RPA doesn't inhibit innovation – it reveals it

Photo by Paxson Woelber
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The myth around the concept of robotic process automation (RPA) is that it stymies innovation. That, in the act of automating traditional and repetitive tasks, it extends the life of legacy systems and practices. It may not be a myth that businesses have this in mind when they embark on their automation journey, but the outcome sometimes looks quite different.

With the weight of digital and business transformation bearing down on the shoulders of decision makers, it's inevitable that RPA may come into the picture as a relatively inexpensive method of streamlining cumbersome processes. Yet, while implementing RPA, what else do we reveal?

Unearth the true nature of your legacy system

Let's play devil's advocate a little. What's wrong with legacy systems and processes? As a generic beast, innovators will always want to slay it and move the world forward. I'm all for that. On the other hand, some traditional processes work just fine, but are crippled by complexity and error. And error, as we should know by now, is a constant human thorn in the side of business success. It's the difference between becoming a global giant or a giant mess. But perhaps there is still some good to be squeezed out of legacy systems regardless of how broken they seem.

The exciting part of implementing an RPA strategy is that you should carefully lay the groundwork for what you want to achieve. Actually no, that's not the exciting bit at all. That bit is often hard work, laborious and tedious. You can get stuck in the weeds. Yet, it's an essential part of transforming your business: know what you want to achieve and figure out the best way to do it. You have to recognise where the most human effort is expended (usually in high-volume processes) and unravel the criss-crossing strings that form your business output.

And this is where is gets exciting for technology nerds like me. During business transformation, while you're mucking in and digging up pipes to find out where they connect along points A and B, you reveal things you didn't even know were there. Yes, under closer scrutiny, you find your methods are outdated, but you also find what works well. And before you realise it, you find that your tired legacy system wasn't completely pooped. It simply needed some TLC before the RPA.

Dig deeper to discover your true automation path

My favourite Seamus Heaney poem is Digging. It recounts the generations before him that dug potatoes, with his grandfather finding the task particularly arduous as he "cut more turf in a day than any other man on Toner’s bog". This beautiful poem finally reveals that the author too would dig, just like his father and grandfather, only with a pen. And so he underlines the importance of digging itself – the legacy system – only he will dig with the tool most familiar to him.

It's a stretched metaphor (and thanks for indulging me), but it's hard to ignore how progress and innovation sometimes isn't about changing the concept of digging, it's about changing the tools used to dig. And when you begin to reveal what's beneath; when you divide the many strings that make up your business, you will see how RPA can help you not only streamline arduous processes, but see how to do things differently. And in discovering new ways of working, you lay the foundation to take your business transformation to new levels you didn't initially see.

It's always better to have a long-term intelligent automation strategy rather than see RPA as being a quick fix. But it may be hard to see what that strategy is until you do a bit of digging of your own, so that RPA becomes much more than a simple task robot.

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