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What is robotic process automation (RPA)?

The amount of time we spend doing repetitive work is mind-boggling, with manual computer tasks and data entry taking up a good portion of an office worker’s day. Just ask the workers. A recent survey indicates that people estimate they waste five hours each week on tasks that should be automated. According to McKinsey, the number is even higher, with at least one-third of job activities deemed automatable in about 60% of occupations.   


Whether it’s data collection, approvals, or updates, many tasks don’t require creativity or intuition, essential attributes that serve to increase job satisfaction. Instead, the monotony of the work lowers satisfaction, leading to lower productivity and other inefficiencies. 


Organizations are turning to technology, particularly robotic process automation (RPA), to offload repetitious tasks, freeing workers to perform richer, more valuable work. Companies can redirect employee time to enhance customer care, perform complex problem-solving, and develop business insights that help the company succeed. 

RPA meaning

RPA is a business process automation technology that uses virtual software robots, also known as digital robots or bots, to perform manual, time-consuming work or tasks.


What is a software bot?

A software bot is a computer program designed to carry out specific actions. Built to perform simple or complex activities, bots automate processes that involve repetitive tasks. More elaborate versions of software bots simulate or interact with humans. Examples include virtual assistants such as Alexa from Amazon, Cortana from Microsoft, and Siri from Apple.


What does RPA do?

Robotic process automation technology handles a variety of activities, including: 

  • Manual and repetitive tasks: Interactions with data from multiple sources, such as Microsoft Excel, vendor portals, and other sources
  • High-volume tasks: Process steps that must be completed time after time, for example data migrations and approval workflows
  • Multiple system tasks: Access to different applications, like Web apps, RP solutions, third-party software, and others  

RPA adoption is growing at double-digit rates. Positioned as the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market, revenue spend for RPA was projected to reach US$1.89B in 2021, an increase of 19.5% from 2020.   

Why is robotic process automation important?

RPA can be used with any application in your tech stack. It handles unmodeled, “naturally grown” processes with UI-based automation – this is particularly important when it’s necessary to integrate legacy systems where APIs don’t exist and direct access to the data is not available. Thus, RPA can play an essential role in the digital transformation of a company. 


Often a substitute for manual processes, RPA minimizes keying errors, speeds up work, and cuts costs. It frees employees from mundane, repetitive tasks and leverages their human skills. By consigning lower value work to RPA bots, the company becomes more efficient, allowing it to: 

  • Increase productivity 
  • Automate workflows
  • Eliminate human error 
  • Lower labor costs 
  • Manage compliance risk 
  • Improve business agility 
  • Increase process transparency 

All of these outcomes contribute to the business’s success, helping to improve performance and reduce costs. Additional benefits include the following: 


Improved customer experience

RPA protects and even improves the customer experience. With such amazing scalability (an RPA software bot can work 24×7, 365 days a year), service levels remain constant, even during times of exceptional demand and peak volumes. This permits human workers to focus on tasks that require higher value customer interactions that can’t be automated.  


IT efficiencies

RPA supports the automation of processes that involve legacy systems. The technology interacts with these systems via existing graphical user interfaces (GUIs) versus API integration, presenting meaningful cost savings for IT and preventing the need to modernize underlying architecture and systems. 


Given the low-code/no-code properties offered by some RPA tools, business users can automate processes themselves with no reliance on IT. It also simplifies employee training, with most role-based manual workflows handled by the software bot. 


Operational efficiencies

Since RPA doesn’t rely on custom software or deep integrations, the technology is easier and faster to implement for greater affordability. For example, in Switzerland, authorities in the cantons of Aargau and Zurich implemented RPA in 14 days, replacing manual processes and averting the threat of a backlog of compensation payments for reduced working hours during the pandemic. 

How does RPA work?

RPA runs on a PC, desktop, or servers like other software programs. The technology builds, deploys, and manages software robots that interact with in-house applications, Web sites, user portals, and other apps, emulating a human’s actions while carrying out the same task. 


In essence, with RPA the (human) user records the sequence of actions and interactions with applications to build the workflow. The system develops the action list by watching the human perform the task and then it builds software bot that performs the task within the application’s GUI.  


The software bots are programmed to understand what’s on a screen, enter appropriate keystrokes, navigate in different systems, identify and extract data, and other defined actions. RPA bots do all of this more accurately and faster than humans. 


