Is RPA actually a roadblock to digital transformation (Dx)?

Gartner Inc, a global leader in market research analysis, recently published new data reporting that revenues in the robotic process automation (RPA) industry jumped 63% globally last year. Ranking RPA as the fastest growing Enterprise software segment, with a total market value of $846.2 million.

Gartner states the reason for this growth is because RPA allows companies to automate many previously manual business processes without the need to replace their legacy IT systems. “The ability to integrate legacy systems is the key driver for RPA projects”, said Gartner Research Vice President Fabrizio Biscotti. “By using this technology, organisations can quickly accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, while unlocking the value associated with past technology investments.”

Leading the way in this industry is UiPath, with 13.6% market share, after revenues jumped a staggering 629%, to $114.8million in 2018. They are now valued at $7billion by recently raising $568 million in VC funding. Another strong performer who doubled revenue in 2018 to $71million, and who currently sits 3rd with 8.4% market share, is Blue Prism.

With data like this there is no denying that RPA is an exceptionally powerful tool with a big future. So we should all be looking to implement this into our business right now, correct?

No. Beware. RPA is not a silver bullet.

If not thought through properly, I contend that RPA could actually become a roadblock to your digital transformation strategy.

In June I attended a Summit where both UiPath and Blue Prism were panellists. The first observation that hit me was how they were distancing themselves from the phrase ‘Robotic Process Automation’. In fact, only 6 years after the phase was originally coined by Blue Prism (which undoubtedly has been a marketing master stroke to date for the industry), it seems employees do not actually like the idea of a ‘robot’ entering their workplace. The new, less intimidating, phrase of choice appears to be ‘digital worker’.

I use this story as an example of something that seemed like a great idea only 6 years ago, potentially was not thought through properly and could now be a damaging force.

Could the same be applied to RPA? The theory of RPA is great. As a tool its ability to breathe new life into, and extract greater value from, older legacy systems is exceptional. However, the challenges for a successful RPA rollout lie in the external factors outside of your control.

Bots mimics human actions such as opening email attachments, recording and keying in data & completing e-forms. But because RPA usually interacts with user interfaces, even minor changes to those interfaces can lead to a broken process. Remember Robots can’t adjust their behaviour the same way as a human can.

What is one of RPAs strengths is also a weakness – bots interact with the user interface of the app. Older legacy systems tended not to have API integrations, so RPA can perform this integration very well. But as software updates are released, user interfaces change and previously mapped out processes are now broken.

Bolting AI (artificial intelligence) onto your RPA resulting in Cognitive RPA or CRPA, has been touted as a solution. But the stark reality is that the technology is not advanced enough quite yet to reliably be considered an effective solution.

The second and more significant roadblock I believe lies within your own process mapping. When you onboard a bot you do so as if your are onboarding a new employee. They are shown how a step by step process is undertaken, and repetitively trained on this process until they perform it perfectly. And off they go 24/7 for 365 days a year. Amazing! Instant efficiency and profitability gain for the business. In fact as the volume grows you add further bots to assist in this process. More efficiency, more profitability!

The issue is; you have now invested significant resources in training the bot up in that process alone, and making changes to this process will require costly resources to retrain the bot.

And that’s your conundrum! Technology changes. Business changes. And locking yourself into a position where you are reluctant to reengineer your internal process mapping, because of the cost and resource impact to retrain your RPA, is putting your whole digital transformation strategy at risk.

You might say its tying a businesses hands behind its back and if that’s not a road block for progress I don’t know what is.

I repeat RPA is a potentially powerful tool, but it is not a silver bullet for an organisation’s challenges. It will require both thoughtful consideration around its implementation strategy, and a firm acceptance that ongoing resources will be required to be spent to keep it relevant for your organisation.

Should you wish to understand more about RPA and whether it could add value to your business feel free to reach out to for an initial discussion.