Quick Q&A: What is robotic process automation?

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October 01, 2018

PwC Health Research Institute: 

When you have clients who come to you and they're concerned about transformative technologies coming into the market, what do you tell them?

Zach Sachen, PwC partner

Zach Sachen, PwC partner:

There is a big bucket of technologies that are out there today. Our research shows over 150 major technologies that are worth a preliminary investigation.

The next thing is to help health organizations get clarity on those that will matter most. We start gaining clarity by looking at one major dimension: how applicable is the technology when it comes to solving multiple problems across the globe?

We've found that there is a select group of technologies that stand out in this regard - we call them the essential eight. Conversations often move towards one or more of the essential eight.

For example robots is a popular one - specifically robotic process automation, or RPA. RPA has been around a long time, but it's really taking off now because people are using it in combination with artificial intelligence. They are complementary, and when used together, can have a profound impact across industries. This same goes for other technology combinations - exponential power comes from combining these technologies.

"What’s different today about robotic process automation is that there are better tool sets that improve the ease and speed with which we can build, deploy and manage these automated processes... and deliver value and results back to the business."

PwC Health Research Institute:

What is robotic process automation (RPA) and how is it different from “traditional” automation?

Chris Joyce, PwC principal

Chris Joyce, PwC principal:

There are some elements of automation that are well-established. We have been doing scripting, screen scraping and process automation through a number of other tools for years. What’s different today about [RPA] is that there are better tool sets that improve the ease and speed with which we can build, deploy and manage these automated processes, such as bots, and deliver value and results back to the business. And from there, we can also layer in intelligent processing automation, leverage analytics and machine learning in different ways. That’s really when we unlock incremental value compared to some of the legacy technologies that have been around for years.

PwC Health Research Institute:

How is RPA different from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning?

Chris Joyce: 

They are different. RPA could automate a simple task or a complex task that spans multiple platforms or business units, but that doesn’t necessarily require AI to function. What we see in the market is that when you stack a couple of these technologies on top of each other, you get a multiplier effect. So when you deploy an automated process or a bot, and then enhance the way it operates through analytics or artificial intelligence, you get a multiplier effect in the value delivered. Adaptive and self-improving bots are being implemented within pilot projects, and will likely be implemented at scale within the coming years.

PwC Health Research Institute:

Are most of these RPA functions back office or can they also interact with customers?

Chris Joyce: 

I think there are absolutely front office opportunities and we are seeing some of our clients building and testing out use cases here. But honestly, most of the uptake right now is in the back office, or within shared service and corporate functions, such as tax, finance and accounting and procurement.

But regardless of the focus area, there are a few things that remain constant and that create opportunities for us to help our clients. In addition to the strategy and execution work we see happening here, many organizations are starting to now really appreciate the risks that are associated with RPA - even though technologies exist to allow organizations to quickly automate a process, there are still important activities you need to perform to manage compliance risks, to protect sensitive information, and to build something that you can operationalize and manage over time.

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