Robotic Process Automation (RPA): Is It Recession Proof?

Recession seems all but inevitable, as stocks have plunged to bear market levels. Yet there are certain industries that could be insulated. There will also likely be changes in consumer and business behavior that will be lasting.

No doubt, it seems like video conferencing and remote work will become increasingly mainstream. But there are other corners of the tech industry that could be poised for transformations. One is actually Robotic Process Automation (RPA). 

“RPA can help save an organization money by automating any repetitive task that a human does with keyboard and mouse, as well as tasks in legacy systems that can’t be accessed via APIs and Web Services,” said Vadim Tabakman, who is the Director of Technical Evangelism at Nintex. “RPA bots accelerate ‘low-hanging fruit’ processes in every business like opening email and attachments, filling in forms, reading from and writing to databases, making calculations, collecting social media statistics, and extracting data from documents, all very quickly.”

Such capabilities are likely to be essential as companies struggle.  If anything, there may be a dramatic boost in adoption of RPA.Today In: Entrepreneurs

“The RPA industry is at an inflection point right now because economic uncertainty makes efficiency, accuracy, and—above all—maximizing human intellect critical to survival and growth,” said Kyle Kim-Hays, who is the CMO of Softomotive. “Specifically, RPA will move increasingly from the ‘back office’ and IT-focused tasks, to the ‘front office’ and attended use case scenarios where business end users directly invoke and monitor automated tasks. So, RPA will become democratized as more people incorporate it into their day-to-day activities.”

But RPA is not just about efficiency. It can help with improving customer experiences, which will be essential in retaining revenues.  “Current Automation Anywhere customers are already increasing investments to increase ROI and potentially hedge against a declining economy,” said Prince Kohli, who is the CTO of Automation Anywhere.

Pat Geary, the Chief Evangelist at Blue Prism, agrees. “As long as economic uncertainty runs high, and companies face even greater pressure to keep profits strong without incurring costs, RPA vendors will thrive. We provide the operational agility to do more with less through automation. When companies can automate manual processes at scale, they can redeploy workers and focus on more strategic business initiatives, ones that will help them weather the storm that may come.”

RPA The Right Way

As is the case with any technology, RPA is not a cure-all. It certainly has its disadvantages, like high license costs and difficulties with scaling. Successful implementations also require a strong focus on change management within the enterprise.

“We are hearing from our clients that RPA/digital workforce has some significant benefits for an economic downturn and many have little to do with the actual technology,” said Tim Kulp, who is the Vice President of Innovation & Strategy at Mind Over Machines. “The process to build a bot requires detailed process documentation that provides people a chance to examine ‘business as usual’ with a new set of eyes and eliminate waste in the process.”

Tom Thaler, who is the senior product manager for ARIS at Software AG, believes that RPA has the danger of only showing short-term results. This is why he recommends a comprehensive strategy, which includes: 

  • Capturing impact: “Companies that successfully apply RPA start with a top-down assessment of the automation candidates. They have a clear understanding of their ambitions and how to predict and capture the impact. The focus is no longer on simple back-office processes, but is increasingly shifting towards core competencies and customer relevance. Process mining tools make it easier to spot opportunities for automation based on the right relevance criteria, but also deliver the insights for a post assessment of the achievements.”
  • Managing complexity: “A holistic automation approach makes end-to-end use cases available for automation. Handling that requires a specialized team at the core–a center of excellence (CoE). These competence teams act as enablers for the business and manage the complexity of the robotic process landscape. Following a structured approach, they produce new insights that are leveraged for continuous process improvement initiatives. This is addressed by enterprise business process analysis (EBPA) tools.”

Survival Of The Fittest?

During recessions, CEOs generally favor technology from companies with strong balance sheets and broad-based solutions. And this will likely to be the case with RPA. So yes, Microsoft should do quite well, especially since it has been forward-thinking with its own automation platform.

Then there are mid-size operators, like Appian, which should gain more traction. The company, which has been around for over 20 years, has a hefty cash balance, is publicly traded and has a full-suite of automation applications. 

“We are a one-stop shop for the modern workforce,” said Matt Calkins, who is the CEO of the company. “While RPA is a pretty good option for efficiency, it still does not handle exceptions well. This is why you need an integrated solution, such as with business process management, workflow, AI and case management.”

Keep in mind that this week the company announced a host of new features, including: 

  • Full-stack automation that orchestrates workflows for people, bots and AI.
  • Intelligent Document Processing (IDP), which is an out-of-the-box document understanding system powered by AI. 
  • Governance that provides more control over all enterprise automation technologies.
  • DevSecOps to perform tests, packaging and deployment of apps much quicker. 

In other words, RPA must go beyond just task automation. There must be a broader approach.

“The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is disrupting every industry but it also represents a major opportunity to address these very needs—taking advantage of new technologies from data and analytics to RPA,” said Mohamed Kande, who is PwC’s Vice Chair, US and Global Advisory Leader. “4IR investments can help companies weather any downturn while also positioning them to emerge stronger. And business leaders agree. Based on a recent survey we conducted, 63% of business leaders believed that 4IR technologies will provide protection against an economic downturn.”

Microsoft Goes All-In On RPA (Robotic Process Automation)

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which involves automating repetitive and tedious processes within organizations, is dominated by three pure-play software vendors: UiPath, Blue Prism and Automation Anywhere. These companies are some of the fastest growing in the tech industry and have raised substantial amounts of venture capital.

But the mega software companies want to get a piece of the RPA opportunity. And the one that is perhaps best positioned is Microsoft. 

This should be no surprise. The company has a massive roster of corporate customers, a strong global infrastructure and a vast ecosystem of partners and developers. It also helps that Microsoft has been aggressively bolstering its cloud business, which is now second only to Amazon.

