Why we should keep the R in RPA

Lately, respected industry experts have made the case for why we should drop the word ‘Robotic’ in ‘Robotic Process Automation’. The term RPA – not the technology – is under attack, because ‘robotic’ would be an inadequate term. Well, I disagree.

Oh, I do agree that ‘robotic’ is somewhat confusing. About a year ago, I had a conversation with a Belgian executive, who was interested to see some RPA demos and asked me how I was going to transport the ‘robot’ from our production facility to his office. So indeed, when you introduce people to RPA, you often start by explaining that it has nothing to do with metal, clunky machines: it’s ‘virtual’ robots. But still, I believe RPA is a suitable name and shouldn’t be altered.

The concept of a ‘virtual robot’ grabs the audience’s attention, it sticks in their mind and above all, it’s in line with what RPA essentially stands for.

I think there are a few key differentiators of RPA:

  • RPA has the ability to automate through the front end of applications. This is where the concept of a robot or ‘virtual worker’ comes in. You can imagine a robot ‘seeing’ the user interface of applications and emulating the actions of its human colleagues: logging in, filling out forms, choosing from dropdown menus and navigating through tabs and screens. Of course, RPA robots can also automate the back end of applications, by interfacing through API’s if they are available. But the ability to resort to UI automation dramatically broadens the applicability of RPA because for many companies, applications with high quality, affordable API’s are today still the exception rather than the rule.
  • RPA allows to perform processes in an attended way and the concept of a virtual robot or assistant supports the notion of human-robot interaction. Again, this feature greatly broadens the applicability of RPA, because it means you are not restricted to 100% automatable processes. With the right RPA tool, you can automate (sub)tasks and let the ‘robot’ interact with its human colleagues whenever it needs user input along the way. Indeed: RPA is about augmenting people rather than replacing them.
  • RPA can be seen as a central automation platform that can handle use cases for a variety of functions within one company (e.g. finance, HR, IT, operations, logistics, etc). RPA enables companies to put the lid on the endless proliferation of new specialized automated tools that are operating like islands in a company’s ever widening IT landscape (e.g. payroll automation, expense claim automation, …). RPA allows to create one single platform where a wide variety of automations, including Artificial Intelligence skills, can be managed and scaled centrally, in a coordinated way. What does this have to do with the term ‘robot’? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘a robot is a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.

In short: I feel the word ‘robotic’ is right where it belongs in Robotic Process Automation. Let’s keep the R in RPA.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Would that which we call a Robot, by any other name smell as sweet?