RPA – why you should think autopilot rather than robot

By 23 december 2020robotics

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has become an accepted term to describe a nascent industry that is literally taking off. Yet at the same time, the term RPA causes confusion largely because there are no robots (only software automation tools) and a single mention of “robot” is enough to send everyone into a spin about losing their jobs!

“Taking off” and getting in “a spin” lead us to a tongue-in-cheek question – rather than Robots replacing Humans, should Robots be replaced with Autopilots?

The truth is the word “Robot” immediately projects a mental image, together with all its negative connotations, associated with Sci-Fi born in Hollywood. Such strong feelings tend to be so ingrained that they are often hard to shift. From a change management perspective, it also puts a business on the back foot from the very beginning. When workers hear that Robots are coming, their immediate thought is most likely to fear being replaced by a machine (the “me” factor). When, in fact, the reality is the opposite. They are actually more likely to keep their jobs by being enabled to do better work. This fear factor, which is a common trait, often slows deployment down and adds costs to the business since both time and money needs to be spent addressing its effects.

There is a serious message here because many people do still get confused by what is meant by Robotic Process Automation and what it brings to the table. For those in the know, it is clear that this does not relate to having hundreds, if not thousands of robots running about, all intent on making human workers redundant. Yes, cost reduction often does enter into the ROI equation; but there is so much more to be gained from so-called RPA, from both an improved personal and business performance perspective. Research clearly shows that the top three benefits are improved compliance (92%) improved quality/accuracy (90%) and improved productivity (86%) with reducing operating costs coming in fourth (59%).

Why think Autopilot rather than Robot? Apart from the negative connotations mentioned above, Robot is such a generic term that it does not instantly convey what RPA is or does. Whereas Autopilot, as a term, is more descriptive that people are more likely to understand and associate more positive connotations. Close your eyes for a second and think of the term RPA and then think about Autopilot. Which term conveys a clearer image about what it is and its intended purpose?

Wikipedia explains “Autopilots do not replace human operators, but instead they assist them in controlling the aircraft. This allows them to focus on broader aspects of operations such as monitoring the trajectory, weather and systems.” This is a perfect description for what is currently called attended RPA – by removing manual, repetitive tasks, workers are enabled to focus on broader, more value-added aspects of their role. They can turn off the autopilot if and when they want to. Wouldn’t be easier to say to someone, here is a tool to put your desktop on automatic pilot when you need it, rather than say here is an automation robot?

But what about unattended RPA or when there is no human worker involved? Does the autopilot metaphor stretch that far? The short answer according to “How Stuff Works” (just to say not one of my normal reads you will be pleased to hear!) is yes, “Advanced autopilots can do much more, carrying out even highly precise manoeuvres, such as landing an aircraft in conditions of zero visibility”. In other words, autopilots these days can perform the entire role of a trained pilot if needed or the full, unattended automation of many of the back office functions of today’s modern enterprise.

Quoting from the same source, “Today, autopilots are sophisticated systems that perform the same duties as a highly trained pilot. In fact, for some in-flight routines and procedures, autopilots are even better than a pair of human hands. They don’t just make flights smoother — they make them safer and more efficient.” The same can be said of software automation technologies which help to avoid human error, for example, fat finger syndrome as it is known in the world of operational risk.

Autopilots go on and on even allowing the pilot to sleep on long flights. Think always on, or 24×7 automation. The similarities go on and on, making the case for thinking Autopilot rather than Robot that much stronger.

At the end of the day, Autopilots, are in fact, a form of Robotic Process Automation. Therein lies the root of the problem – what is in the scope of RPA and what is not? The question is whether the term “Autopilot” is a better descriptor than RPA to help enterprises understand how automation technologies can contribute to their digital transformation journey?

Time to return to earth and a reality check. Realistically, it is most likely too late to stop the industry usage of the term RPA which is in full flight; but perhaps we should be thinking of making an auto-correction at this time to ensure that everybody is on board and fully understands their destination and how they are getting there.

Thinking Autopilot rather than Robot might just be a step in the right direction!

Jos Bel

Author Jos Bel

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