Automation For The Masses – Here Come The Bots
October 7, 2019 Richard Schoen
Have you ever heard of using a robot to assist in completing your daily work? Or maybe the concept of eliminating redundant manual data entry and re-keying of info you didn’t think was possible? Let’s talk about bots, as these software robots are known, and how they are coming to an IBM i shop near you and how your IT and business teams can leverage this technology to get work done more efficiently.
Many people in the IBM i world have never heard of the acronym: RPA. RPA stands for Robotic Process Automation, the current buzz word for implementing software to assist or fully automate redundant clerical tasks.
Often this includes things like logging in to a website, downloading data, and entering info to a screen. Or possibly automatically intercepting an email message and processing the attachments and data contained within. Think inbound accounts payable invoices, customer service, or help desk requests. Or maybe reading and writing an Excel file and automating spreadsheet creation and processing.
RPA is not really a new concept. My journey with RPA started back in the early 1990s (before the RPA term had been coined) when I was asked to automate data extraction from a 5250 screen to a System/36 application. From there, the use cases extended to setting up buttons to extract screen information to index Accounts Payable and other documents for filing in a document management system. The main idea was to either streamline and eliminate data entry or, at the very least, reduce the re-keying of information into multiple data entry applications.
My personal RPA definition not only includes interactive work, but also background automation where no interaction with a screen or web browser is needed. Think of an automated process that regularly checks an email box for new messages and automatically processes documents without interaction with Outlook or even needing a Windows session. Another good example would be automating the onboarding steps for a new employee. Onboarding may include creating a network user, creating an Office 365 mailbox, adding the user to applications, and more. This process can take several minutes to several hours if done manually, depending on what set up is needed for a new employee.
RPA can reduce the same steps to a few seconds by removing all the painful app interaction. Or maybe you have an odd process that receives something like an ACH file via FTP, then runs a data import process that creates a report and you want the report totals in the PDF to be checked against the FTP data totals before processing can continue. In the IBM i banking and insurance world, there are many processes that have to be stopped for manual checks that can be considered for automation. There are also IBM i administrative teams trying to automate processes they thought couldn’t be automated until they learned what RPA can do. RPA is like gaining a multi-platform integration super power.
To search for tasks that provide return on investment (ROI) to automate, you can ask this one question in any department to start thinking about RPA and automating processes: Where, in any of your business departments, are users doing manual, repetitive, boring work for 15 minutes to an hour or more per day that they could to provide better service? This question can quickly drive the discussion for implementing RPA and other process automation technology like case management to stream line data entry, extraction and other manual integration and business processes. The usual outcome of implementing an RPA solution is allowing business users to better service vendors, employees, and customers, rather than spending time on redundant clerical work efforts.
IBM is currently offering Automation Anywhere as an option. There is also Blue Prism, UIPath, Pegasystems, HelpSystems, and a number of other vendors offering RPA tools with varying capabilities. In fact, this year UIPath received a market valuation of around $7 billion, which underscores the growth of RPA-style automation.
No matter what you do, make sure to start learning more about RPA technology to enhance and streamline your daily process automation.