The key to the strategy for RPA has been to leverage the Power Automate platform, which helps automate legacy systems. Just some of the features include: the understanding of structured and unstructured data (say for invoices) and the integrations with more than 300 modern apps and services. There are also numerous AI capabilities. Today In: Small Business

Ok then, so what about RPA? Well, it was added last year. It’s called UI Flows, which has both attended and unattended automation. The application also is fairly easy to use as it allows for the recording of workflows (keystrokes, mouse movements, data entry, etc) and provides for low-code and no-code approaches. For example, Schlumberger has used the technology to drive efficiency with 13,000 bots–and a majority of them were built outside of IT. 

“Everybody can be a developer,” said Charles Lamanna, who is the CVP of the Citizen Developer Platform at Microsoft. “It takes less than 30 seconds to sign up. You can then create a bot in a few minutes.”

However, might the accessibility of this technology lead to security issues? For instance, could an employee do something like put payroll information in Dropbox storage? 

Microsoft is certainly mindful of the risks and has created a system to enforce compliance. This is possible since the platform is cloud native. “You have complete visibility with every bot,” said Lamanna.

The Disruption

So how big is UI Flows in the RPA market? Well, it’s not clear. But in a blog post, Microsoft noted: “Power Automate already helps hundreds of thousands of organizations automate millions of processes every day.”

For example, Ingram Micro uses Power Automate across its organization to help with onboarding, account creation, management of credit lines, and other critical workflows. About 75% of the projects took less than 30 days to develop.

Yet I suspect we will see accelerated growth of UI Flows—and soon. A big part of this will certainly be the core technology. But I think the business model is also likely to be disruptive to the RPA industry.

Consider that its typical for a software vendor to charge on a per-bot basis, which could come to over $1,000 per month. This does not include the fees for orchestration and other modules.

But Microsoft is breaking this model, which involves two tiers. First, there is a $40-per-user monthly fee for running attended or unattended bots. Next, you can elect to pay $150-per-month for each unattended bot. 

In other words, this low-cost strategy should greatly expand adoption. It will also likely have a major impact across the RPA landscape. Cost has certainly been a major point of concern for customers, especially those that are looking to scale the automation.

“There are three trends on the horizon for RPA,” said Lamanna. “First, cloud is inevitable and cloud hosting will be the only environment that matters end-to-end. Second, if RPA wants to become mainstream, it has to be democratized. The reality is Windows didn’t become a big deal until it was on everybody’s desk. For RPA to be transformative, it has to be on everybody’s desk. And the need for RPA is real. Over 60% of all positions for information workers spend over 30% of their time doing rote, automatable tasks. The economic benefit for companies, and even more importantly the fulfillment at work for employees, is very, very large. We just have to make it possible and affordable. And third, automation is going to stretch beyond UI automation. True automation has elements like chatbots and forms that collect information and these will all start to mix together with digital process automation and robotic process automation. Customers want to solve an automation problem with one integrated solution.”

How AI Is Supercharging RPA (Robotic Process Automation)

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which allows for the automation of the tasks of workers, has been one of the hottest categories in tech. The reason is actually simple: the ROI (Return on Investment) has generally been fairly high.

Yet there are some nagging issues. And perhaps the biggest is the scaling of the technology. For the most part, companies max out with 20 to 30 bots within the organization. 

But AI (Artificial Intelligence) is likely to help out. To see how, consider one of the leaders in the space, Automation Anywhere.  Keep in mind that the company has been investing in AI for many years and has launched several interesting applications, such as IQ Bot. It essentially helps to process huge amounts of unstructured data by using Computer Vision, Natural Language Processing (NLP), fuzzy logic and Machine Learning (ML). Even more impressive is that there is no need for AI experts to use it successfully. It’s an out-of-the-box solution. Although, if you want, you can still embed your own AI models in IQ Bot.

Yet perhaps the most important AI system from Automation Anywhere is the Discovery Bot. It is currently in beta and will be rolled out in the coming months. 

The Discovery Bot cuts through some of the biggest challenges with RPA. For example, the system can identify processes to automate, which is done by recording and analyzing the keystrokes from workers’ desktops. 

Over time, the Discovery Bot will then find repeated processes that are good candidates for automation–and include other details like the estimated ROI. This makes it much easier for an RPA lead or CoE (Center-of-Excellence) to prioritize the efforts. 

So how is the Discovery Bot different from process mining? Well, this technology–which has gained much traction in Europe with companies like Celonis–is focused on analyzing log events from ERPs, CRMs and other systems of record. 

“Our approach is about observing human behavior to better automate end-to-end business processes,” said Prince Kohli, who is the CTO and Head of Products at Automation Anywhere.

Note that process mining is more of a complementary technology for the Discovery Bot. After all, Automation Anywhere is a partner with various players in the market.

But the Discovery Bot can do something else–that is, with just one click, it will create a bot! Because of this, the acceleration of the process automation journey can be increased by as much as 5X. This essentially means reducing much tedious work and allowing for the RPA team to focus on more value-added tasks.

Interestingly enough, Automaton Anywhere thinks that there is an Automation Law emerging, similar to Moore’s Law. It’s about how hours of work automated by software bots will double every 12 to 18 months. If so, then RPA and AI will certainly provide deep value for organizations. 

The AI Factor

Of course, there continues to be intense hype with AI. The fact is that the technology is extremely complex, requiring highly technical talent.  In the meantime, mega tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft are driving up the compensation levels.

This has made it tough for many companies to engage in true digital transformation. But sophisticated out-of-the-box solutions like the Discovery Bot should make a big difference.

“With over 3,000 customers, we are in a position to learn the interactions on many different platforms,” said Kohli. “This allows us to build strong out-of-the-box models.”