper to compliment than traditional automation thanks to its ability to work alongside IT infrastructure that is already in place. With RPA, business leaders won’t have to endure headaches of thinking about the costs of infrastructure remodelling, outsourcing or offshore/onshore manual processing.

2. Is RPA a cybersecurity risk?

We touched upon the benefits that RPA can bring to cybersecurity, but what about the risks? Like many new technologies, the potential downsides often get overlooked in comparison to the excitement generated by the benefits. Like many technologies, the misuse of data – the kind of sensitive data software robots are privy to – is a major security concern. Issues may come in the form of rouge developers who programmed software robots maliciously, malware, Trojans, and hackers.

Diligent companies will incorporate additional cybersecurity measures, which may entail data encryption and role-based access to confidential data.

3. How do you prioritize projects appropriate for RPA?

Choosing the best tasks within an organization to automate is challenging: do you select the ones that are easiest to automate - or the ones which will give you the biggest return? iGrafx reccommends that you ask the following questions before embarking on an automation project: 

  • Do you have a data-driven system or process to guide you through the identification and prioritization of tasks to automate?
  • Is there resistance to change in your organization? Is there a good reason for this resistance?
  • What small-scale automations can you implement at low risk?
  • How are you involving others in the decision-making process about automation?
  • Is there a general consensus - or dissent - on the reasons for automating?
  • Where there is disagreement is there a way of testing both sides?
  • Can you agree on what success looks like?


Where to learn more about RPA


  • The Go Beyond Disruption Podcast is produced by AICPA and CIMA, they are produced to the highest standards and have some of the greatest thought leaders in a variety of disciplines spanning RPA, AI, Blockchain, Cloud and Digital Technology

RPA Online Conferences

  • RPA & Intelligent Automation Live 2020 - The fourth annual iteration of the best attended online RPA event will help businesses scale their automation strategies today to react and adapt as the RPA maturity continues to accelerate.

RPA Reports

  • How to become an automation hero post -show report features advice and insight from a range of process mining industry leaders who shared their common challenges and best practices at Process Mining Live 2020.
  • 7 Steps to Successfully Deploying RPA report helps plug the knowledge gap that can slow down RPA, and takes you through the 7 key steps to implementation. It also shares 5 Case Studies that offer additional insights on how to get it right.
  • Everest, Horses for Sources, Forrester, Gartner are all independent analyst organisations providing high-quality reporting and insights into the RPA Market. For full access to the reports, you'll normally have to pay.
  • EY, Deloitte, UiPath, Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere, Pega, NICE, Kryon are all RPA Providers or Implementors who provide free practical reports on best practices within their fields of expertise.

RPA Books

Academic Research on RPA

  • Also released as a series of books, studies by Mary Lacity and Leslie Willcocks are the most regularly cited source for academic research.

This article was originally published on 11 October 2018 and was recently updated on 21 May 2020.