Robotic Process Automation: Power to the People in 2021
COVID-19 forced us to ask: How fast can we reorganize for a new model of work? We've had to reimagine what we do and how we do it. Work is now less time- and place-based to be more flexible, more digital and more outcome-based.
Many companies turned to robotic process automation (RPA) as a digital transformation hack. It’s faster and cheaper than a complete platform overhaul, and it reduces dependence on human workers for high-volume, menial tasks. RPA cuts costs and distances people. No more bullpens of human automatons grinding out 8-hour shifts. RPA seems to fit the business needs of the pandemic moment. Gartner predicts double-digit growth through 2024. But is the tech meeting the hype? How much is there to gain from these notoriously brittle robots that can contribute to technology debt?
RPA market leaders are aware of the product’s historical shortcomings. They are pushing to grow utility for 2021 and beyond. Here is how the RPA market is evolving and a few tips to best leverage the newest capabilities.
Moving From RPA 1.0 to RPA 2.0
As the market matures, the lines between dumb robots (RPA 1.0) and smart robots (intelligent automation or RPA 2.0) are blurring. The delineation between front- and back-end isn’t as clear as it once was either.
I used to be able to ask a client two questions: 1. Do you need to get data out of a legacy system? 2. Does it have a back-end API? If the answers were yes and no, I knew we were headed for an RPA build. Now, “Gartner defines RPA as a combination of user interface (UI) interactions and APIs.”
This makes sense when you consider that RPA 1.0 emulates a human copying and pasting data. RPA 2.0 is not emulating a human. It is lighting up the potential of the digital workforce powered by humans and AI cloud services like Microsoft Cognitive Services or Amazon’s AI Cloud.
To get the most out of this shift you need to understand the capabilities of your current technology. Does the system have APIs? Is it cheaper, more effective, more stable to use APIs? (Hint: The answer isn’t always yes.) RPA comes into play when APIs aren’t available or when emulating a human provides more business value than a system-to-system connection. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A great automation strategy uses both APIs and RPA to get the most value. Your IT director can help you strike the right balance.
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Cognitive Integrations Appeal to All Developers
RPA providers know how to grow their customer base. They are working to make their products accessible and valuable to both professional developers and citizen developers. RPA is no longer limited to completely digital processes using only structured data. Market leaders like UiPath and Microsoft are building deep integrations with cognitive computing systems like text analytics, sentiment analysis, image and optical character recognition, and natural language processing. They are packaging these AI tools like building blocks you can drop into your workflow as you build out an automation. This is the componentization of web services, and it’s democratizing AI. Anyone with an Azure or AWS account can access rich AI capabilities once reserved for monolithic enterprises. It enables pro developers to move quicker and citizen developers to create business value with no AI modeling expertise required.
Here are two examples of cognitive automation:
- Chatbot and RPA Bot Integration for Citizen Developers: What was theoretical less than two years ago is becoming operational. UiPath has teamed up with Druid and Microsoft has built out Power Virtual Agents to have full and native integration with their RPA development platforms. Both are no-code chatbot development platforms that provide conversational user interfaces with your RPA or API automations. Now your HR chatbot isn’t just a knowledge repository. It can answer questions and trigger RPA automations to update the user’s benefit enrollment in that old HR benefits systems that doesn’t have an API.
- Automated Testing for Professional Developers: With the knowledge that testing is one of the most laborious, time-consuming parts of development, UiPath’s Studio Pro is focusing on robust testing capabilities to help developers build more resilient RPA bots. Its test suite can be used to test other applications too, so your RPA system effectively becomes your centralized digital workforce for testing.
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Enterprise Solutions Promote the Automation Flywheel
A lot is going on in the RPA market. Appian and Pega are doing fascinating things focusing on business process. Enterprise system vendors like SAP are building RPA capabilities directly into their products. Rich competition creates an ecosystem of ideas all competing for the sunlight of more funding.
Every new technology needs a killer app. The internet needed email. The world wide web needed Google. Mobile needed the AppStore. RPA’s killer app is still to be discovered, but I think we’ll see it in the democratization of automation. The first company to make it “easy” for automation ideas to go from concept to enterprise deployment will dominate the industry. Tools like UiPath’s Automation Hub and Microsoft’s Power Platform are empowering IT teams and citizen developers to take automation from an interesting idea to useful application with the governance needed to keep data safe.
UiPath is currently exploring task capture and process mining. The eventual goal is for your RPA system to find successive automation projects all on its own. These tools will certainly have value in terms of perpetuating your automation life cycle, but be prepared to grapple with the information security hurdles that arise from a third-party recording and analyzing your business systems in action. UiPath has done a good job providing security documentation, but as anyone who’s dealt with application security audits knows, convincing your infosec and HR teams that recording people working is a good idea might be a challenge.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is creating a library of automations and applications through its Power Platform. Rich tools to monitor and manage potentially unruly citizen developer environments enable enterprise IT teams to implement the governance needed in this wild west frontier. I expect we’ll see more vendor-supplied governance toolsas more and more vendors engage the citizen developer community.
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To Move Forward, Get Back to Basics
In 2021, RPA will evolve to be more flexible, more intelligent and more integrated. But none of that does you any good unless you’ve identified a business problem it can help you solve. I encourage companies to start their automation journey by focusing on the who, what and how.
No matter where your company is on its automation journey, there is one simple thing you can do to strengthen your team and increase automation potential: Teach everyone how to document a business process. That skill is your employees’ ticket to move from mindless work to reflective work. It gives people the mental space to explore why they do what they do, and how it can be done better.
As RPA technology matures, there will be no shortage of innovative tools to build automations. But the vision for optimizing your business processes has to come from the people who know those processes best.
About the Author
Tim Kulp is the Chief Innovation Officer at Mind Over Machines and a member of the Forbes Tech Council. He's trying to change the world.