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What Is RPA in HR?

Digital product leader Tim Pröhm chats with us about RPA and its growing role in TA.

Phil Strazzulla
HR Tech Expert, Harvard MBA, Software Enthusiast
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According to Forrester, the market for robotic process automation technology will grow to $2.9 billion in 2021. That’s a big jump from the $250 million evaluation they estimated in 2016. So what does RPA expert Tim Pröhm recommend that your talent acquisition team do? “Don’t wait, the time is now.” 

Tim is the Vice President of Digital Product Development at KellyOCG, the leading global advisor of talent supply chain strategies and workforce solutions. It’s his job to pay attention to rising tech trends and how they relate to new digital products in TA and HR. “[Robotic process automation] will be a competitive differentiator for every talent acquisition organization in the future,” he urges. “If you’re still relying on your clunky ATS and a subpar experience, you’re going to struggle.”

We recently had a chance to chat with Tim about his experience as a digital product leader and how RPA is changing the way TA teams operate. Check out the full interview here and a transcript of the conversation below.

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First thing’s first, what is “robotic process automation?” (9:55)

“Robotic process automation is technology that mimics the behavior of a human and conducts repetitive manual tasks on behalf of the person,” Tim shares. It’s a subset of the greater whole of talent acquisition automation, which includes other operations such as cognitive automation as seen in HR chatbots.

It’s important to have consistent, streamlined, and mistake-free processes when it comes to high volume repetitive tasks, such as entering candidate data into an Excel spreadsheet. RPA does that work for you. In return, TA teams get valuable time and effort back that can be put into human tasks such as talking to candidates.

What are some concrete use cases for RPA? (11:20)

“Let’s imagine you have somebody sitting in an office that receives emails from customers with orders,” Tim starts. “The customer sends an Excel spreadsheet as an attachment to the email. So the worker opens Outlook, opens the email, doubles clicks the attachment, copies cells A14 to A27, switches to SAP or PeopleSoft, opens another window, [and] starts to copy and paste specific values into that window of the other application.”  

Sounds like a lot of steps for a small task, no? Workers toggle between apps 10 times per hour, adding up to over a month of lost productivity per year, according to research by RingCentral

The same problem exists in talent acquisition. In a situation comparable to the above example, recruiters receiving background or reference checks often have to follow the same tedious process. They receive documents via email, download them, copy the necessary information, and finally paste it into another system, likely switching between multiple systems in the process. 

Among other things, robotic process automation tools get those apps to talk to each other in order to streamline the process and free up huge chunks of time. Recruiters are then able to focus on the human interaction part of the job, which is likely why they became recruiters in the first place.

But don’t vendor integrations already fill that use case? Why use RPA instead? (14:00)

Software vendors always talk about integrations and open APIs, but when you look into it, it's not so easy. It’s a lengthy process that can take up 6 to 9 months for pre-existing integrations and longer for anything customized. 

Robotic process automation platforms make it simple because you don’t even need to connect your systems in through APIs or integrations. Tim likens it to the functionality of a remote IT service desk: “Let’s imagine you have a problem on your computer. Somebody says, ‘Let me hook myself into your computer.’ The IT service desk can take over your computer, they take over your mouse. They can perform any kind of task in a remote fashion. That’s basically how RPA works!” 

You define what the system needs to do, the robot gets access to the system, and the robot completes the task. Much easier and faster than creating a whole new API to handle one or two custom integrations.

Source: UI Path Media Kit

The wheels in my head are starting to turn. What are some examples of RPA in action? (16:10)


There are many great employee onboarding systems out there. Yet Tim recognizes that it's still a grueling, manual task. To complicate things further, onboarding sits on the interface of TA and HR, using bits and pieces of both teams’ systems. 

When things get overcomplicated and grueling, it has a direct effect on talent experience. According to SHRM, employees are 69% more likely to stay with a company for up to 3 years if they have a great onboarding experience. Bad onboarding, on the other hand, leads to a high attrition rate, which can be costly.

