“So do you do RPA now, too?” an employee at one of our partner companies asked us recently.
It’s a pertinent question, seeing as how RPA, or robotic process automation, is regarded by many as one of the key drivers of digital transformation. Like technologies such as blockchain and machine learning, there’s been a great deal of hype surrounding RPA. Given that there are several overlaps between RPA applications and traditional workflow and automation solutions when it comes to uses and fields of applications, it would be tempting to simply say, “Of course we provide RPA now!”
The differences between RPA and traditional automated solutions are not immediately obvious, as they often address the same challenges. If we take a closer look, however, we will see that these technologies tackle the challenges from different perspectives, as the following example illustrates.
An organization receives 60,000 invoices per year and already uses a digitization solution. Paper invoices are scanned, and the data is extracted, validated, and automatically fed into the ERP system. Subsequent invoice-processing steps, such as coding, completion, and approval, are not automated. Such tasks are performed manually by members of the accounts team or the responsible department.
There is huge scope for optimization here, particularly in the case of invoices with purchase order references, which in this example account for a third of all incoming invoices. At present, a member of the accounts team manually compares the prices and quantities in the invoice with those in the purchase order and checks whether a good receipt has already been posted in the ERP system.
In most cases, there are no discrepancies and the invoice can be approved once it has been coded. The organization has therefore decided to automate these highly repetitive, standardized steps of the process, which are currently performed manually.
This scenario is a virtually perfect use case for automation. The data has already been digitized and standardized. There are no complicated “if-then” circumstances or situations requiring discretion; there are just two options: “discrepancy” or “no discrepancy”. Furthermore, the number of such incoming invoices is high enough for automation to make financial sense.
Here is how robotic process automation works:
RPA solutions imitate human users, working with software GUIs in exactly the same way humans would. This is achieved by creating a video clip recording a human using a software program and performing the steps of a process. The RPA solution then repeats the clicks and inputs shown in the video. This the basis of automation via RPA.
When it comes to checking incoming invoices, as described in the scenario above, the software robot copies the invoice’s purchase order number from that of an ERP screen, opens another ERP screen, and reenters the purchase order number there. The software robot now has two ERP screens open: one with the content of the invoice and one with the content of the purchase order. The software robot compares the defined fields from these two screens and, if there are no discrepancies, clicks on the “Approve” button. Discrepancies generally require the intervention of a human user.
Here is how traditional automation works:
Traditional automation such as workflow software operates within the system. The solution is integrated into the existing software system or interacts with the system via APIs. Such solutions do not involve a detour via the software GUI, and the steps of the process are carried out automatically in the background.
This means that when it comes to checking incoming invoices, as described in the scenario above, the system automatically compares the content of the invoice with that of the purchase order. This happens in the background, and so the user is not involved in the process and is only notified if there is a discrepancy. Approval can then be granted either manually or automatically.
Conclusion: RPA or traditional automation?
Robotic process automation and traditional automated and workflow solutions are not one and the same thing. While they can be used in similar scenarios, the technological approaches taken by these solutions are totally different.
For very simple processes involving only “Yes/No” options and decisions that do not require any kind of discretion, robotic process automation can offer an alternative to traditional automation. One example is the automated comparison of values in different ERP screens, e.g. the invoice and purchase order screens.
However, RPA always involves taking a detour via the GUI. As a result, RPA is slower and is generally more susceptible to errors than automated solutions, which are directly integrated into the system or work via APIs.
So, in short, our answer to our partner’s question was, “Yes, we have been providing process automation for 25 years now—but without robot-assisted detours!”
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