There are two different types of RPA models: 

  1. Unattended RPA: Software bots do the work without any human involvement. Instead, they interact directly with computer systems, running through a process or task from beginning to end. The RPA bot usually runs on a remote service and is activated based on a schedule or a trigger condition. 
  2. Attended RPA: Also known as robotic desktop automation, these software bots work with humans, focusing on set tasks within more complex workloads or processes that can’t be fully automated. The RPA bot is deployed to the user workstation and triggered by user interaction. 

RPA acts as a workaround for the integration of legacy systems. Since RPA operates via the GUI, there is no need for developers to build APIs to connect systems. Instead, the software bot will jump from application to application as a human user would. 


A unique attribute of some RPA tools is its accessibility to non-programmers, enabling domain experts without programming skills to build and implement RPA workflows. Known as a citizen developer, this person has no coding experience but is the domain expert for the work activity that is undergoing automation. 


Although this attribute democratizes RPA, more advanced scenarios still require proper programming knowledge, especially relative to security and ongoing maintenance of the system. Ideally, the process is a good marriage between citizen and software developers, with domain experts building the RPA workflow and then handing it off to the software developer to ensure that best practices and safety requirements are incorporated. 

Robotic process automation today

Since its inception, RPA has evolved beyond simple task automation. Intelligent RPA augments existing capabilities with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies. These advances allow RPA to automate work activities that are more cognitive (knowledge- and judgment-based).


By applying AI tools such as machine learning models and natural language processing (NLP), intelligent RPA enables hyperautomation, the ability to rapidly identify, vet, and automate business and IT processes as quickly as possible. Intelligent RPA can examine and process semi- and unstructured data, visualize screens (virtual desktops), and understand speech, carrying out conversations with users and customers. 

Intelligent RPA enables hyperautomation, the ability to rapidly identify, vet, and automate business and IT processes as quickly as possible.

Intelligent RPA enhances the bot design experience for all employees, enabling non-coders to build and run bots for their processes. The technology supports a cloud-based studio with browser-based low-code tools that simplify automation building, including visual programming capabilities to create business workflows. Today, these modern RPA tools are democratizing automation, making it accessible to everyone. 

Who uses RPA?

RPA delivers value across all industries and functions. Within an organization, all business groups benefit from RPA. Here are some specific examples across departments: 



One of the largest media companies in Finland, Alma Media, wanted to increase productivity by automating finance processes such as sales order entry. Incorporating RPA created efficiencies across the finance team, including a 60% automation rate in sales order processing.  



Human resources

Lucy is an RPA tool that SAP uses (see the video below) to expedite the generation of employment offer letters. The bot produces letters 15 times faster than the average person. New hires receive their offers quickly and recruiters have more time to recruit.



Villeroy & Boch Group, a ceramic producer and one of Europe’s oldest brands, optimized productivity by making its processes as efficient as possible, reducing time spent on repetitive tasks. The manufacturer implemented RPA and AI technologies to create digital assistants to carry out simple automated tasks in accounts, purchasing, and customer service. 


Customer service

With a vast network of customers and clients, Zuellig Pharma Holdings Pte. Ltd. wanted to provide better support with a next-generation ordering process. After implementing RPA, the company is processing orders 24×7, keeping up with demand, and using automation to clear a backlog of more than 10,000 IT and system-related cases that would have required the equivalent of three full-time employees.  

Implementing a robotic process automation strategy

A well-planned automation initiative starts with a top-down assessment of existing workflows. Intelligent RPA coupled with business process intelligence tools helps to quickly identify those business processes that would benefit most from automation.  


Once the best process candidates are identified, RPA provides prebuilt bots to expedite readiness. As a cloud-based platform, it also supports ongoing bot performance and scalability.   


The initiative requires a technology platform that extends beyond the automation of a single process. The system must be capable of supporting the process end-to-end, identifying automation opportunities, building the necessary software bots, and managing hundreds – if not thousands – of automated workflows. 


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Workflow management tools and RPA are complementary technologies used together. Workflow automation ensures the sequential flow of activities with defined business rules – to orchestrate, extend, or optimize processes. In contrast, RPA automates the performance of individual tasks. Generally, RPA performs best with activities that have clear rules and procedures. However, intelligent RPA works more deeply, automating work activities that are also knowledge- and judgment-based using AI and machine learning capabilities. 

Hyperautomation extends the capabilities of RPA beyond the automation of predefined and repetitive tasks. With hyperautomation, RPA uses intelligence to decide the best strategy for performing these activities. This allows organizations to rapidly identify, vet, and automate business and IT processes by coordinating the use of different technologies, platforms, and tools.

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