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The rise of digital workers and the bot economy

Automation Anywhere’s booming business, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, is a sign of things to come in the new world of work where digital workers can be hired from a bot store

Much has been said about robotic process automation (RPA) and its role in freeing up people from mundane tasks to unleash human creativity and innovation.

But at Automation Anywhere, the concept of automation is being taken to a different level, where bots do not just perform tasks blindly – they are also imbued with cognitive capabilities to do a job.

The company calls these bots digital workers, which can learn to prioritise business and IT processes, allowing them to operate in roles such as accounts payable or IT operations specialist with little or no supervision.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Ankur Kothari, co-founder and chief revenue officer of Automation Anywhere, describes the company’s growing traction in Asia-Pacific, how its offerings differ from others and what it takes for enterprises to be successful in leveraging digital workers.

What is Automation Anywhere’s competitive edge vis-à-vis other RPA suppliers and business applications providers that are increasingly building automation capabilities into their products?

Kothari: There are three different values that we are bringing to the table. First, we have combined RPA, analytics and cognitive capabilities that can automate any process that can be automated in a technically feasible and economically viable way. That is a big differentiator because most other players are either standalone RPA players or are talking about cognitive but not doing RPA.

Second, we have designed our software for anyone to use, be it business users, developers or IT staff, across companies of all sizes, from SMEs to global companies. It can be used anywhere – on the cloud, on-premise, mobile devices, desktops, servers and on virtual machines.

Third, we have launched a bot store or marketplace about a year ago. As they would on an app store, our partners, customers, users and developer community are building bots and putting them up on the marketplace. However, we have taken things to a different level by having digital workers that can be downloaded.

Now, while RPA was all about process, digital workers are all about different personas and skills. You can go to our bot store to download an accounts clerk which will come with a resume and experience level. Think of a world where everyone has to work with a digital assistant in a bot economy that will be far bigger than the app economy we know today.

We also have a very large customer success programme with 700 partners worldwide and 400 customer success managers to serve our biggest customers. This enables us to work with customers who are not only starting to adopt our technology, but also those who are trying to scale to hundreds of thousands of bots within a year.

On your last point, is there a typical adoption pattern of RPA and digital workers among enterprises?

Kothari: There are different ways that businesses are adopting our technology. The business users may start using it in functions like HR and finance, and they will involve IT when they start scaling up within a few months. There is another top-down approach where IT may form a centre of excellence to drive adoption and provide a service to the enterprise. Both approaches have to merge for an enterprise to achieve scale in its use of the technology.

I noticed you have bots in your bot store that automate processes in and between applications such as SAP. Would these bots be automating processes that application suppliers probably wouldn’t do on their own? What is your relationship with these suppliers that are also trying to help their own customers automate processes within their applications?

Think of a world where everyone has to work with a digital assistant in a bot economy that will be far bigger than the app economy we know of today.
Ankur Kothari, Automation Anywhere

Kothari: Take SAP or Oracle, for example. There are so many different systems that they are connected to, use cases that they are part of and industries that they are being used in.

No one organisation can bring every use case to the table. All of their partners and global systems integrators are also our partners, who have expertise in how SAP works with Salesforce and mainframe systems to stitch a process. They have developed best practices and can productise that knowledge in the form of bots that people can download.

A partner that does inventory management in SAP may do things differently from another partner. So, customers can go to our bot store and see different bots performing inventory management in different ways.

The idea of a digital worker is compelling, but the first thing that comes to mind for CIOs would be the potential cyber security risks because an enterprise’s attack surface could increase. How are you addressing these concerns?

Kothari: The bots run on Automation Anywhere’s platform, which has the highest levels of security certifications that any bank or enterprise software will have. You can also run bots on-premise and on the cloud, and anyone who puts up the bots will need to have them curated by us. The best thing about bots is that they will do exactly what you want them to do. You can also ring-fence the bots on-premise and make sure data does not get out of your organisation.

Humans are often the weakest links in cyber security. Would you say that the greater use of bots might actually improve cyber security for organisations?

Kothari: Absolutely – any form of automation improves security. Most data leaks happen because someone forgot to switch off a terminal or accidentally left it unlocked. In the case of bots, you can run them in a virtual environment where you won’t even know they exist, so there is no way anyone can manipulate them. In fact, compliance and security is why many enterprises are embarking on this journey.

Are there any unique RPA adoption trends that you’re seeing in the Asia-Pacific market?

Kothari: I love coming to Asia-Pacific because the buzz is unreal. It’s the fastest-growing market for us and next year we expect to grow our business in the region by at least two to threefold year-on-year. Large companies are using our technology in a strategic way and we have the largest partners and global systems integrators working with us. We see that explosion happening across Asia-Pacific, where we have offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.  

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What are the concerns of CIOs you meet when it comes to automation? I’m sure many of them understand the need to automate, and manage change as they adopt RPA tools – but how are they doing it? Also, do you see any limits to what can be automated?

Kothari: Those are good questions. One of the things I’ve seen is that IT has been positive when it comes to the use of bots over the last few years. As I have mentioned, you cannot scale unless you get business and IT working together – and that has been happening for many of our customers.

CIOs today are expected to do more with less and automation gives them another tool in their toolbox and, more importantly, a strategy that gives their internal customers a way to get what they want in terms of automation – by providing a structure for automation rather than have people write their own scripts, which in turn creates shadow IT that becomes difficult to manage. With digital workers and bots, you can easily manage automation in a controlled way.

As for limits, any process can be automated as long as the data is structured. If you have unstructured data in the form of documents and invoices, you need to unlock the data first and make sense of it before applying a process.

We have a technology called IQ Bot to process and make sense of unstructured data, before feeding it to RPA bots to perform the whole business process. That allows you to automate any process across the front and back office, involving structured and unstructured data, and using rule-based or judgement-based models. Then, you can apply real-time analytics to get business insights. This completely changes your business.

When Automation Anywhere was first set up, what was the vision of the company and how far are you away from achieving that vision?

Kothari: We have come a long way, but it feels like we’re just getting started because there’s so much more we can do. We started by looking at the problem that less than 20% of IT systems were talking to each other, and people were doing the work of bots by moving data between systems. If we can combine the power of technology and the power of people, we can create a hyper-productive workforce that can produce two or three times more, while improving customer satisfaction.

It took us a long time to get near there because it was such a big and bold vision, but we’ve made a lot of progress, with triple-digit growth year-on-year. While we have not fully achieved that vision, we are in a good place right now, with thousands of customers who are on a journey with us to become digital enterprises.

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