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RPA software: Service firms automate customers, themselves

IT service providers pursue differing robotic process automation projects, while navigating the technology's cognitive developments and labor considerations.

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles examining the emergence of RPA software among IT services providers. Part one provides an overview of the technology's benefits, while part two explores deployment approaches and labor issues.

Robotic process automation technology, the use of software robots to take the manual labor out of IT and business processes, is attracting large IT service providers and their enterprise customers.

For IT services companies, from systems integrators to business process outsourcing (BPO) firms, RPA software engagements fall into a couple of categories. One type of project involves helping customers -- typically large enterprises -- deploy and manage software robots to improve their internal processes. Such projects differ from conventional IT deals in which the service provider works with the customer's technology personnel, said Sreekanth Lapala, senior vice president and global head of Outsourcing Transformation Services at VirtusaPolaris, an IT consulting, technology and outsourcing services company based in Westborough, Mass.

Sreekanth Lapala, senior vice president and global head of Outsourcing Transformation Services, VirtusaPolarisSreekanth Lapala

"RPA is predominantly being run and championed by the operations side of the world, not the IT side," he said.

On RPA efforts, VirtusaPolaris generally works with people "who are the owners for certain business processes in the organization, like account onboarding in the banking world or head of claims operations in the insurance world," Lapala explained.

But while operations executives may be in charge of the software robots, RPA remains, at its core, an IT project. There's an automated script underneath each robot, Lapala points out. And there are RPA tools to select: The roster of RPA software vendors includes Arago, Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, IPsoft, OpenSpan, UiPath and WorkFusion.

But the work doesn't stop with the creation of a robot: The organization needs to monitor the robots, consider their performance parameters and determine their efficiency, Lapala explained.

Against that backdrop, Lapala suggested an IT services partner can work with customers to set up an RPA center of excellence to serve as the focal point for RPA governance. He said the center would play a standardization role, advising on best practices, tools and frameworks for faster time to market, automated deployment and a common operating model for monitoring the software robots.

In another RPA approach, service providers use RPA software internally to make the services they provide customers more efficient and cost effective. A provider could embed software robots in its IT or BPO offering, for example.

Howard Cohn, senior vice president of retail, Sutherland Global ServicesHoward Cohn

At Sutherland Global Services, a BPO provider based in Rochester, N.Y., Howard Cohn, senior vice president of retail, said the company maintains a team of transformation experts who are experienced in RPA and with third-party RPA software providers. The transformation team helps customers optimize their processes and configure software robots.

Sutherland Global's RPA services, Cohn said, provide customers an alternative to "purchasing the RPA software themselves and facing the challenge of learning how to configure the RPA software along with gaining the process transformation experience needed to identify and optimize processes."

An IT services firm may also deploy software robots to improve internal operations -- beyond the IT services it provides. Lapala said Virtusa is working toward rolling out software robots to automate shared services such as human resources, finance and expense reimbursement.

He said such internal projects help the company learn the lessons of RPA deployment and let it gain experience working with various off-the-shelf RPA software vendors.

"And it helps you save your own costs," Lapala noted.

RPA software: Cognitive developments

Much of RPA's current value -- cost savings and otherwise -- stems from simply having software robots automate repetitive tasks. But the field will grow in sophistication as cognitive RPA evolves. Cognitive platforms will inject digital labor with a higher level of intelligence and adaptability.

"Today, RPA is being looked at as 'How can I take a repeatable process and put automation on it?'" Lapala noted.

But RPA will start to become more cognitive, he added, as machine learning sparks the next wave of innovation. In that wave, software robots will become intelligent as they learn from repetitive errors, he said. For a commonly occurring error, the software robot resolves the problem instead of putting the process in the exception queue, where problems require manual resolution today.

"As RPA matures, the cognitive capabilities will evolve and allow RPA to become more of a learning technology, giving it even more adaptability to more processes that require higher-level decisions to occur, or variability within the process makeup," Cohn said.

The effect on labor

Whether software robots are cognitive or more basic deployments, the technology is bound to have an effect on labor.

This will become natural in the workplace. One day … we will have a robot as a partner.
Mihir ShuklaCEO, Automation Anywhere

A McKinsey Global Institute report, Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, estimates that "knowledge work automation tools and systems could take on tasks that would be equal to the output of 110 million to 140 million full-time equivalents."

The report noted that increasing automation "may spark complex societal challenges, particularly in employment and the education and retraining of workers."

Gartner, meanwhile, has predicted that by 2025 about one-third of jobs "will be converted to software, robots or smart machines."

IT services firms interviewed for this article, however, suggested RPA will shift IT workers into different types of work, but not necessarily lead to mass dislocation of workers.

"That is a big trend that is out there," Lapala said, referring to the Gartner prediction.

But he said there's an opportunity to reassign workers currently doing repetitive jobs to higher-value work.

Mihir Shukla, CEO, Automation AnywhereMihir Shukla

"Personnel replaced by RPA can be reassigned to more important and higher cognitive tasks," Cohn added.

Mihir Shukla, CEO of Automation Anywhere, said software robots and human workers will form partnerships over time, likening the link-up to familiar human-machine partnerships such as construction workers operating heavy equipment on a building site.

"This will become natural in the workplace," he said. "One day … we will have a robot as a partner."

Next Steps

Learn about Accenture's intelligent automation alliance with Splunk

Read about the potential for RPA software disruption in Southeast Asia

Watch a video on developments in cognitive robotics

Dig Deeper on Robotic process automation