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Thinking about employing a robot? Here’s what to consider
Jul 07, 2017

Thinking about employing a robot? Here’s what to consider

Introduction

Robotics in the work place conjures up images of Metal Mickey sat at a desk answering phones, hammering away at a keyboard and opening the mail. The reality however, can be somewhat more mundane.

This article looks at a type of technology marketed as Robotics software that enables a business to automate all or parts of their business processes – Robotic Process Automation (RPA). The software is instructed to carry out a sequence of repeatable (and sometimes monotonous) computer-based tasks, making decisions based upon pre-defined rules.

As with any automation, the goals are to increase capacity, efficiency, and consistency, while reducing overall processing times. The results being an increase in productivity and a reduction of operating cost. But haven’t we been here before?

Rewind 10 years, and we had Business Process Management (BPM). Software that promised similar outcomes, in terms of automating business processes. Using grandly named process “orchestrations” and “choreographies”, BPM would interact with all the necessary systems to execute the pre-defined process.

While the theories behind BPM were great, it was very expensive. The software itself cost a fortune, and the level of integration effort required was enormous to build all the system interfaces needed by the automated process.

Pros

This problem of development and integration is where robotics software has a key differentiator. The robot software can imitate human interaction with other software applications. If a task can be completed through a series of keyboard strokes and mouse clicks interpreting data displayed on the screen, then a robot can do it.

Robots can be “trained” to impersonate humans to complete tasks without the need to produce any additional software code, or integration. This puts power into the hands of the operational business to build their own automation – no longer being reliant on the expensive IT department.

Cons

By implementing a robotics solution, you’re adding to your technology landscape. The IT architecture inherently becomes more complex, with logic and point-to-point communications that if you we’re to try to map it out, would look like spaghetti. Without decent knowledge and change management, the maintenance of this technology can become a real headache.

During a given process, if something unexpected happens, or a previously un-encountered scenario occurs, humans usually adapt, problem solve and carry on. Robots stop. Percentage exceptions rates from roboticised processes can often be in double figures – they tend to be brittle. This creates the need for a human “supervisor” to be at hand to step in when something goes wrong. The productivity gains that you thought you’d get may never materialise, particularly if you haven’t analysed the process properly in the first place.

Analysis

Before spending any time or money on process automation, you need to ask the right questions, to determine whether its worth investing in its automation:

  • Why do we do this process/task – does it add any value to the customer? What if we just stopped doing it?
  • Does another organisation provide a service that could be used instead – better or more cheaply than the current process?
  • Can we re-design and improve the process without any technology changes at all?
  • Does this process require the skill, intelligence and/or empathy that only a human can (currently) provide?
  • Will this process need to change in the future or become redundant, with the changing business environment? (Changes in regulation, markets and competition)

Having identified candidate processes for automation, and already achieved any possible improvements through re-design, then a decision needs to be made as to whether a robot is the right choice?

Robotic processes can be brittle, require supervision, and compared to other forms of software automation, be inefficient. However they can be quickly deployed, and are much cheaper than making improvements to or replacing old and antiquated systems. This is a compromise that many businesses are prepared to accept.

Conclusion

Robotic software is already starting to transform some offices. Rows of desks with one or more screens flashing and changing quickly without anyone sat in front of them. Some businesses are becoming more reliant on robots, and inevitably people’s jobs are being replaced or changed because of them.

There’s a risk that robots become as critical to business operations as the systems that they operate. As a consequence, robotic use and management will be subjected to increasing governance and control. This in turn may lead to a decreasing speed by which they can be deployed or changed, and an increasing total cost of ownership. The result: expensive “newer” software operating expensive “older” software.

Organisations need to be wary of this consequence, and understand that robotics software is a compromise, and not a long-term alternative to replacing or changing their existing systems.

Empty office
The future office – where the staff have been replaced by robotics software?

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