RPA’s day has come – the intelligent evolution of a productivity bot

Global spending on robotic process automation (RPA) software is expected to reach $2.9bn this year, according to Gartner, cementing the idea that the machines are here to take our jobs, but are thankfully focused on the boring, yet necessary repetitive tasks. But is this all about to change? Could RPA be about to be phased out, or does it still have a future?

According to Varsha Mehta, senior market research specialist at Gartner, providers of RPA software are now “pushing beyond a traditional single technology-focused offering to a more advanced suite of tools”. This includes low-code application platforms, process mining, task mining, decision modelling and integration platform as a service (iPaaS). The aim, suggests Mehta, is to create “hyper-automation-enabling platforms”.

Customers, understandably, want more bang for their buck. Big data has given organisations analytical headaches that, to a certain extent, are being eased by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). But where artificial intelligence and machine learning give organisations insight into operational and market patterns, customer habits and financial modelling, for example, RPA provides the “how”.

Nelson Petracek, chief technology officer (CTO) at Tibco Software, is a close watcher of enterprise and data intelligence trends. He recognises that this functional, process-driven RPA is crucial in the overall mix of technologies organisations require to meet efficiency and productivity expectations.

“There is this convergence of different technologies that you need to put in place to achieve the broader goal of automation,” says Petracek. “The space has matured a little bit, so it’s not just about a bot running alongside a human or taking the place of a human, it has to be put in the context of a broader set of capabilities.”

As an example, Petracek talks about how, in process mining or task mining, a bot “can introspect, in a non-intrusive manner”, through application logs and system loads, to build a picture of how employees are working and whether or not they are cutting corners or replicating tasks. The idea is to build a picture, to help improve processes, increase efficiencies and even boost productivity.

Increasing productivity, reducing costs and freeing up valuable employee time are three key business drivers for automated processes, enabled by RPA

Increasing productivity, reducing costs and freeing up valuable employee time are three key business drivers for automated processes, enabled by RPA. A recent Deloitte intelligent automation survey found that many organisations recognise this, with 74% of survey respondents claiming they have already implemented RPA.

“Organisations that moved beyond piloting intelligent automation tell us they have achieved an average cost reduction of 32% in the areas they have targeted, up from 24% in 2020,” says David Wright, a partner in Deloitte’s intelligent automation team.

Efficiency and beyond

But with RPA’s role now evolving into a broader set of intelligent automation capabilities, what will this mean in terms of expectations? Robotic process automation surely cannot be labelled purely an efficiency technology?

Wright says having RPA in the intelligence mix “opens the door for better human-to-machine integration”. This, he adds, is leading to changes in how organisations view RPA. Those companies that have significant transaction processing, as well as challenges with legacy systems and integration, may see RPA and the broader intelligent automation function as a way to overcome potential bottlenecks.

“If you don’t have sufficient funding to [replace your legacy tech with modern applications], intelligent automation offers a way to optimise and automate on top of your legacy tech,” says Wright.

This would also solve some silo issues that have been levelled at existing RPA implementations. Neil Parker, general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Laiye – which features in Gartner’s 2022 RPA Magic Quadrant – talks about how multiple industries have deployed RPA to help knowledge workers and “free them from the excruciating admin workload many of them unfortunately face”.

“Yet even RPA was left behind,” he says, “becoming a legacy technology as digital transformation took hold. Now, we talk about intelligent automation, which can really help take RPA to the level that corresponds to the real-life work demanded of employees today.”

It’s an interesting time for RPA. In truth, the market looks a little fragmented, although key players, such as UiPath, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange last year, and firms such as Salesforce (through its MuleSoft arm), Microsoft, Automation Anywhere and Pega feature strongly as leaders or visionaries in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. All of these firms are looking towards intelligent automation as the next transformation opportunity.

