Why RPA is better than overpriced toothpaste

I remember sitting in my dorm room at university one afternoon when suddenly there was a mysterious knock at my door. To my surprise, it was three of my close friends who would never otherwise knock. They would usually simply burst into my room with utter disregard for whatever study-related or otherwise “extra-curricular” activity I may have been engaged in.

I proceeded to cordially invite them in (slightly weirded out by their newfound manners) and sat back down at my desk with them lining up on my bed.

“We have something that will change your life” – the one blurted out.

Now, not to bore you (the reader) with my life-story, but after 45 minutes of them mumbling about “this business opportunity” and talks of “perpetual passive income” it turned out to be some network marketing scheme that sells overpriced toothpaste and herbal supplements at 10x pharmacy prices. They left my dorm room swearing I would rue the day I did not decide to join them in their network marketing quest.

I look at those same friends now, holding down corporate jobs (like I do) and wonder how much more toothpaste they must sell on the side in order to retire on their yachts with all that passive income. Oh well, at least they will have really nice teeth when they do.

Ever since this experience, I get quite sceptical when I am ushered aside to be told about something that will change my life, especially when the purveyor of said life-changing-thing struggles to get to the point concisely and clearly.

This is exactly the same way I felt when I went to my first Robotic Process Automation (RPA) seminar. The chap was insistent that it would revolutionise business, but had a tough time explaining exactly what it was. And then to my dismay, I discovered that most RPA (at the time) was just a software script moving a mouse cursor through an automated sequence on a computer screen. Thereby automating a basic repetitive task that a human would have done otherwise…I felt the “overpriced toothpaste anger” coming on all over again.

But I was wrong…

Ok, so for those of you who have not had a proper introduction to RPA, here goes: Robotic Process Automation (or RPA) is a field within Information Technology that specifically aims to use software that can automate repetitive (high volume) tasks that are typically performed by a human operator in the status quo.

Yes, at its core, RPA can be as simple as a software program that controls the inputs to a computer (mouse and keyboard) in some automated (scripted) sequence, thereby having a computer perform (autonomously) the most basic repetitive tasks, that does not require creative or heuristic input from a human brain.

If it’s so simple, why would you do this?

Well, let’s say you own a beauty salon/parlor. In addition to selling chemical peels and overpriced toothpaste, you also offer a pseudo medical test for patients suffering hair loss.

The problem is that the software that gives the hair-loss result only delivers its output after the customer has left the salon, therefore the results need to be emailed to the customer.

This proprietary (meaning very locked-down, very German, or both) software in your hair-loss beauty salon does not have the ability to send automatic emails, so you have had to make your receptionist Joan work overtime just to copy results from this system to an email and send the results to each of your customers.

You don’t like this, because Joan is dropping some calls for new appointments. Joan doesn’t like this because she is getting shouted at by you and hates this mindless repetitive task. Worst of all, Joan’s kids don’t like you and you are pretty sure they spat in your soda at the company getaway.

What to do…RPA, I guess?

This is one use-case for RPA, and to be frank this was the general type of use-case I thought initially. The reason why I am so critical of use-cases such as this one you see, is that I have made a living of implementing ERP, Business Process Automation and Integration software that can integrate the software in the background. In other words, the hair-loss software would be sending emails automatically…

So why was I wrong?

Well two reasons really:

  1. There are very few hair-loss beauty salons that struggle with this problem
  2. RPA has come such a long way and there are such good use-cases by now

Yes, the kind of “move the mouse cursor” RPA still exists, but there are new and awesome developments in the field of RPA that can frankly not be replaced by pure integration or back-end software at all.

One of these use-cases is where a company receives stacks of paper or PDF invoiced each month and has to process these for validation (3-way checking) as well as payment (Accounts Payable).

The invoice-mountain conundrum

Many businesses amongst us (yours could be one) sit with the challenge of receiving thousands of paper or PDF invoices each month.

This places an incredible burden on your Accounts Payable (AP) department to receive, acknowledge, verify, process and file these invoices.

In some organisations, AP can be a formidable workforce on its own purely looking after this function.

Now, before you start shouting phrases like “Electronic Data Interchange” (EDI) or “Supplier Relationship Management” (SRM)…yes, I know these technologies exist and are holy grail of the invoice processing world. However, in some cases, the full-on use of these technologies is not going to be feasible for years to come…if ever.

Some of these cases include geographies where a wet-ink (physically signed) invoice is required as is often the case in Asia or Africa. Other instances may be where your supplier is larger (or more stubborn) than you and cannot be convinced or bothered to use your SRM* portal or comply with your EDI* format. The list goes on…

*Want to know more about EDI and SRM…Google it, or call me…whatever works.

Needless to say, just as is the case with good old paper-books, paper-invoices still have quite a long runway.

Ok, so what now brown cow?

Well, you could apply one of the (scripted mouse and keyboard sequence) RPA tools to alleviate the problem, but there are amazing new RPA technologies that can solve this problem in a very effective, very targeted manner.

Enter the “intelligent scanning” RPA solutions also known as “vendor invoice management”

Don’t get me wrong, the traditional RPA solutions have become really good and are admittedly more versatile in application, but with intelligent scanning solutions, you can achieve much faster processing speeds and achieve much lower error rates (driving down human intervention even more).

What’s so intelligent about that

Scanning invoices is not a new thing. Neither is receiving them already scanned in a PDF format attached to an email. What is new, is the RPA capability to intelligently apply a combination of Optical Character Recognition, Pattern Analysis AI as well as

Machine Learning to:

  • identify the fields as well as the values on each invoice,
  • match them to a customer account or purchase order,
  • verify the quantities and unit prices and
  • auto-generate a payment in your ERP or bank system just waiting for approval.

Imagine this RPA getting through ten thousand invoices in a matter of minutes.

Better yet, imagine having all your invoices automatically processed by RPA seconds after they arrive, allowing you to optimally manage your cash position between “early payment discounts” and “favourable overdue terms”.

Ok, is that a wrap?

Yes and no. For Vendor Invoice Management, yes…for now.

The point is, there is so much more out there in the way of RPA, than just the general “move the cursor and control the mouse” type suites.

Just to name a few:

  • Complete employee “hire to retire” automation of paperwork and processes between systems
  • Complete Accounts Payable automation
  • Complete Accounts Receivable automation
  • Complex Procurement (RFI, RFP etc.) process automation
  • Customer Onboarding/Complaints/Returns automation
  • Asset Management and Maintenance automation
  • The list goes on…

One final thought

We should always strive to design business processes and systems that are natively integrated and avoid duplication and repetitive human effort as far as possible…no doubt this is first prize.

The fact is that there will always be scope for RPA in our modern business paradigm. What is important is to ask ourselves whether we are applying the correct tool/approach to the problem.

When the “scripted screen manoeuvre” type RPA tools are good enough and we can live with the speed and error rate, then it’s completely fine to go that route.

However, there has been so much development in the RPA discipline that there are countless awesome technologies out there that are targeted at our specific RPA needs. As business leaders, it is incumbent upon us to do our research and make an informed decision, rather than just listen to the first three guys that burst into your dorm room.

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