A quiet revolution with a potential impact on the IT workforce reminiscent of outsourcing may be under way in the form of robotic process automation.
Geared toward automating a variety of business and computing processes typically handled by humans, RPA will stir passions at organizations that deploy the technology, with its potential to slash jobs, shake up the relevant skills mix, and if implemented strategically, stave off the specter of outsourcing.
The reason: Thanks to advances in software and artificial intelligence, automation has its sights on higher-value tasks than ever before -- and it's already having an impact at organizations currently deploying these systems.
What exactly is robotic process automation?
At its core, RPA is "robotic" software that organizations configure to capture and interpret the actions of existing applications employed in various business processes. Once RPA software has been trained to understand specific processes, it can then automatically process transactions, manipulate data, trigger responses, and communicate with other systems as necessary. The technology is designed to reduce or eliminate the need for people to perform high-volume IT support, workflow, remote infrastructure, and back-office processes, such as those found in finance, accounting, supply chain management, customer service, and human resources.
RPA software is composed of multiple components. First, for collection, they employ a variety of tools for grabbing digital data, which can include screen scrapping, digital image recognition, or the ability to access a server or be linked to a website. They also make use of rules engines similar to those found in business process management tools.
"This is the basic requirement, that it works at the graphical user interface layer and doesn't need much, if any, IT support," says Cathy Tornbohm, vice president BPO (business process outsourcing) research at Gartner. "RPA tools can be built from combining tools that perform the various elements of these tasks."
On the one hand, RPA promises huge cost savings and the elimination of tedious tasks for IT infrastructure workers. On the other hand, it threatens the very survival of many of the jobs held by those same infrastructure workers.
This time around, automation is after more than manual data-entry positions.
Eating into IT jobs
Not long ago, RPA was "a total mystery" to most organizations, but its potential is now grabbing the attention of IT consulting and advisory firms, outsourcing providers, and enterprises alike, says Frank Casale, a longtime outsourcing expert and founder of the newly formed Institute for Robotic Process Automation (IRPA).
"This is a flash trend driven by a combination of really powerful process automation software and artificial intelligence, and following a lot of trial and error" by vendors in the market, Casale says.
IRPA touts the technology's potential to significantly reduce risk in regulatory reporting, thanks to improved analytics and increased data accuracy. But its estimate that RPA could save companies 20 to 40 percent in labor costs is sure to raise eyebrows, signaling RPA's clear potential to wreak havoc on the IT workforce.
"I would say most IT infrastructure support jobs will be eliminated over the next three years," Casale says. "I've already seen [deployments] where there was 60-plus percent labor automation."
This includes jobs related to IT help desks, data center and server support, network support, and other areas of IT maintenance. While the technology does not currently replace functions such as application development and maintenance, that's not to say future RPA technology won't be able to handle some of those tasks, Casale says.
If that sounds ambitious or even unlikely, it still underscores the ongoing evolution of automation toward higher-value jobs.
RPA is most likely to replace data entry and data rekeying or data assembly and formatting tasks, which are rules-based, Gartner's Tornbohm says. "Almost any type of computer-related process which is rules-based [and] which a human performs today could be affected at some point in its lifecycle, where [RPA] could mimic what a human does," she says. "It has affected IT in many ways, often in software testing."
Earlier advances in automation eliminated "blue collar jobs, ones we cannot even remember today, like tape changers," notes Chris Boos, CEO at RPA provider Arago. "RPA moves the focus of automation up the value chain. At the same time, demand for IT experts is growing for even higher-value jobs, because most companies are struggling to keep up with high-tech development, and this is why RPA is a relief to most IT people."
Robotic process automation in practice
Health care provider Ascension Health deployed an RPA system from Blue Prism in early 2014 when it needed a way to avoid time-consuming manual processes associated with its move to a new ERP platform.
"There is work that we refer to as 'swivel chair' activities, where we transfer data from one source into the ERP or one of the support systems," says A.J. Hanna, senior director of operations support at Ascension. "Despite the implementation of the standard ERP, there is still a large volume of local policy variability that has to be addressed."