Tim poses an example: “We just implemented a solution for one of our customers. The onboarding consisted of 17 individual processes and consisted of 12 systems.” 

Tim explains that from an integration standpoint, that’s extremely complicated! Even though their customer used a well-known ATS, their onboarding process was limited by how the 12 systems operated with each other. A few of them were home-built systems designed to complete odds-and-ends tasks like printing security clearance badges, making things even more complicated. 

By using RPA, their customer successfully bridged the gap between all systems, even those built in-house, to streamline their onboarding process. 

Candidate Communication

Another discrepancy Tim noticed is lack of communication in the talent funnel, specifically in the lens of traditional ATS systems. It’s easy for hiring teams to passively move candidates through the funnel assuming that talent is patiently waiting. 

COVID-19 has upheaved that belief. Candidates are eager to know their status at any given moment in time. 

“I always use a cheesy example,” Tim puns. 

The pizza place he orders from time-to-time has a status tracker. ”Every time I order through the app, I know that now they’re preparing the dough, they’re putting the pepperoni on it, they’re putting it in the oven. Everywhere else, you have that. Very often in TA, you don’t.”

That kind of automation helps recruiting teams stay in touch with candidates. It’s as simple as triggering text messages to candidates when they get through a round, or letting them  self-schedule interviews. 

“[There are] lots of opportunities to apply intelligent automation during the entire TA process… in reality, you can automate almost every step of the application, assessment, and screening processes if you apply technology and combine it in an intelligent way,” Tim says.

“From a [talent] experience perspective, speed is key.”

What’s the difference between RPA and AI? What are some limitations? (20:53) 

RPA tools complete repetitive, defined tasks. Tim explains it as “if this, then that” processes. Artificial intelligence is a bit more involved. Take a less structured task, such as conversation with a candidate. The AI gathers data from the input, but has to use informed decision making to produce an output. 

AI and machine learning are data-driven, while RPA is process-driven. It's the difference between doing versus thinking.

Tim addresses how this can be a limitation of RPA. “A lot of people expect to implement the bot, and it can support [their] business like a human does... That’s not possible. You still need that cognitive ability of the recruiter to read between the lines.” 

Then as you move further down the recruiting funnel, it gets even more difficult to replace recruiters with AI or RPA.

Source: Blue Prism Media Kit

What RPA vendors are out there and how do I get started? (23:17)

According to Tim, the two big names in RPA software right now are Blue Prism and UI Path. But because of their size, it can come off as an intimidating first step for an SMB. 

Tim’s advice? “Start the journey by looking at tools you have access to that are not overly costly.” Tim recommends Microsoft tools such as PowerApps and PowerAutomate, which allow you to connect all of your Office 365 apps with automation. There’s also Zapier, a low-code solution that connects all of your apps to create effective workflows. Such tools are lower cost as well, starting around $40 a month for an individual user. 

By getting a taste of what robotic processing automation software offers, your team will get more comfortable and confident in its usefulness. 

I’m sold, but how do I get internal stakeholders to buy in? (27:00)

Tim warns that the business case for stakeholders shouldn’t be about cost saving alone. “The business case should be, ‘how can I accelerate processes? How can we be faster and deliver better quality?’”

Here’s what Tim recommends. Designate a point person who can clearly and concisely explain the benefits of RPA. That person is essential for explaining use cases across corporate functions that haven’t even considered automation before. McKinsey Global Institute found that over 40% of workers spend a quarter of their week doing repetitive tasks. If RPA can make all business processes more efficient, your company will save money without having to think about cutting costs elsewhere. 

In TA specifically, RPA software robots eliminate time consuming tasks that keep recruiters from focusing on what they’re good at and love to do — recruiting! Happy employees are 31% more productive. So why not lead with that instead? 

If you need a little extra help, take a look at our guide on how to buy HR tech. 

