What is Robotic Process Automation?

As an emerging technology, RPA has consistently been in recent news for its impact on transforming a broad spectrum of industries, such as telecommunications, federal loan processing, and even law firms and healthcare. But what exactly is RPA and how is it helping us in so many different areas? We talked with BRMI Technology Senior Director Trevor Brown—who also teaches our RPA class—to find out.


Trevor Brown



Trevor Brown
Senior Director, BRMI Technology

JMU X-Labs: A lot of people hear the term “Robotic Process Automation” or “RPA” and think there are robots involved. Can you tell us what RPA is so that people have a context?

Trevor: RPA or Robotic Process Automation is technology using software that mimics the actions of humans. The term Robotic or Robots can be misleading as folks seem to believe there’s an actual physical robot involved. To simplify, a Robot is an executable on a workstation that performs actions that you have taught it to perform. These actions are typically light on the cognitive side but the capacity to incorporate higher levels of cognitive abilities is expanding at an accelerating pace.

JMU X-Labs: RPA seems to get a lot of attention in the technology arena as a panacea for many things and at the same time it’s panned as an insignificant trend. How do you think it should be identified or characterized?

Trevor: Great question. RPA is one part of the puzzle that can have a real impact on business. We like to group these technologies as intelligent automation technologies which also encompasses Machine Learning and other forms of Artificial Intelligence. My opinion is these groupings of technologies are groundbreaking in terms of impact to the business and will have significant growth over the next 5 years.

But back to your panacea of many things—people will continue to be at the center of business-related decision making and will utilize these tools to deliver more efficiently and most importantly the use of these tools will free up time from the routine to provide more value-driven work.

My opinion is these groupings of technologies are groundbreaking in terms of impact to the business and will have significant growth over the next 5 years.

Trevor Brown Senior Director, BRMI Technology

JMU X-Labs: We’ve offered the RPA class a few times now—what would you say draws students to the course and RPA as a platform?

Trevor: This course can be an extension of the major course requirements for so many students. Yes, I do believe students hear the description “Robotic” and think they will learn to program robotic dogs or something but the reality is most of the students come to the class with an IT centric Business Acumen or Computer Science background and see this as another opportunity to apply technology to their IT acumen.

JMU X-Labs: Can you give us some examples of projects that students have worked on? Are any of them particularly interesting to you?

Trevor: So let’s extend the first question you asked about RPA in general. If RPA is software we teach to perform normal repetitive tasks, it’s fairly easy to think about the use case opportunities. What do students do over and over? For example, every semester they have to plan for the next and build a course load that meets their requirements. There’s some research that has to be done, attributes of a class have to be evaluated and a course load defined. This is time consuming and why wouldn’t you apply some automation to this task? We can develop BOTS that take input of a typical class load, define some requirements and let the BOT do all the work.

Another great example was the REC center class scheduling portal. Finding a class of interest and signing up for that class was first-in first-out policy right? Well again using a BOT to search for classes based on criteria can easily be handled by a BOT. The fact is anything you can do that is repetitive and uses underlying systems for research and downstream processing can be handled by a robot. In business we see many stove-piped processes that are done over and over that have business value but not necessarily for the worker. Employees are driven by thinking and being creative. We get bogged down in the process and not the end results. Let’s develop BOTS that can augment our work so we can be challenged in different ways.

JMU X-Labs: This semester we got a lot of interest from an industry representative that was very interested in undergraduates with RPA experience. From what we’ve heard, they think we’re the (or at least one of very few) universities offering RPA as an elective. What have they been interested in and how are students responding?

Trevor: The fact is industry will covet students coming out with this experience. It will continue to be an integral skill that is utilized across most business areas. I don’t identify this skill as an IT-heavy skill but more as a business-driven skill. The fact is these platforms today are the next generation of software that we identify as low or no code development. So you’re using your foundation of solving business problems with an IT focus. The democratization of these platforms allow a fairly low barrier to get up to speed. Most of the students I have encountered have already participated in big industry internships and they hear about these technologies through various means. Companies that are aggressive in strategy will want to see these skills as a baseline of acumen. In terms of the class we know it’s a special opportunity to have this class at JMU. It’s a proven model that we hope can be expanded within any university course selection.

JMU X-Labs: What’s next in RPA? Should we develop a course sequence so that students learn the basics and then a more advanced applications course? Maybe integrate the applications course with one of our other problem-based courses and see what students can develop to solve real world problems?

Trevor: As I mentioned earlier RPA is a stepping stone. Of course you have to learn the basics but this is an emerging technology that will move very quickly into other forms of intelligent automation. I see various classes that extend the foundation into applying more cognitive ways of performing tasks. A dedicated class in applying RPA would be great as well as introductions into Machine Learning, Chat BOTS and other AI forms all using the same RPA platforms well within the future.

Posted October 27, 2020

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