Why Robotic Process Automation is Nothing New

April 28, 2017 | News
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Why Robotic Process Automation is Nothing New

Here’s some clichéd opening statements for you: “In today’s fast-paced economy”….”In this digital age”….”In this modern world of computing”..  I could go on.  But I’m not going to.  Instead I’m going to share with you why I think that the industry that I’m deeply invested in, that I think is going to change the future of the workforce, is nothing new.

A Storm in a Tea Shop

I was prompted to think about this by a programme I happened to come across on Radio 4 (I can’t always listen to Radio 1Xtra you know….) which I thought was initially about how J Lyons & Co disrupted the tea shop industry by introducing hygiene and waitresses, but in actual fact was about the world’s first business computer.  Thanks to the success of its business model, Lyons was having a bit of an admin challenge.  With hundreds of orders being taken daily, and thousands of items being distributed across the country to serve its thirsty customers, the 300 administrative clerks it employed were having a job keeping their ledgers up to date.  Business was booming but with millions of receipts to handle each week, the administrative function could not scale.

In Search of Compute Power

Given that Lyons was a forward-thinking business, it sent two members of its leadership team; Raymond Thompson and Oliver Standingford, to America to learn more about the business and computing methods developed as a result of the Second World War.  Whilst there, they met the scientist and mathematician Herman Goldstine who told them to go home.  Or more specifically to head to Cambridge University and request a meeting with Douglas Hartree and Maurice Wilkes – two mathematicians who were developing a computer that might just be able to help.

A Private / Public Sector Partnership

It turned out that Goldstine was right.  Hartree and Wilkes were well underway with a project to create the ‘EDSAC’ but due to a lack of funding it wouldn’t be completed for another 18-24 months.  Lyons were time poor and Cambridge University were cash poor so a deal was done.  Lyons agreed to fund the project to the tune of £3k in return for the team to turn their attention to solving Lyons’ business problem.

Predicting the Future

To cut a long story short, the project was a success and the outcome was the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) – the world’s first computer to run a business application.  That was nearly 70 years ago.  This feat is impressive in itself – it reminds us that we are not the first to think about using technology to solve the problems inherent with using people to carry out data intensive tasks.  What really struck home for me though, was the recording featured in the programme where a former manager at Lyons; John Simmons, recalls his first impression of witnessing those 300 clerks trying to manage what must have felt like a never-ending task:

“It was a dead and alive job that cried out for some kind of automatic machine to take over this work which was not fit for human beings to undertake.” 

It’s a quote that could have been written yesterday.  It’s the reason why Thoughtonomy exists.  And it’s why Robotic Process Automation is nothing new.

If you want to listen to the story of Lyon’s Electronic Office, head to the 15 minute mark on this podcast:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08h0g50

Thoughtonomy’s Robotic Process Automation and Virtual Workforce can free people up to do more gratifying work click here.  To discuss what difference Robotic Process Automation could make to your business, get in touch.

Dean Chapman, Commercial Director 

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