Stakeholders are on board! So what’s the RPA implementation process like? (32:28)

First, Tim says you have to brainstorm. What processes need to be automated? 

Have different pieces of your company identify manual tasks that could be automated. (Hint: it’s typically data entry). Then, time out how long it takes to complete the task and how often the task is done. Do the math, and prioritize the ones that suck up the most time. 

Then move onto process mapping, which Tim admits can be a little complex. In TA specifically, every recruiter’s process is different. So you’ll need to have a firm understanding of the overall process and dive into specific work instructions. 

Tim compares this to assembly line manufacturing. You need to give the bot explicit instructions so it knows exactly what to do. “You need to define the ideal process, and that involves different [steps]. For example, which window do you open first? Which window do you open second? Do you copy paste from here to there? Or do you initiate a specific request on another system first?” 

For a simple process, the mapping can be done in a couple of hours. More complex processes may take a few days. Then you need to test it. Run it a few hundred times in a secure environment. Is it robust and quality enough to go live? Tim recommends having an expert monitor the testing in real-time to ensure everything works. 

How do I avoid any RPA pitfalls? (38:18)

To avoid common pitfalls, it’s imperative to understand what RPA can’t do.  

Again, Tim presents a concrete example. A short while ago he helped a customer implement an RPA bot to collect candidate info and copy and paste it to different systems. However, the bot was having difficulty understanding the salary expectations field from applications, and therefore was not copying and pasting them. Why?

The salary expectation field on the application was a free field, meaning candidates could type the answer however they wanted. Some people would write in 75k. Others would write 75,000. Others still would write 75000. 

The bot could not differentiate between numbers, letters, and punctuation and therefore could not do its job. To remedy this, they had to make the salary expectation field uniform so all candidates would input the information in the exact same format. 

As such, the glaring pitfalls come when you treat RPA bots like human workers. While they’re able to efficiently perform human tasks, they lack the cognitive ability required to understand that 75k and 75,000 are the same number. You have to know their limitations in order to use them to your advantage in the ways they are designed. 

Start small, but start

With coronavirus vaccines starting to distribute, it’s only a matter of time until the job market completely reopens and the fight for strong candidates begins anew. By harnessing the power of RPA, your company can streamline its recruiting process, investing more valuable time in candidate experience. 

How can you get started today? 

“Invest 40 dollars into Microsoft Power Automate or Zapier and just test it out to get the understanding,” Tim suggests. “Experiment, fail fast, learn.. but don’t wait, the time is now.”

About Tim Pröhm

Tim Pröhm is the Vice President of Digital Product Development for KellyOCG. You might not be able to tell by looking at his headshot, but Tim is a former German football player. No, not soccer as you’d expect. American football! The former outside linebacker also volunteers for the German Search & Rescue Service. 

Connect with Tim on LinkedIn or Twitter. You can find KellyOCG on LinkedIn and Twitter as well. 

This is part of a series on Select Software where we interview the best and brightest People people who support our mission to make buying HR tech easier. 

Are you or is someone you know interested in joining our Expert Council? Contact us!

Phil Strazzulla
HR Tech Expert, Harvard MBA, Software Enthusiast
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Phil is the founder of SelectSoftware Reviews, a website dedicated to helping HR and Recruiting teams find and buy the right software through in-depth, expert advice. He has bought over $1 million worth of HR and Recruiting tools. Additionally, as of 2023, nearly 3 million HR professionals have relied on his advice to determine which business software they should buy.

Phil studied finance at New York University and started his career working in venture capital before getting his MBA from Harvard Business School. His in-depth understanding of the Saas landscape, especially HR Tech, stems from nearly a decade of researching and working with these tools as a computer programmer, user, and entrepreneur.

Featured in: Entrepreneur Harvard Business School Yahoo HR.com Recruiting Daily Hacking HR Podcast HR ShopTalk Podcast Employer Branding for Talent Acquisition (Udemy Course)

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