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Getting Comfortable with Robotic Process Automation

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has become the new tech buzzword making the rounds. Touted as a major step forward for workplace efficiency, some are saying it is poised to revolutionize workflow by replacing a slew of manual tasks. But what is RPA, and how is it different from existing automation software packages?

To learn more about this emergent technology, the GruntWorx blog interviewed Julie Pierce, the Vice President and General Manager for GruntWorx—a tax automation company that provides software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools for preparers across the United States.

What is Robotic Process Automation?

“Robotic Process Automation is just what it sounds like: using robots—whether hardware- or software-based—to automate a process that would normally require a person,” Pierce said. “When it comes to the finance industry, we’re talking about software that will be used to perform a variety of office work.”

The kind of work RPA is capable of is broad, ranging from things we’re used to programs doing to things that might be surprising. “Sure, RPA can be used to run complex statistical models, but it can also use software that’s installed on your desktop: email clients, Excel, or even your tax preparation software. The possibilities of a highly adaptive efficiency tool are very exciting.”

How would RPA benefit a tax practice?

One important goal of using RPA—or any automation application for that matter—is to eliminate manual tasks that require a large time investment, whether from you or your employees. Great examples from the tax industry would be document organization and data entry, but almost any task that requires someone to use a program to perform is a possibility.

“Consider the benefit of using RPA to compare various investment models while your client sits down for a consultation session. Another possibility? We could see RPA used to manage social media accounts or improve automated customer service platforms.”

Aside from saving time, the next obvious benefit is saving your firm the money that would have been spent on hiring staff to perform those previously manual tasks. Since it can be trained to use existing systems, you save money by not having to replacing all your old software.

How is RPA different from other automation tools?

It’s easy to see existing automation tools and RPA as two sides of the same coin since they both aim to solve the same problem: removing the human component from routine workflow elements. While both types of automation have similar goals, how they get there is pretty different.

“Traditionally, most automation tools are API-integrated programs designed to perform a specific task,” Pierce explained. “They work with existing systems and improve workflow by quickly performing routine tasks. For GruntWorx, that means pulling important data from scanned tax documents to produce searchable, bookmarked PDFs and import-ready files.”

Where RPA differs from existing automation programs is flexibility. Instead of building a program from the ground up to complete one specific task, an RPA performs user-level actions. How that is achieved ranges from directly programming the robot to letting it observe a human user.

“Some RPAs will be designed to only complete one task—similar to existing automation technology—and others come prepackaged with a suite of features that you select after installation,” Pierce said. “When it comes to the record-and-replicate variety of RPAs, you use its interface to turn on the recording function and let someone simply use the programs you want it to learn.”

How should I implement RPA at my firm?

At the Spring Boomer Technology Circle, the presenter warned attendees to temper expectations, which is great advice for anyone looking to implement a developing technology in their firm. “Using a graph tracking how our expectations for new technology fluctuate from inception to launch, the presenter underscored how easy it is to get carried away by hype,” Pierce recalled.

“The reality is that we have to keep a level head, regardless of how promising a technology may seem. In fact, it’s one of the steps GruntWorx recommends to customers interested in trying our products: Manage expectations when building a plan for successful implementation.”

Another issue most firms have to contend with when implementing something like RPA is the resistance to change. Members of your firm—from top to bottom—prefer what’s familiar, and anything that disrupts our comfort zone tends to be viewed with suspicion. To avoid this pitfall, you have to address the problem in two ways that may at first seem contradictory: make it mandatory and build internal support.

“Choose someone at the firm to spearhead the effort and stagger the rollout,” Pierce said. “This ensures there is a strong voice advocating for and training employees in the chosen RPA, and the smaller-scale deployment improves the likelihood that everyone will get on board. Think about the improved educational outcomes that arise from smaller class sizes, and each successfully trained team doubles as an advocating voice.”

Ready to streamline your workflow?

Whether you’re implementing RPA or another type of automation technology, it has been shown that these tools can improve efficiency and reduce overhead. Just as when electronic spreadsheets evolved the accounting industry a few decades ago, automation tools are poised to change the industry.

“While we can’t predict with 100-percent certainty how automation is going to change professional accounting, we can confidently say it will eliminate a host of manual processes,” Pierce said. “And if you’re interested in using tax-automation software, I invite you to go to GruntWorx.com to download a demo today.”