“Industries which rely heavily on vital, but boring and uncreative, processes, like many of the queries received by customer services agents, are prime for intelligent automation adoption,” adds Parker, “as digital workers or software robots can simply take the load of never-ending paperwork off employees, triage and classify for an agent, or in many cases close the ticket, freeing up the agent to deal with more complex or interesting tasks.”

This evolution of RPA towards intelligent automation is intriguing. The manufacturing and technology industries have traditionally been the early adopters – Deloitte research claims they make up about 76% of the RPA market – but there are now signs of wider adoption. The attraction is the bigger picture, the one where RPA is part of the solution that is promising big financial savings and long-term stability.

Growing interest in RPA

Don Schuerman, CTO and vice-president, product strategy and market, at Pega – ranked as a top performer by Forrester as well as being on Gartner’s RPA Magic Quadrant – says he is now seeing interest in RPA across the spectrum of industries, particularly complex organisations that have a multitude of back-office processes and need to drive more simplicity and efficiency. This has been accelerated by Covid and now the growing unease around the global economic outlook.

“It’s hugely applicable in any large-scale organisation, with huge benefits for retail, supply chain management, government departments, telecommunications companies and insurers. In fact, any business that deals directly with a large volume of customers can derive huge benefits from RPA,” says Schuerman.

“Any business that deals directly with a large volume of customers can derive huge benefits from RPA”
Don Schuerman, Pega

“Ultimately, we see RPA having the most profound impact when it is used as a part of a broader process transformation initiative, combining workflow automation, RPA and, increasingly, AI-powered decision-making to not just automate manual tasks, but streamline entire customer-facing processes. Having a low-code platform that pulls all these pieces together and facilitates business and IT collaboration can help ensure quick results, but also ensure scale and maintainability into the future.”

Laiye’s Parker agrees. He’s seen an increase in uptake in a number of new industries, such as travel and retail that have seen a rapid decline in services, due in part to staffing shortages.

“We are all seeing the administrative chaos and worker shortages in airports which could be easily solved giving the tasks of automating the process of routing baggage,” says Parker. “The same goes for healthcare. Nurse and doctor time is way too valuable to be spent processing forms or answering the same query hundreds of times. Retailers can also see the benefit of intelligent automation in the form of conversational AI, which can boost online sales via engaging chatbots.”

Parker adds that RPA could process returns efficiently and make the whole experience simpler for customers. Reducing friction points and giving consumers the confidence to complete purchases online is as much a process challenge as a pricing and cultural one.

A glass slipper

However, Schuerman is quick to point out that RPA is by no means the panacea for all technology and process ills. Far from it. 

“IT decision-makers should be cautious of over-relying on RPA where the use cases do not fit,” he says, adding that RPA is particularly valuable at automating work that specifically fits the following conditions: high-volume, low-complexity and rules-based.

“For API [application programming interface]-based use cases, for example, it should only be seen as a bridging capability where existing APIs are not immediately available. Left unchecked, RPA can become brittle and prone to breakage.”

Building sustainable automations that fit into broader business processes is complicated by default, adds Schuerman, and customers need to realise most RPA connections should be temporary. Automating multiple, long-running processes that interlink internal and external systems, machine and human work, bespoke software and third-party software integrations requires a workflow or intelligent business process management (IBPM) rather than RPA. However, combining IBPM with RPA “is your secret weapon”, he says.

What can we expect going forward into 2023? With inflation and the cost-of-living crisis affecting consumers and enterprises, will we see an increased shift to RPA and intelligent automation?

“We are increasingly seeing organisations replacing standalone RPA implementations with more robust and sustainable low-code workflow solutions, that may leverage RPA as a part of an overall automation strategy,” says Schuerman. 

Parker agrees, saying that RPA as we know it will soon be phased out in favour of intelligent automation. Businesses simply cannot do without AI baked in from the start anymore, he says. Anything else just leads to more headaches, and with so much change in working patterns, skills shortages, economic pressures and competitiveness, few businesses can afford to take that chance.

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