How Cognitive Automation Differs from RPA


Automation in the workplace is the hottest business trend since remote working and meetings carried out via Zoom. Automation makes a lot of sense: In an age of smart technology, it should be possible to hand over certain tasks to machines to carry out. This can increase the speed they’re performed and reduce potential errors while also freeing up your human workforce to focus on more creatively stimulating valuable tasks.

Two of the terms doing the rounds are Robotic Process Automation or RPA and Cognitive Automation when it comes to automation. What is RPA, and what is Cognitive Automation is not always a clear divide. The best way to think about RPA and Cognitive Automation is not as two separate technologies competing against one another — like VHS vs Betamax, Xbox vs PlayStation, or Mac vs PC — but as two ends of the same automation spectrum.

RPA automates mundane tasks

RPA is based around automating mundane, repetitive tasks, which every business — no matter how interesting — has to carry out at times. These are bots that have been created to handle step-by-step, usually high volume tasks — such as data migration and entry from one system to another. While the data they are dealing with (for example, the names on a spreadsheet being migrated to another program) may change, the fundamental way that the task is carried out does not. It will follow the same steps on day 100 as it does on day one.

RPA tasks are not, and never will be, the big value-adds that, carried out by a person, would command massive salaries and out-of-the-box thinking. Rather, they’re the mundane, rule-based processes that, once automated, allow users to instead dedicate more of their time to higher-value work.

Cognitive automation harnesses AI

Cognitive Automation, meanwhile, is a term that’s widely used for RPA solutions and tools which deal with tasks that we might ascribe higher levels of intelligence and quick-thinking to were they to be carried out by a person. The difference comes down to the technologies that make this possible and, typically, the jobs’ scope in question. RPA is all about using structured data to carry out monotonous, repetitive tasks with high accuracy and precision. Cognitive Automation deals with greater variability and requires continuous learning and may vary depending on context.

To help it do this, it leverages technology currently being used in artificial intelligence and machine learning to help work with more complicated and unstructured data. Some of these technologies might include Natural Language Processing (NLP), Optical Character Recognition (OCR), text-based analytics, sentiment analysis, voice recognition, data mining, and more. Compared to the rule-based RPA, Cognitive Automation is knowledge-based.

Which is better?

The processes it carries out don’t just involve blindly following a set of rules and reasoning and learning from both successes and failures. It is also far better at handling the “edge case” exceptions that might confuse traditional RPA. For instance, missing information on a form or even something as simple as a date entered in the wrong format may prompt a routine RPA tool to hand that case over to a person to deal with. Cognitive Automation, while not a replacement for humans in every scenario, is nonetheless able to deal effectively with more of these challenging scenarios.

Asking which is better out of RPA and Cognitive Automation is not necessarily the right question. It’s a bit like asking who your next human hire should be: A lot will depend on the problem you need to solve at that moment.

For many companies, the right answer is to try basic RPA tools first to handle the volume and free up time and headspace for human workers by automating tedious tasks. After this, you may add more cognitive automation solutions to handle additionally complex tasks. Cognitive Automation allows enterprises to automate a greater number of their less rule-based, more complex tasks.

Start with the problem.

As Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said, the best move is rarely to start with technology you want to implement and figure out where best it goes. Instead, it’s, to begin with, the user experience and identify the pain points technology can help. By working with RPA and Cognitive Automation experts, you can figure out the best possible combination of the two to aid your business. This is something an experienced vendor should be able to help advise you on.

Over time, RPA and other automation tools will become adept at tackling a wide range of workplace tasks. This change is already taking place. If you’ve not investigated the possibility of automating certain processes for a couple of years, it’s therefore worth checking to see whether the technology that would be needed for this has advanced in the time since you last looked.

After all, there’s a whole lot to be gained — whether it’s behind-the-scenes processes or customer-facing user experiences. That goes for both regular RPA and Cognitive Automation.

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