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How RPA bots can speed up your business processes 

Organizations in multiple sectors are using robotic process automation to do away with some of their more mundane and repetitive tasks

Man looking and pointing at monitor with code displayed on itRPA can be used for any process that is highly standardized, repetitive, and high volume in nature (Getty Images/Wutthichai Luemuang/EyeEm)

As more and more organizations look to digital transformation to streamline their operations, many are using robotic process automation (RPA) as a way to do away with repetitive and mundane tasks. RPA relies on bots—which in this context refer to configurable software programs—to perform a variety of tasks that the organization assigns and controls. 

RPA can be used in industries as diverse as finance, manufacturing, telecommunications, retail, health care and hospitality to automate everything from reconciliations to data monitoring, product pricing comparisons and bill processing. It can also be a useful tool for practice management.

CPA Canada spoke with Rolandi Treska, director, risk assurance services at PwC, and Omar Kapadia, manager, risk assurance services at PwC, about how RPA works and some of its uses. 

CPA CANADA: How does RPA compare to excel macros? 
If you perform certain tasks in Microsoft Excel repeatedly, such as copying and pasting from column a to column b, changing formats or performing calculations, you can create a macro to automate those tasks. Macros simply replace a series of keyboard and mouse actions for specific activities within Excel.

RPA can perform similar functions—but it can do so across several applications. For example, let’s say several colleagues email their expense reports to one person. That person is then responsible for consolidating the reports in Excel, running several different formats and making changes based on some simple rules. That entire process can be automated—not just the consolidation within Excel. With RPA, you could automate the process to search a file directory for specific files, read information from files, create new files and more. 

CPA CANADA: What processes are good candidates for RPA?
Generally speaking, RPA can be used for any process that is highly standardized, repetitive, and high volume in nature. Specific characteristics for a good candidate include (a) the process involves the same, well-defined steps each time it is executed; (b) the process frequency is high (i.e., someone is responsible for performing that task many times within a certain time frame); and (c) it is repetitive enough that it justifies an investment in RPA. Often, we call such processes “swivel chair processes,” as they are mundane in nature and generally good candidates for automation. 

CPA CANADA: How might RPA work for data reconciliation?
Let’s suppose you have an employee whose job it is to come into the office at 9 a.m., access a database of the company’s various bank account balances, download opening balances and reconcile them against the transactions that have taken place. And let’s assume that once that reconciliation is complete, the employee saves the reports for those accounts and emails them to their supervisor for review. They perform the same data-reconciliation exercise every morning, evening or week.

With RPA, a bot can be programmed to perform all this work upfront, before the employee gets to work in the morning. The human employee would just need to review the bot’s work and send the reports out once they are satisfied with the automation output.

An important point to note, though, is that this may not entail automation of the entire process, but rather just the most repetitive and well-defined portion. It’s quite possible that other activities would take place after that: for example, a reviewer might have comments or instruct the employee to make a change. Typically, a bot wouldn’t be able to interpret that type of feedback. However, it would have eliminated a large inefficiency in the initial work required.

CPA CANADA: Are RPA bots intelligent?
For the most part, the RPA bots that you see in production today are what may be sometimes referred to as “dumb bots”—in other words, they are not intelligent, but rather just follow a set of predefined instructions. They will do everything they are programmed to do very efficiently and effectively. But they cannot think, reason or pass any type of judgment, and they typically cannot infer or deduce any conclusions based on the information and data to which they have access. 

To return to the previous Excel example: RPA bots are more advanced than Excel scripts, because they can traverse multiple applications and automate a process end to end. But in most cases, simple bots are not as far along on the continuum of intelligent automation as some of the newer cognitive automation solutions that utilize elements such as machine learning and AI to infer outcomes based on the data they are provided. 

CPA CANADA: What are some companies that are active in the RPA space?
There are many companies in the RPA space, all providing different types of services, solutions or products. Some examples of technology companies that provide RPA solutions include Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath.

CPA CANADA: Who writes the rules for RPA bots?
The rules and business logic for the RPA are both generally defined by the business owner of the process that is being automated. Normally they would be the same as those that apply to the manual process. When it comes to writing the code, this would typically be done by a member of the IT department or the RPA Centre of Excellence, which is typically the business function that is responsible for the RPA practice in the organization. It would set the rules for how to select the RPA use cases, manage budgets, oversee the RPA team, etc. While it is possible for business users to write their own bots, it is normally not recommended.

CPA CANADA: How do you install an RPA system?
You would first install the RPA environment (server, development environment and bot runner). Then you would work with an RPA services firm or an internal team to develop the RPA bots that would automate the manual process.

CPA CANADA: Is RPA prone to error?
It can be. For example, an error could surface in the development phase: the logic within the bot might be incorrect or might not take an edge-case scenario into account. This could lead to failure or unexpected behaviour on the part of the bot. Also, the data and/or applications that the bot uses for the automation might be inaccessible, corrupt or prone to changes that the bot cannot interpret, thus causing it to fail. Both of these examples illustrate the critical importance of building in the right level of risk-management controls to ensure appropriate fail-safes and mechanisms for monitoring and/or reviewing the bot’s work. 

CPA CANADA: Is training required to implement and use RPA?
A professional with a technical background (such as a computer programmer) should be able to implement and use RPA with minimal training. But for business users without a technical background, training is usually required at all levels. 


Check out CPA Canada’s technology spotlight on RPA, where you can learn about the benefits and challenges of RPA implementation and find examples of vendors providing RPA solutions. Also plan to attend the National technology forum 2020, which will cover RPA topics.

For an understanding of AI basics, including how RPA and AI differ, check out A CPA’s introduction to AI: From algorithms to deep learning and for more on how RPA can be combined with AI to create cognitive automations in the finance function of the future, see Big Data and Artificial Intelligence —The Future of Accounting and Finance.