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What is RPA? And How Does it Work?

4 min read
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

Robotic process automation, or RPA, is one of the hottest tech terms listed in the top trending technology 2019 report. In brief, it’s an efficient way to save time and money. Of course, there’s more to it, so we can create an automation glossary of sorts that will include explanations of this robotic term.

Read on and in less than 10 minutes you’ll feel confident the next time you’re discussing RPA and its benefits. And if you’d like to learn more, check out our free comprehensive Automation Essentials course

What is RPA?

Generally speaking, RPA means using software robots that can emulate digital desktop work that people do — they are by no means anything like shiny metal robots! You can find a lot of RPA use cases daily in a wide range of routine operations. For instance, many "copy-paste" activities can be automated using RPA, such as scraping data and entering it into Excel spreadsheets, or filling out forms. 

What exactly is RPA according to conventional automation terminology? 

The IEEE Guide for Terms and Concepts in Intelligent Process Automation (June 2017) says:

"RPA is a preconfigured software instance that uses business logic and predefined activity choreography to complete the autonomous execution of a combination of processes, activities, transactions, and tasks in one or more unrelated software systems to deliver a result or service with human exception management." 

Yes, it’s quite complicated. So let's explore this automation term and unscramble it. Later on, we'll give a more simple and concise definition for informal use. 

Breaking that definition down by its key phrases:

Preconfigured software

Configurable software comes out of the box with built-in functionality that doesn't require coding to enable, but can customize to a degree. A common example is Microsoft Excel, where you don't write a spreadsheet application every time you build a new worksheet, but can build custom macros using existing features or adjust defaults to better fit your needs. 

Business logic

“Business logic” serves as a buzzword to refer to all the algorithms and codes needed to make a piece of software work with a company’s customers and servers. In other words, the algorithms involved in business logic perform behind-the-scenes data processing that is invisible to the user but critical to keep things running smoothly. 

Predefined activity choreography

Sounds quite poetic, doesn't it? This term includes a sequence of steps taken to complete actions across systems and applications. This activity can cover simple tasks such as updating reports, or more complex ones — for example, balancing taxes on inaccurate invoices. Once the needed execution steps are specified, the activity is predefined.

Autonomous execution

Autonomous execution means the completion of tasks is done by software bot(s) independently. Once the rules are predefined, the processes are carried out automatically. 

One or more unrelated software systems

RPA uses front-end applications similar to the way that people do, so it can interact with everything a person would — for instance, SAP, Windows, Internet Explorer, Outlook, Oracle, etc. 

Human exception management

Sometimes employees are involved in RPA processes and tasked with resolving unpredicted events or performing cognitive actions. This can include a wide range of actions, from a small request for input data to a full stepping-in where a person handles the whole process. 

OK, that wasn't easy, but it's time well spent. Now you can revisit the official full RPA definition with better clarity. But for simplicity, you can think of RPA as a software robot that autonomously mimics manual, repetitive human tasks in different applications according to pre-defined business rules.  

What are the benefits of RPA?

"In our banks, we have people behaving like robots doing mechanical things. Tomorrow, we’re going to have robots behaving like people."

John Cryan, Former CEO of Deutsche Bank

There is no need to waste human brains on tasks that can be performed much better, faster and error-free by software robots. That would make people free to bring higher-value contributions to areas like customer satisfaction, innovations and scalability. Automation would be used to improve time and cost reductions, accuracy rates and competitive advantages. Sounds like a pretty great deal, doesn’t it? 

Learn how to leverage RPA

Getting onto the same page is one of the most critical places to start any automation journey. But being well aware of terms used in process automation is not enough. That's why we've created the Automation Essentials course to help any company achieve alignment. This course offers a comprehensive overview of the current state of the art for business automation, how to consider ways to include automation in your organization, and the costs and benefits of this transformative technology. Sign up for 2-hour intensive RPA training or try this 15-min course demo and enroll later.

Happy automating!

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