What is robotic process automation and why does it matter to your business?

Gartner researcher Paul Delory explains the core value of RPA for frontline workers, the challenges it presents, and how it will impact jobs.

What is robotic process automation and why does it matter to your business?

At VMworld 2018, Gartner's Paul Delory talked to TechRepublic about the RPA benefits for frontline workers, including the challenges, and impact on jobs. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

"There is certainly a lot of interest around robotic process automation," Delory says. "It's something we hear a lot about, something we get a lot of questions about, and, interestingly, in many cases, those questions aren't coming from the IT department - [the questions are] coming from the finance department, HR, these real line, business back-office people.

The core of robotic process automation [RPA] is really simulating the workflow, or simulating the process that a person would go through to execute a task. It's really all about recording a macro, or some sort of script where the robot can go and click on a button, enter in some text, do all of these things, really simulate what a human would do.

It turns out in our back-office processes there are a lot of cases where we want to take data out of one Excel spreadsheet, and put it into a different Excel spreadsheet, or we want to get information out of an email, and put that into an internal system; it's these kind of low-level tasks, the paperwork, really, that RPA can really help with.

The first question everybody has is, Is a robot going to take my job? Right? And if you're a professional in a developed economy, the answer is almost certainly no.

What the robots are doing, again, are these low-level kind of data-entry, data-transformation tasks. In many cases, they're tasks that have already been outsourced, or are already off-shored, so if you're a professional in a developed economy, I don't think you have a whole lot to worry about.

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From our perspective in the IT department, RPA can be a real challenge because, really, the idea behind RPA is that it's aimed at non-technical users. They are low-code or no-code platforms that really can be enacted, and used by the line of business which is great ... except that in practice, RPA becomes a production-system, a critical system, which does not have any of the controls that production software should have. So, in many cases, the IT department comes in late and they find that RPA has been deployed. There is no security as part of this. There is no version-control. There is not a central repository for artifacts. All of these things, that we would do as an IT department, if we were deploying production code, no one has even given any thought to this, so that's the challenge for IT.

What I tell IT people and IT leaders interested in this technology, is that I don't think you can say no. These products are being deployed. They are providing real value to the business, so I don't think you can stop it. Your role has to be to be an enabler, to help the line of business people do this right, and get the value in the RPA tools, while maintaining the proper level of security, and the proper level of control you should have around any production piece of infrastructure."

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