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Software bots start taking over finance work in Arizona

Software bots are being used in Arizona to help with some routine finance operations. These systems follow scripts to complete repetitive work, freeing employees for other work.

The state of Arizona is using software bots to process some financial records. This is a new technology for the state, and it's deploying it gradually in pilots. This approach has meant getting comfortable with the technology and with the idea that software bots work just like people -- except faster.

The software bots follow the exact same process as a human with Arizona's financial processes. They need credentials to log on to the ERP system, and then they click on pages, check records and make changes when needed. They aren't cognitive -- in other words, the bots don't have the ability to suggest new answers or processes using AI. Instead, they follow a script and are intended to free humans of drudge work.

Creating Arizona's software bots was not difficult or expensive. To build a software bot, a developer follows the employee as he or she executes a particular task -- click by click and keystroke by keystroke. This shadowing includes navigation to each screen in the order followed by the human. The developer turns these actions into an exact script. Once the software bot completes its job, it sends an email with a report on its effort.

Software robots aren't after human jobs

The humans who are turning over some of their work to software bots aren't worried about job security, said Clark Partridge, state comptroller for Arizona.

We're not trying to eliminate your job and put you on the unemployment line.
Clark PartridgeComptroller, state of Arizona

"We're not trying to eliminate your job and put you on the unemployment line," Partridge said in an interview. The software bots take tedious work and give the employees the opportunity to do more important, interesting and valuable duties, he said.

"They love it," Partridge said. "A lot of the employees, especially those coming out of school, are looking for opportunities to be able to leverage technology."

For instance, one software bot pilot works on a travel expense module. The bot looks for differences in the records, such as a change in supervisor or email, and then updates the relevant systems to keep the workflow current. This task took an employee up to 90 minutes each day to complete, but a bot finishes it in 10 to 20 minutes. This is one of a number of pilots in progress in the state, and more ambitious projects are planned.

Robotic process automation (RPA), as this technology is called, is beginning to get broader adoption among midsize firms as the cost of deployment declines, analysts have said. The U.S. Treasury Department is also running an RPA pilot.

Although Arizona did not detail the cost, Partridge said cost wasn't an obstacle. Forrester Research has put deployment cost at about $30,000 to build a bot for a process. It takes about two weeks to write the script, with testing to follow, Partridge said.

The state's vendor is Information Services Group (ISG), an IT services firm, which began working late last year with the state.

Bots aren't people, which is a problem

The first thing ISG had to do was to establish the software as a user of the system and give it access to a virtual desktop computer. That included getting the bot security access to functions it needed. It takes a new way of thinking by users, said Nathan Frey, partner at ISG Public Sector.

For example, unlike a person, the software bot isn't part of any particular department, group, Active Directory or anything else that might be used to establish a new worker, Frey said.

"How do I establish a worker in the system that doesn't have a Social Security number? They don't have a physical address," Frey said. With a robot worker, "you have to cross new barriers."

The software bot can be observed working with a screen view, but it works so fast -- clicking, moving from screen to screen, copying and pasting -- that it's hard to follow, Frey said. It can operate at a speed that's about five to 10 times faster than a human, he said.

Partridge said that "one of the great advantages" of RPA technology is it isn't intrusive to other systems. "You don't have to write a bunch of interfaces between systems and create these whole new processes. It does essentially the same things that people do," he said.

Arizona's production deployments have been small so far. But larger projects are being considered. One may involve a cash reconciliation process that currently ties up two to three people.

An improvement Partridge would like to see in software robots is their ability to use optical character recognition to read invoices.

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