Journal 1/2015

Please welcome the financial department’s newest employee! He gets down to work straight away, carries out the routine jobs without complaining and gives others time to focus on the tasks, which require real expert knowledge. You won’t be able to shake his hand though, because he is a virtual employee, a software robot.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is nothing like traditional software development, with its time-consuming IT changes and integrations. Implementing a software robot is very similar to teaching a new employee the tasks in a certain process. The robot uses the existing applications in the same way as a human, but is more efficient,” explains Jaakko Lehtinen, Manager from OpusCapita’s Ventures Unit.

The year 2015 will be the year for software robots in Europe say Lehtinen and Jarkko Vesa, Network Partner at Eera, OpusCapita’s associate company. At the turn of the year they participated in an international conference in New York, which presented the major savings achieved by RPA pilot projects in finance and accounting, the insurance and health care sectors and IT operations.

“The technology is ready and more will happen in software robotics this year than has happened in the previous four or five years in total. We are now entering a very rapid phase, where a big proportion of the remaining routines are being automated. A lot of the routine work that is suitable for robots still exists in financial management in spite of the current high degree of automation.”

Vesa and Lehtinen are referring to the tasks in which data is moved from one system to another, for example, or in which data is retrieved from several incompatible systems and combined. In other words, exactly the type of simple and repetitive routine tasks in which a human is likely to make mistakes while clicking a mouse and going from one application window to another. These tasks are also the most boring and unmotivating parts of a job.

“In the public sector, such as health care or tax administration, RPA makes it possible to increase automation without extensive IT projects. It decreases the need for integrations and IT implementation projects in the transition phase, where legacy systems are replaced with more automatic solutions. This also helps to keep costs under control and provides an answer to a question that is linked to the subject of retirement, ‘where will we find people to take care of all the tasks?” says Vesa.

Software robotics is a very attractive option as it provides the opportunity to improve the quality and efficiency of processes in the current production environment almost immediately. The tasks that are carried out by humans become more meaningful, and the people who previously handled the routine tasks are able to become true experts and problem solvers,” says Lehtinen.

A robot will not need breaks or holidays, get ill, suffer from lack of motivation or ask for pay raises. A robot can also be programmed to carry out tasks during the night and at weekends. However, intelligent people are still needed in the team in addition to the intelligent robots. For example, software robots are unable to carry out tasks requiring complicated judgment and they are unable to understand human communication and different contexts within the language.

A robot learns to do a certain task through work shadowing. It consistently and precisely does what it has been taught to do. It will not know what to do if there is a deviation in the routine and will leave this problem for a human to solve.”

When a robot starts its work it may, for example, at first complete half of the tens of thousands of transactions in a certain process. When a human goes through all the deviations he or she may quickly notice that they are not real exceptions and that half of these can also be automated by teaching the robot a new rule. And so on.

“This enables continuous automation and continuous development of the process. And the work required to remove these routines requires creativity and intelligence. The company’s process experts are in control, not the IT experts or programmers. In order to use robots efficiently the process details must be understood and the operating environment and way of working need to be standardized,” explains Lehtinen.

It has been suggested that in the next few years the development of RPA will be a challenge for the low-cost offshore centers that focus on data processing, and may bring back the outsourced offshore work. Jarkko Vesa thinks there is a lot of truth in this claim and also states that RPA is actually a step up to the next level for business process outsourcing.

“Customers expect BPO companies to provide them with added value. At the conference I heard someone say, ‘RPA is a catalyst for change’. And that is exactly what it is. It gives the processes better functionality and transparency, and makes it necessary to really analyze the way in which the process works.

Jaakko Lehtinen laughs and says that the world of financial management will probably not require very innovative robots, but developing artificial intelligence applications will open up new possibilities in the near future.

“We are already talking about eRPA, i.e. extended robotic process automation. In the first stage, adding a degree of artificial intelligence might only mean that a robot carrying out tasks on a computer will understand free-form speech or will be able to carry out a certain amount of tasks that require complex judgment reasoning. This is a very fascinating world that constantly opens up new areas for process development.”


Published in OpusCapita Journal 1/2015.
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READ ALSO in OpusCapita Journal 2/2015 how the software robots have already launched the knowledge work revolution. [add a link to the Journal article file “Journal-2-2015-robotics-web”]