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Looking to the next stage of the RPA evolution


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Industry voice: Robotic process automation is ripe for being combined with cognitive technologies, writes NDL Software’s commercial manager Tom Wright

Some people see the growth of robotic process automation (RPA) as a revolution; but it is in fact the result of a long term evolution, and one from which the public sector has obtained its share of benefits.

We’re on the cusp of a significant stage in this evolution, as the pioneers prepare to combine RPA with the cognitive services offered by artificial intelligence. This is going to take the public sector into the realms of intelligent automation.

NDL Software has been heavily involved in this evolution over the past 35 years, from the early days of terminal emulation – making a computer appear as if it is a terminal for a mainframe – to screen scraping then RPA. It has helped to identify the main processes for the technology in the public sector, exploiting its capacity to handle simple, high volume processes at a speed and with a degree of accuracy above what humans can achieve.

These include: data integration; the synchronisation of systems holding common data for purposes such as creating a customer record; extracting data from one system to pass to another organisation; and most importantly the automation of mundane processes. The latter has found ‘sweet spots’ such as in finance systems, speeding up routine tasks while taking out the potential for error – a massive benefit when receiving or making payments.

Medway savings

A couple of examples of its success were presented at the recent UKAuthority Bots4Good event. Delegates learned how Medway District Council applied RPA to a big change in its revenues and benefits operation, helping to transfer data from scans of 6 million documents into a new system.

It saved the council hundreds of thousands of pounds, supported the adoption of a new document imaging system, and convinced its business leaders that there is scope to use the technology more widely. Medway’s business change team has now been looking at how RPA could be deployed in other council operations.

Housing 21, a not-for-profit provider or retirement housing, has used NDL Software’s SX tool to automate the input of data, via the front end system, into key business systems that did not have suitable interfaces or APIs. It began with a proof of concept on raising purchase orders then found it could be extended into processes where it had not foreseen a use.

Among the lessons to emerge from Housing 21 was that it is necessary to fully understand the business process earmarked for automation, start with something relatively simple, and that following the processes of ITIL v4 for service management can provide strong guiding principles in an RPA deployment.

An important point in the success of these projects was that they were using a proven technology, for which the scalability and functionality has steadily increased, building on the existing strengths to meet new challenges.

Cognitive services

The progress is continuing as RPA evolves into intelligent automation, bringing it together with the cognitive services that are emerging across the digital spectrum, including chatbots, image recognition and voice recognition. NDL Software has been developing ways to harness these cognitive services at the front end, where an organisation interacts with the public, and convert the data into a format in which it can be moved into back end systems, potentially including important applications.

The effort is not restricted to a select group of providers or types of service – it works on an open architecture that can be applied across a wide range of artificial intelligence applications. This provides the scope for organisations to be flexible in how they adopt AI, make their own choices of vendors and seek to integrate the operations into their existing digital estate.

NDL’s SX platform provides a foundation for this, which makes it possible to train software robots to take on the mundane tasks, creating as many as needed to get through large volume jobs in a short time. It can create APIs and web services for systems that do not have them, and reinforce data protection by extracting only the necessary details for a process. The robots operate in a secure environment visible only to authorised managers and produce detailed audit trails to satisfy all governance requirements.

Other important factors are that NDL supports the platform internally, responding quickly to user issues and ensuring that it remains robust and reliable, and provides accompanying technologies for purposes such as building mobile apps and e-forms. These give an organisation even greater flexibility in tailoring the RPA to its specific challenges.

In addition, NDL is a public sector specialist, having worked with local authorities, NHS organisations, housing bodies, police forces and universities. It understands the priorities of and demands on such organisations, and has experience of integrating SX with most back office applications in the sector.

The evolution of RPA into intelligent automation is opening up immense possibilities for the public sector, and promises to play a big role as organisations look to make themselves more efficient and harness the full power of digital in their services. It is based on handling the mundane, but it is also a source of great excitement.


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