The use of RPA didn't result in the elimination of jobs at the company, but the possibility "certainly exists" in the future, Hanna says. "The impact to frontline processing staff is the greatest potential change to our workforce," he says. "A large part of our focus is trying to find ways to be able to absorb the additional workload that we know is coming" without having to add staff.
As the company moves more into the automation of rules-based activities, "We anticipate that it will provide staffing reduction opportunities," Hanna says. "Each of these opportunities will have to be viewed within the context of the known increase in workload volumes that will be coming in 2015 to determine potential impacts to staffing levels."
While Ascension anticipates the potential for staffing reductions, "our goal with RPA is to be able to take on additional work without the need to add staff," Hanna says. "Any reductions that may come from the use of RPA would be handled through normal attrition."
Another company, IT services provider CGI, less than a year ago began working with three RPA providers -- Thoughtonomy, Celaton, and Innovise -- for various aspects of process automation. The two main drivers for the project were to achieve increased efficiency across IT and business processes, as well as customer service improvements, says Danny Wootton, innovation director at CGI.
"It hasn't necessarily been about cost reduction, but more about better service and improving the effectiveness of our people," Wootton says.
CGI has seen reduced efforts across a range of activities, from simple password resets to more complex logic-based activities such as payroll and help-desk problem resolution. Like Ascension Health, the firm at this stage hasn't seen RPA affect the makeup of the IT workforce. "But it may well be something we need to think about in the future," Wootton says.
The silver lining
Experts say RPA doesn't represent all gloom for tech workers. For one, the technology itself will provide opportunities because organizations will need people who are skilled in implementing, managing, and maintaining the programs.
"There is going to be a need for new skill sets in lower and middle management, for people who are able to work with RPA platforms and understand how to manage them," IRPA's Casale says. He has talked with people who worked in IT support and were displaced by RPA systems who received training and went on to become experts in process automation.
In addition, companies could move some of the displaced workers into more interesting and challenging types of jobs -- either in IT or other areas of the business.
"Absolutely will [RPA] free up time to do more important and more demanding jobs in IT," Arago's Boos says. "The demand for experienced IT people is so incredibly high and cannot be fulfilled by the current supply from universities and other education programs. Especially on the experience side, moving people up the value chain is most important, and RPA will be a major enabling factor here."
Ascension Health has been able to free up some workers to focus on more complex activities, Hanna says. The company's goal is to cross-train or up-skill as many operations workers as might be displaced by the use of RPA, Hanna says. "In some ways, we see the use of RPA as having a greater potential to retain levels of staffing that you might not have if you outsourced the entirety of the work to a traditional BPO," he says.
Because there will always be exceptions that "fall out of the parameters covered by the robot, an organization might keep the staff where previously they would have been outsourced," Hanna says.
CGI has been able to shift some of its IT people to other business activities, Wootton says. "We see RPA changing the type of activities our people work on, by automating many of the repetitive tasks, freeing up time for more value add activities [and] ultimately providing our people more interesting and involving roles," he says.
Prepare for some turmoil
Regardless of how RPA plays out within organizations, it's likely the movement will touch on passions around the possibility of job loss or the need for new skills. Companies will need to address these challenges in order to make a smooth transition to a more automated IT support infrastructure.
It certainly won't be the first time there have been significant shifts in IT workforces within organizations. "We've seen this movie before with the emergence of the Internet, outsourcing, and with all forms of disruptive technology that have forced the reallocation of jobs," IRPA's Casale says.
But RPA could create turmoil on a fairly large scale as more organizations adopt the technology. "There are some natural resistances to the implementation of this type of technology, mostly around the potential impact to people," Hanna says.
No doubt RPA will continue to touch on passions, given the potential for workforce upheaval. But those at the front lines of the technology say the sky is not falling for IT professionals.
"In many ways the RPA movement has been more readily embraced than traditional outsourcing," says Sean Tinney, global head of innovation and transformation at Sutherland Global Services, a service provider that has helped companies in a half-dozen industries deploy RPA.
"An RPA solution opens up more opportunities on or near shore than a traditional sourcing model, as well as creates new roles both for the sourced and retained organizations, in order to manage a fundamentally changed environment," Tinney says. "In our experience, the passion around RPA has been solely positive and quite often readily embraced."