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The future of robotic process automation (RPA) – Integrated intelligent automation platforms?

January 13, 2020

2019 was packed with exciting new releases of the world’s most popular RPA products and thus marked a turning point in the maturity of RPA. Whereas past releases put a big emphasis on extending functionality regarding the “RPA baseline” by including more activities and connectors for background automation, this year’s newest versions all ship with unprecedented, possibly game-changing features, enlarging RPA’s footprint within businesses. Let’s have a look at the general trends visible in 2019 and dive into the opportunities and challenges they pose to current and future users of RPA software.

  1. Horizontal integration (along the RPA lifecycle) – Vendors started to include software capabilities which extend the “bot development and run”-process usually covered by RPA software. One example is the integration of process and task mining to assist the process of finding processes and evaluating their RPA feasibility – the “ideation and assessment” phase of the RPA lifecycle. Here, vendors also provide (partly automatable) templates for process identification, assessment, and documentation, which can also be used apart from RPA implementation and for broader process optimization initiatives.
  2. Vertical integration (improving and augmenting RPA’s abilities) – The new releases progressively integrate capabilities such as optical character recognition (OCR), chatbots, machine learning (ML) modules, analytics, data visualization, and flexible scripting (e.g., JavaScript, Python) into the RPA workflows. This is achieved by either providing the modules themselves or by improving the integration of third-party modules. Some vendors also partner with workflow/business process modelling (BPM) vendors to put RPA at the core of many business-wide workflow solutions by providing “hands and eyes” to the background workflow automations.
  3. Simplification (in terms of usability and operationalization) – Next to a simplified development for business users with lean user interfaces (UIs) and an increasing number of plug-and-play modules, vendors also reduce the operations complexity by providing managed cloud hosting with fixed service-level agreements (SLAs) and optimized license utilization, simplified installation, etc.

These trends shift the role of the software from pure RPA to fully integrated intelligent automation platforms, which consist of multiple, modular building blocks for process efficiency, visualization, and automation. This approach enables the business to leverage automation to a far greater extent than ever before by putting these platforms at the core of the business processes. Consequently, complete end-to-end automation, unprecedented process transparency, and massive scalability by democratizing the usage of automation can be achieved.

Arising opportunities and challenges

Many low-hanging fruits have already been harvested by using pure RPA – repetitive, rule-based processes with high volumes and big time-saving potential. Future automation will need to incorporate all aspects of the broad automation spectrum from background workflow automation to ML and human-machine handovers to automate the more complex processes which are still out there. To get a clearer picture of the effects and impact of these trends, let’s look at the two main directions emerging from them:

          1. Democratization of usage: “do-it-yourself”-automation for everybody

The intelligent automation platforms aim for a broad usage by business users – they achieve that goal by handing them an array of pre-built modules, drag-and-drop functionality, and simplified UIs  for building quick automations. Furthermore, this user-centered, bottom-up automation approach is not limited to pure RPA – the modularization of algorithms, background-connectors, analytics, and human-machine interaction acts as a catalyst for a variety of possible use cases.

This user-driven, decentral “spot automation” approach enables business users to leverage automation in a very quick and lean way without requiring approval or adhering to development standards subsequently slowing down the automation wave.

         2. Sophisticated end-to-end automation through highly specialized employees

The new, unified approach to automation makes department-overarching, end-to-end use cases available for automation – this requires for a new set of highly specialized employees at the core of a business’ automation initiative. These employees could form a cross-functional center of excellence (CoE), consisting of agile teams which work on solutions to end-to-end process automation and improvement.

These “competence teams” drive innovation from within the automation CoE and act as enablers to the business. Apart from automating high-value end-to-end processes with different technologies from the intelligent automation platform’s software stack, they also train and consult business users in using the software according to their needs. They are also capable of providing new modules and packages to the business users (e.g., customizable modules or activities for sales forecasting or email classification).

End-to-end automation within an intelligent automation platform also bears great process insights and transparency. Consequently, this holistic automation approach produces new input and data for process mining tools, which can be then be leveraged for continuous improvement initiatives and process optimization, completing the future automation circle.

To profit from these developments, future “automation operating models” need to incorporate both forms of automation

Undoubtedly, there will be tension between the bottom-up, “democratic” approach and the top-down, “aristocratic” approach to automation as outlined in the previous paragraphs. Imagine, for example, a business unit that has automated parts of an inefficient process already, and then a top-down-decision to automate the process end to end is made. Even if a single “spot automation” is not business critical, the mass of small automations the team has implemented over time can cause disruptions if suddenly changed by an unaligned, badly communicated top-down decision in favor of end-to-end automation.

Eventually, proactive communication, change management, a mutual alignment on the goals of automation, and new models of collaboration are needed in order to successfully manage the balancing act of unifying the automation initiatives within a company. But if introduced with foresight and care, the intelligent automation platform can become the “one-stop-enabler” in a company’s improvement cycle, integrating the workforce to constantly elaborate process improvement potential, execute insights-driven implementation, and efficiently orchestrate the human-machine co-work.

Please reach out so that we can jointly discuss and define the next steps on your automation roadmap – we will help you in exhausting the potential of these newly emerging automation trends to the fullest.

Many thanks to the Co-Author Thomas Schmidt for the authoritative creation of this blog article.