Is the Time to Deploy RPA Always ‘Now’?

At 18 I had a summer job working on a highway construction crew. It was in an area back then known as The Mixing Bowl. Today we just know it as the area on 395 around the Pentagon and Crystal City. It was 1970 and the idea of “internships” was not an even remotely common thing.  And anyway, this was good physical work, the kind I either liked or needed.  I honestly don’t know which.  There were 4 of us on the crew, from 4 different high schools, teenage boys.

We supported a large piece of equipment know as a Gradal (pronounced Grade All). It had a bucket like a backhoe.  But rather than an arm with an elbow, the Gradall would extend and retract the bucket like it was at the end of giant selfie stick. Its job was to smooth out, to grade the ground in preparation for whatever and it did excel at the task. The Gradal was well named, it could grade almost anything.

Our job was to support the Gradal and its operator and, of course, our foreman. Our poor foreman. Looking back, I wonder what he’d done to deserve the task of managing 4 teenage boys. We’d drive the small dump truck the half mile away to a common debris location, usually getting food or coffee for our foreman and the operator on the way back.  Sometimes we might move some lumber around or clean the Gradal. Sometimes we’d direct traffic on 395 (then known as 95) around the Gradal. A teenage boy with the power of a flag.  Those were some heady times.

Being fine Virginia soil, it was loaded with rock. Anything the size of a baseball or larger had to be removed. The Gradal, for as huge as it was, was remarkably dexterous in the hands of a skilled operator.  Ours was a savant of some sort who could pick dozens out of the ground deftly, dropping them quickly in small piles for us to consolidate.

One Monday we reported for work and our Gradal wasn’t there. It had been loaned out for the week to a team working on a different part of the highway and we hadn’t been invited. Before the Gradal had left, however, it created a veritable mountain of rock ranging in size from 4 inches to a foot and a half.  Unfortunately, the Gradal had created the mountain in a place that was very much in the way of something.  I was not part of senior management and no one ever bothered to clue us in on any plans for anything. But the mountain was clearly in the way.

Our very important job was to move the mountain about 50 yards away to a place where it wouldn’t interfere with whatever phase was next. So with our wheelbarrows and teenage boy sensibilities we joked and hefted and over the next 5 days moved the mountain out of the way. A week’s work done, a paycheck hard earned.

The following Monday we showed up for work and our Gradall was still was not back. Clearly the other crew did not know how to properly support our Gradal. But what would they have us do now?  Was this a promotion opportunity, a chance to try a different job?  Not likely. 

Now the more clever among you may already see where this is going. Yes, our new job was to move the mountain of rock back to where it had originally been. It was a

Q: What are we going to do with the 4 boys?
A: Have them move a pile of rocks.

type of management decision.

It was a mindless task for mindless teenage boys.  Professional adults who are trying to define the path of a modern career, manage families, pay the bills, and just figure out their way to a successful life don’t do well with being expected to endlessly perform mindless tasks.

All research in this area universally shows the same thing. Rote tasks drive mental fatigue far faster than a higher load of mentally challenging work. And a fatigued mind loses focus, drifts, becomes less and less productive over any given period of time and suffers an increase in human error.

A list of roles that have an abundance of rote tasks should include:

  • Compliance related tasks with their endless documentations and filings. (They’re endless)
  • Human Resources is a massively administrative role in any modern enterprise environment and much of the work – be it responsive, filing, information/data transfer or the ever necessary research – is repetitive
  • Contracting Offices are buried in repetitive minutia at a time when they are as well buried under the weight of contracts that need to be defined, awarded, reviewed, managed and wound down.
  • Deputies to senior management are capable of so much more if they can be freed of the repetitive tasks that waste their time and talent.
  • Most anyone who spends all day on a computer is doing tasks that the computer can and should be doing on its own. That’s everyone one from the most junior person in an organization to the CEO or Secretary.  In fact, the further down the chain of command the more opportunity for RPA value exists.
  • This list could go on to cover an additional 40 pages or so.

Computers crept slowly into the enterprise business and government worlds.  From Charles Babbage’s “Difference Machine” in the early 19th century to the first real computer, the “Tabulating Machine” invented by Herman Hollerith, large organizations caught in the midst of in a rapidly growing world fueled by the Industrial Revolution desperately needed help in managing this never before encountered volume of data. Indeed, in one of the very first uses of a computer Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine was used by the U.S. Government in the 1890 census. It was mechanical in nature, had a very crude sort of “memory”.  (Interestingly, he, with the company he founded, went on to become part of the very beginning of IBM.) Electrical computing with vacuum tubes arrived post World War One and by the end of World War Two the basis of the modern computer was well established. 

Computers then were marvelous. They freed the power of data and lifted workers out of the endless tedium of calculation, tabulation and mathematical organization of information.

The first transistor/microprocessor driven “Personal Computer”, the Altair by MITS, arrived in 1972. It wasn’t until the early ‘80’s that the PC began to truly invade the workplace.  However, unlike the liberating nature of the very first forays of humanity into computers, the PC brought with it the capability to deliver repetitiveness of tasking on a unique scale. The sheer volume of information and related tasks that could be collected, organized, disseminated and filed away by a single person in a single day was without precedent. No need for Wite-Out to correct mistakes, just select and correct. Text could be copy/pasted and the result was that workers were expected to be able to produce more and more.

RPA is the first innovation since the PC became integrated into the modern business world that genuinely uses the computer to automate the mundane, rather than create more mundane tasks. Nearly any repetitive task that a person can do on a computer an RPA “bot” will do faster, more reliably and more accurately.

But that is at the personal level.  Robotic Process Automation is so much more powerful than just that.  RPA can rapidly chew through siloed data in disparate, incompatible repositories and integrate it into a cohesive easily managed, easily accessed database.  In the process, RPA can simultaneously clean up data and unscramble the spaghetti data architecture that evolved piecemeal over years and decades of add-on projects.  Rather than deploying a team of DBA’s and data analysts to plow through the morass, an organization should build RPA bots to perform the same task.  The bots will work 24/7 at the speed of electricity, they will be tireless and relentlessly accurate and thorough.

And maybe most importantly RPA rapidly prepares an organization for the integration of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.  When the PC came to the business world in the late 70’s-early 80’s it was new and, as usual, many couldn’t see the value or the need.  Some organizations adopted quickly and some resisted the change.  Some managers and leaders saw the power of the computer and brought that might into their organizations and some missed it. Organizations that held onto the past were actually held back by it.  Organizations that moved forward – and the people who led that – advanced at a rapid rate leaving the others to play the long game of catch up.

Pick up a rock, put it in the wheelbarrow. Pick up another and repeat until the wheelbarrow is full then transfer the contents to another location, dump, return, repeat. Too often junior administrative people up to the boss of the bosses are at some point in their day or week loading a wheelbarrow, moving the contents to another location, returning, repeating.  Whether it’s data or rocks, a wheelbarrow or a file or a database, it’s rote, it’s mindless. The Gradall would have moved the mountain in 20 minutes. We collectively took 160 hours to perform the same task.  There are a lot of information mountains that need to be moved by RPA.

The truly amazing thing about RPA, beyond all of this capability, is how light the lift is. In the hands of a skilled programmer an effective and impactful RPA bot can be built in days, a week or 2 at the most. Add in pre-architecture analysis time and often in less than a month multiple bots can be up and running a delivering powerful value. RPA represent an ROI that has never before been seen in information technology.

So, the answer to the question, “Is the time to deploy RPA always ‘now’?” is most emphatically, “Yes”!