roomba, pile up of spools of thread and cat
PHOTO: Quinn Dombrowski

The way robotic automation is revolutionizing work is truly amazing.

I’m talking, of course, about the robot vacuum, Roomba. 

You probably thought I was going to say robotic process automation (RPA). While RPA is also pretty remarkable, I want to talk about the robot vacuums first. Because, believe it or not, I think both RPA and content management vendors can learn a thing or two if they listen closely to what all those vacuum robots are saying. 

You'll Never Need to Work Again ...

First, read what robot vacuum authoritative source The Best Robot Vacuums of 2018 (yes, I do my research) has to say about the future of vacuuming: "Vacuums have come a long way. You no longer have to suffer the indignity of dragging around an unwieldy plastic hose connected to a clumsy, wheeled canister the size of a Galapagos tortoise. In fact, you don't even need to get off of the couch. Though it still feels like a relatively new product category, there are several good robot vacuums available to help you dispose of dust, pet hair, and other debris in your home — without needing to lift a finger."

And now here’s Investopedia on the future of RPA: "Robotic process automation (RPA) refers to software that can be easily programmed to do basic tasks across applications just as human workers do. The software robot can be taught a workflow with multiple steps and applications, such as taking received forms, sending a receipt message, checking the form for completeness, filing the form in a folder and updating a spreadsheet with the name of the form, the date filed, and so on. RPA software is designed to reduce the burden of repetitive, simple tasks on employees."

Well, all that sounds pretty damn good. Time for me to put my feet up (so they don’t get run over by the Roomba), and have my RPA agent file this story, archive it in my "published" folder and mark it off of my to-do list. 

Related Article: Busting 8 Robotic Process Automation Myths

Trouble in Automation Paradise

But sometimes things that sound too good to be true are too good to be true. Things start to break down in robot vacuuming land when unexpected inputs rear their heads, such as:

  • Stairs or high door jambs.
  • Too many “flooring exceptions” (i.e., height and texture differences between tile, wood, and low pile and high pile rugs that systems can perceive as ledges to avoid).
  • Too many coffee table and chair legs that create a pinball effect.
  • Or if your mother-in-law just called and is coming over in five minutes and you definitely can’t wait for your Roomba to complete its 90 minute cycle.
  • Or if you have a less than perfect dog (I will leave it to you to Google “Roomba and dog” if you want more information).

Miraculous, yes. Perfect, no.

RPA can also do so many miraculous things.  Again, consider just a few from Investopedia: "RPA works like a digital assistant for workers by clearing the onerous, simple tasks that eat up part of every office worker’s day. As such, RPA is a simpler product than an artificial intelligence-driven system or enterprise software that seeks to bring all data inside the platform. This also makes it a relatively cheaper product than AI or enterprise software. This simplicity and relative cheapness can make RPA a more attractive solution for many companies, particularly if the company has legacy systems and applications. Robotic process automation is designed to play nice with most legacy systems and applications, making it easier to implement compared to other enterprise automation solutions."

Before we get too far, it strikes me that for many organizations, unstructured information — aka “content” — has the potential to be the stairs, high pile rugs, and chair legs of their RPA implementations, creating exceptions and bottlenecks that just don’t have to be there with a little planning.

RPA technologies alone do a terrific job with very modest effort at automating human tasks based on structured documents and data. But when it comes to tasks that rely on semi-structured documents (such as invoices) or unstructured documents (such as a contract) or informal communications (think emails or texts), a set of intelligent information management technologies — particularly content automation, recognition and extraction — can be a terrific addition to RPA capabilities. These technologies are well known to the capture community, but somewhat of a mystery to the data community. And that creates a huge opportunity for those in the capture and content community.

Related Article: Is Robotic Process Automation Finally Here?

An Opportunity for the Content World

RPA is a huge potential wave to ride, much bigger than enterprise content management. But this revolution will not happen by expecting RPA vendors to adopt the ways and customs and language of the “Content World.” It won’t happen by focusing on selling RPA capabilities to content people. It’s going to happen the other way around.

To be successful, capture and content vendors need to vastly simplify their offerings so they can be consumed in the relatively simple user interface in which RPA capabilities are typically delivered to the end user. Content-centric information professionals need to speak the language and understand the terms of engagement used by the data and process professionals in the RPA community.

The jury is out on which vendors and end users will be able to do this. But the opportunity for those who do so is huge.

Now, if only I could get my hands on a robotic lawn mower ....