Power Platform Insights: October 2022
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Coders and non-coders are seeing the potential to turn business on its head, transforming time-consuming processes into streamlined automated workflows. The quest for increased automation is being driven largely by shifting customer expectations and a nonstop search for productivity and efficiency. Never have expectations been so high, yet the opportunities so great.
This is where Robotic Process Automation (RPA) through Microsoft Power Automate can shine. It’s one more compelling option in the toolbox to unlock the potential of the Power Platform. It sounds a bit menacing and other-worldly. But when you do understand, you won’t overinvest, underinvest, or fail to invest entirely. So, let’s dive in — and first, be assured, it’s not a robot at all.
The RPA software market remains a rapidly growing segment of the enterprise software market. The RPA software segment’s revenue grew by 31 percent to $2.4 billion in 2021, well above the average worldwide software market growth rate of 16 percent.
What is RPA?
RPA software enables a human process or task to be recorded or programmed into a software script. The script mimics the human interaction within the application’s user interface. “Think of it as automating the front end of the application. Let’s say you have an old front end of SAP and you need to generate an invoice, it will mimic the user clicking the mouse through the front end of the application,” said Joel Lindstrom, Hitachi Solutions’ senior director for Low Code and Power Platform. Lindstrom recently distilled all things RPA as part of our Exchangespodcasts. Joel has been working with Power Platform and automation solutions for more than a decade and is dedicated to sharing his knowledge with technology workers at all levels.
Once you have the recording or script, it can be deployed and executed into different runtimes. This runtime executable of the deployed script is what is commonly referred to as a “bot.” RPA scripts for bots can be developed by programming or by using low-code and no-code graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that are native to the RPA software platform, in this case, the Power Platform.
A bot performs tasks at a much higher rate than a human alone. RPA software bots never sleep and make fewer mistakes, and can interact with in-house applications, websites, user portals, and so on. They can log into applications, enter data, open emails, and attachments, calculate and complete tasks, and then log out.
Two flavors: attended and unattended
Attended RPA describes automation tasks with a human in the loop and is triggered when a person executes the bot on a local device. Attended automations are best suited for smaller, more fragmented tasks, or tasks that are just part of an overall process.
For example, a call center agent can get help from an attended RPA bot in near real-time during a live customer call. The agent can launch the attended bot can find customer data from one application and automatically enter it into a second application. This way, the call center agent spends less time switching between applications and can focus on high-value tasks such as solving the customer’s problem.
For unattended RPA scenarios, data is moved in or out of application systems without human interaction, with an emphasis on straight-through task automation. Typically, unattended automation is triggered by a system, and bots are executed on a server. Because they can be located in the cloud and are a true software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution, unattended RPA bots can now be created and automatically scaled across hosted virtual machines that are powered by Microsoft Azure.
In unattended scenarios, people are removed from the process execution, Lindstrom said. “That would just slow it down. A process like month-end or quarter-end closing can run in the background on one or more virtual machines. It could run 1000 times an hour on a single machine. If I were to put it on 5 machines, it could run 5000 times per hour.”
What makes a good RPA use case?
Keep in mind that for now, RPA is a rule-based technology that works best with structured data or information that follows a predetermined data model. Unless it’s layered with AI or machine learning technologies, an RPA solution is capable only of following the rules that you assign, not of understanding or interpreting the content that it accesses.
For example, for an RPA tool to process information from invoices or other paperwork, that paperwork must all follow the same structured format. The tool can’t process any files that deviate from the format. For this reason, RPA tools aren’t a good fit for unstructured data or information that doesn’t follow a predetermined data model. When AI automation capabilities are integrated, you can then start to take advantage of unstructured data.
One of the most important tasks in RPA is selecting the right processes and activities for automation. Consider the following:
“A lot of people are still in the copy/paste business working with their partners who send in reports,” Lindstrom said. “You’re paying high-quality professionals to do repetitive work that would be best served by automation,” he said.
The returns process is another prime process for RPA, Lindstrom said. RPA can handle the return, including the repetitive steps: sending a message confirming receipt of the return, updating the inventory system, making the payment adjustment to the customer, ensuring that the internal billing system is updated, and so on.
A low technical barrier
With RPA, automation at scale is available to everyone— from information workers to super users to pro developers. Programming skills aren’t required to configure an RPA bot. And because it’s a code-free technology, any non-technical person can set up the bot using drag-and-drop features through a GUI (graphical user interface) and intuitive wizards.
Employees only need to be trained on how RPA works, and they can easily create bots. Then employees can focus on tasks that require emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and customer interactions, rather than repetitive tasks.
Power Automate for desktop makes RPA even easier with a growing library of ready-to-use desktop flows that serve as examples of what’s possible across Excel, desktop, and web automation. To get started, make sure you are using the latest version of Power Automate for your desktop and see the Examples tab on the app’s home screen. Just launch an RPA example and explore its logic or begin customizing it to make it your own.
Power Automate for desktop: Examples screen showing a list of desktop automation flows. Note: Included free in the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 users and built-in to Windows 11.
Skilling the organization
Leaders can begin to democratize automation and equip employees with the tools for success using Microsoft’s Automation Center of Excellence (CoE). CoEs support new ways of working that embed a culture of automation—from adoption to governance, and give you not only the tools, but the resources and best practices to get the automation right the first time.
At Hitachi Solutions, we work side-by-side with client developers using the Automation CoE as a blueprint. “As the client’s skillset grows, that group becomes the automation engine for their company,” Lindstrom said. “And as other departments have needs, they can help them upskill as well.”
Lindstrom added that in all Hitachi’s automation engagements, the customer is involved and IT employees are trained on how to maintain the bots. “Someone needs to own it as systems change and updates happen.”
Finding the ROI
Lindstrom said that with everyone focusing on productivity and cost savings, most legacy automation platforms are trying to modernize and sometimes at great expense to the customer. At Hitachi Solutions, we can partner with you to evaluate RPA technologies by mapping RPA capabilities to your business-aligned automation use cases. “It’s critical that you’re using the right tools for the right need,” he said. “We use the CoE to evaluate processes to understand the ROI.
If I have a team of 25 people who spend a week a month each on a certain process, the RIO is high,” he said. “It (RPA automation) has some of the fastest return on investment of just about anything we do.”
Hitachi Solutions specializes in automation as a service and the Microsoft Power Platform. Check out our envisioning workshop offer where you can learn more about RPA and how to leverage it to modernize your business, empower your employees, and boost profitability.
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