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How Does Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Work?

Robotic process automation (RPA) uses software bots to automate simple, repetitive tasks like data entry. Let’s examine how RPA works in practice, how it’s used by businesses, and some real-world RPA examples.

What is robotic process automation and how does it work?

Robotic process automation (RPA) technology uses software bots to automate simple, high-volume, and repetitive tasks. Picture a task like data entry, that would otherwise require a human to get involved to keep a business process moving. Unlike human workers, RPA bots can work 24/7 and kick into action based on a predefined schedule or trigger in a workflow. That’s important in functions such as customer support, where RPA can help route requests and escalations. New customer onboarding or new employee onboarding are two other common places to apply RPA.  

So, that’s what RPA is. But how does it work? To get started with RPA, a team will program an RPA software bot to finish a task based on the presence of specific conditions or triggers. For example, when a customer places an online product order, multiple systems get involved to route and share data, such as accounting, billing, and logistics systems. Bots can fetch the necessary data to keep the business process moving, while the customer gets a confirmation email with details regarding estimated taxes, delivery date, and perhaps loyalty perks. 

Behind the scenes, RPA bots can handle actions such as typing and making keystrokes, clicking, opening browser windows, logging into systems, copying and pasting, and recognizing icons and images. 

Behind the scenes, RPA bots can handle actions such as typing and making keystrokes, clicking, opening browser windows, logging into systems, copying and pasting, and recognizing icons and images.

Typically, an RPA platform lets humans record necessary actions, then drag and drop them into a process model for a workflow. These actions and workflows can be reused by others in the organization, which can speed software development and improve collaboration. 

As you examine automation options and strategies, it’s important to understand that RPA alone will only get you so far. Once a workflow reaches a point where you need a cognitive decision, RPA on its own won’t be enough. And unlike some artificial intelligence (AI) tools, RPA doesn’t learn over time from experience and data. RPA bots simply carry out tasks. 

That means RPA can play a valuable role alongside other automation software and techniques, but it is not a replacement for a broader automation strategy, typically called a business process automation or hyperautomation strategy. 

[ Planning to implement robotic process automation? Get the eBook: Five Best Practices for RPA Success. ]

How is RPA used? Key benefits. 

RPA automates routine tasks as your team seeks to save time and money, improve efficiency, and avoid errors. Any time you have people doing manual lookups, or even cut-and-paste operations, accuracy is a concern. These situations often arise as people try to bridge gaps between legacy systems that don’t talk to each other.

RPA can play a part in compliance efforts as well. For example, a pharmaceutical company can use RPA to help teams document processes in ways that ensure regulatory compliance.

RPA often goes hand in hand with digital transformation work as teams try to gain agility. If you’re freeing team members from repetitive work by using RPA, you open up time to point people toward more innovative work on business priorities like customer experience or process transparency for customers and partners. 

RPA can be used across all business functions, from human resources to accounting and beyond. What does RPA look like in action? Many organizations use RPA to ease pain points in customer service, such as:

  • Customer onboarding

  • Chatbots

  • Customer self-service

  • CRM integrations

  • Compliance and privacy

  • Complaint resolution

  • Meeting scheduler 

RPA examples in the financial services and insurance industries. 

What are some other examples of how organizations apply RPA to improve efficiency, speed, and team agility?

Consider these common examples of how financial services companies, which have both a complex web of back-end systems and demanding, time-sensitive customers, use RPA:

  • Know Your Customer (KYC) processes

  • Loan processing 

  • Same-day fund transfers

  • Account opening/closure

  • Customer lifecycle management

  • Building profit and loss reports 

  • Building cash flow statements 

  • Creating account statements 

  • Distributing account statements

In the insurance industry, organizations apply RPA inside workflows that traditionally were laden with paperwork and manual handoffs. Insurance industry RPA examples include:

  • Claims processing and fraud case management

  • Appeals processing

  • Policy renewals

  • Customer self-service/contact center automation

  • Agent and broker channel automation (portals)

  • Agent lifecycle and performance management

  • Policy/Pension servicing

  • Underwriter case management

  • Complex policy quotation

If you’d like to explore additional RPA examples, see our related article, RPA: 8 Key Benefits and get the eBook: 200 ideas for how to use RPA and IDP, which includes examples of RPA for business functions such as supply chain and HR and industries including telecom, life sciences, and government. 

How RPA relates to hyperautomation and other automation strategies.

It bears repeating that RPA is not a comprehensive approach to automation: it is one tool in a broader automation strategy, often called a business process automation or hyperautomation strategy. This kind of holistic approach to automation will deliver the most value across an entire organization compared to automating individual problems within silos. 

But hold on, what exactly do we mean by hyperautomation? According to Gartner,"Enterprise architecture and technology innovation leaders lack a defined strategy to scale automation with tactical and strategic goals. They must deliver end-to-end automation beyond RPA by combining complementary technologies to augment business processes.” Gartner refers to this as hyperautomation. Hyperautomation involves the orchestrated use of multiple technologies, tools, or platforms, including not only RPA but also AI, machine learning, and low-code tools, among others.

“The best hyperautomation tools have easy-to-use interfaces and offer low-code elements, like pre-configured components representing functions that can be simply dragged and dropped into a workflow,” as Appian Product Marketing Director Michael Rahm wrote in a recent blog. The components and workflows are reusable by other people and teams.

And that equals agility—especially when you need to automate a complex process that spans multiple departments, people, and job functions across a whole organization. 

[ Which emerging automation trends deserve your attention now? Get the Gartner Hyperautomation 2022 Trends Report. ]