The adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) technologies in business and management areas of the Defense Department (DoD) is “catching fire,” and RPA is firming up to become a gateway for the use of more sophisticated technologies such as artificial intelligence, a DoD official said on Oct. 26 at an online event organized by FCW.

“RPA is catching fire is or has already caught fire, frankly, across the Federal government across all the business areas,” said Erica Thomas, director of digital transformation and FM IT portfolio management and RPA program manager, in the DoD’s Comptroller office.

“I think it’s a great story and I expect to see that continue to grow,” Thomas said. “It really is providing viable, quick solutions to help reform the way that we do business and maximize productivity.”

RPA Development Continuum

As the RPA maturation process continues, Thomas emphasized that RPA is a “gateway technology” to further tech deployments that get into further intelligent automation.

Thomas explained details of her office’s “automation continuum” that started with writing scripts and macros for separate software applications and then proceeded to embrace RPA technologies over the past four years. She described RPA in general as allowing automation of repetitive, rules-based tasks “at the user interface level across multiple systems and multiple applications.”

RPA, she said, “really is a game-changer when you’re comparing it to something like macros and scripting on the continuum.”

“Next you have some more advanced intelligent automation tools like natural language processing and machine learning, and this is where you start to get into unstructured data,” she continued, adding, “you’re really looking at data – maybe it’s free text, maybe it’s images – some other things like that where you’re using some … more advanced technology, so that you can make data-informed suggestions to the human operator or even predictive analysis.

That phase of automation, Thomas said, “is kind of the in-between phase of what I consider between RPA and the ultimate one – which is artificial intelligence.”

“With artificial intelligence, this is where you really get into the bigger datasets, the more complex decision making,” she said. “That’s using analytics, it’s using algorithms, it’s using statistical analysis to identify patterns that improve over time [and are] self-managing, and you’re really getting into more of those decision-based automations.”

Deployment Pace Picking Up

Thomas said that while DoD has been using advanced technologies in the warfighting space for years, it’s only been in recent years that portions of DoD that are more concerned with management – like the comptroller’s office – have taken up the pursuit of RPA.

“In recent years, we’ve been really excited to hear about how can we start using this type of technology in our functional business areas like financial management and procurement,” she said, “to see how can this technology help improve our business processes along with, frankly, the work life of our people that support the organization.”

“A few years ago, in DoD, and frankly, across the Federal space, I think there were a handful of groups that were seriously adopting RPA, and today there are dozens of agencies that are much [further along] with maturing RPA programs,” and are beginning to look beyond RPA and toward AI.

As of three years ago, “there were maybe five groups in DoD that I could reach out and talk to” about RPA, she said, but there are “a lot of different organizations now in DoD that have RPA programs that are maturing [and] that have a pretty decent number of automations that have been deployed.”

“RPA is really catching fire in DoD,” Thomas said, with adoption spanning many different business areas, including financial management. “We’re starting to see automation touch almost all of our functional business lines, which is amazing, and on a consistent basis. Among an internal DoD RPA consortium that compiles quarterly data on deployments, “we usually see at least a 15 percent increase in the number of automations deployed.”

“So we’re seeing steady growth, steady movement inside DoD, and I wager to say that we’re also seeing that in the Federal space as well. RPA really has taken off,” she said.  “DoD has been a really good success story, and it’s still catching fire.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.