Robotic process automation (RPA) is a technology that is disrupting the workplace. Using software ‘robots’ to mimic repetitive human interactions with computers, this technology can do these tasks much faster and without the errors that humans are prone to make.
FIRtech Holdings COO, Fanie Botha, says that although this technology is not brand new, the last two years have seen an unprecedented adoption by many companies where repetitive tasks are now being automated and performed by robots. “Many consider this a threat, but companies see it as a great opportunity to create new high-quality jobs that require human intelligence and creativity,” he adds.
The tail-end of the third industrial revolution saw the introduction of mass industrial automation and robotics. The microprocessor revolutionised manufacturing and countries that embraced and adopted this technology were the beneficiaries of sustainable manufacturing industries. Similarly, in this industrial revolution, businesses and countries that embrace and adopt 4IR technologies (including RPA) are going to be the global beneficiaries of agility and cost efficiency.
Streamlining repetitive tasks
RPA has specifically been designed to streamline repetitive business tasks, increase accuracy, save time and reduce costs. “It's not about removing people, but rather about using them for vital processes and tasks that require intelligence, imagination, contextualisation and creativity,” explains Botha. “These new jobs will also bring new opportunities for learning and allow employees to develop themselves through more creative work.”
According to Gartner, finance departments can save thousands of hours of avoidable repetitive tasks and rework caused by human errors, simply by deploying RPA in their financial reporting processes.
RPA can handle involved processes such as matching large volumes of transactions, certifying account reconciliations, or even collecting and compiling complicated financial reports. Robots are arguably better than humans at performing such tasks since they do not need to take breaks and are not prone to mistakes when tasks are prolonged and mundane.
“Managers usually think that their staff can attend to both the repetitive tasks, such as compiling reports and the value adding tasks of interpreting them,” says Botha. “However, on closer inspection, it often becomes clear that staff struggle to get through repetitive tasks and often make errors in the process. The other side of that coin is that robots cannot interpret the reports they have created, but this is where human workers excel.”
RPA is defining the future of work, the rapid adoption of this technology is helping drive business outcomes such as improved customer experiences and improved service delivery. Outside the finance department, RPA reduces the time to resolve queries and complaints. Other examples include customer on-boarding and account opening procedures that are simplified and accelerated. Cost savings accrue as a result of productivity improvements, or even fraud detection with insurance and expense claims.
In a world where KYC (know your customer) procedures are mandatory, it is essential that these processes are followed to the letter of the procedure and not just the spirit of the procedure. This typically happens in a high-volume customer environment that is managed exclusively by humans.
IDC predicts that by 2024, half of structured, repeatable tasks will be automated and 20% of workers in knowledge-intensive tasks will have AI-infused software or other digitally connected technology as a 'co-worker'.
These kinds of statistics can understandably be worrying to individuals who can identify repetitive tasks as part of their normal daily jobs. There is a real need however to change this perception both on the part of people who implement RPA, as well as the companies and the individuals who are the receivers and benefactors of this technology.
When spreadsheet applications were introduced, there were certainly some nervous accountants who saw this software as a real threat to their jobs. However, today every person working in finance or accounting uses spreadsheet applications in almost every task they undertake.
“Companies that resist automation risk being left behind,” concludes Botha. “Their competitors can now create more efficient cost structures with RPA and also deliver better services and customer experiences. It is no longer optional; companies need to start exploring the benefits of intelligent automation technologies. They also need to take stock of their future skills requirements and how to reskill and redeploy their staff to more high level and rewarding tasks. Most importantly, they need to create an environment that fosters innovation and human-machine collaboration.”
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