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The bots turning businesses into digital transformers
As companies increasingly turn to robotic process automation to accelerate digital transformation, Computer Weekly takes a look at how the market is evolving
Analyst Forrester defines robotic process automation (RPA) as a technology that provisions software agents – bots – that can mimic human interactions with software systems.
These bots run predictable tasks, and act either in concert with humans (attended RPA) or mostly autonomously (unattended RPA). Increasingly, RPA is adding artificial intelligence (AI)-based capabilities, such as reading unstructured data.
IT research firm Computer Economics says in its April 2019 Technology trends report that bots are typically taught by human example to respond to various triggers. For example, when an employee submits a change of address form to the human resources (HR) department, the bot could then be used to trigger an update to the records in payroll, benefits systems, expense reporting and accounts payable, just as a human clerical worker might do.
Since the process operates at the user interface level, such an approach may be easier than attempting to integrate systems at the application programming interface (API) level.
“The bot simply mimics the keystrokes and mouse clicks that a human worker would perform, freeing the worker to focus on higher-value activities. The machine learns by observing the actions of humans doing the existing job,” says the research firm.
This suggests that RPA provides a relatively easy way to integrate different systems. It is often deployed to make a business process at least seem fully joined up, even if the underlying IT systems are not directly connected.
While the results are not as tightly connected as a full enterprise application integration project, studies such as that carried out by Computer Economics have reported that investing in RPA does pay back and the return on investment is far quicker than traditional enterprise application integration (EAI).
As part of the report, a survey of 249 IT organisations worldwide conducted between September and December 2018 found that RPA is low risk, but offers high rewards.
Commenting on the survey, David Wagner, vice-president for research at Computer Economics, says: “This is the first year RPA has penetrated deeply enough into the market to warrant being included in the full study designed to allow computers to do what they do best: repetitive tasks requiring accuracy but little creativity, while freeing up humans to do higher-order tasks. We expect RPA to grow rapidly, because of the success of early adopters.”
Analyst Gartner reported in June 2019that the RPA software market grew by 63.1% in 2018 to $846m, making it the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market. Gartner forecasts that RPA software revenue will reach $1.3bn in 2019.
Gartner research vice-president Fabrizio Biscotti says the growth is being driven by organisations which need to integrate legacy systems.
“Although RPA software can be found in all industries, the biggest adopters are banks, insurance companies, telcos and utility companies,” he says.
These organisations traditionally have many legacy systems and choose RPA to ensure integration functionality. The ability to integrate legacy systems is the key driver for RPA projects.
Biscotti says RPA enables organisations to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, while unlocking the value associated with past technology investments.
Writing in the Forrester tech tide: AI, automation and robotics for customers and employees, Q2 2019 report, Forrester analyst JP Gowdner warns: “Companies that fail to invest in RPA are missing automation opportunities. The automation of repetitive tasks can make human employees more productive.”
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However, he feels there is also quite a lot of industry hype. “As more and more technologies enter the market, it’s tempting to dive right into the excitement, but be conscientious when curating your tech portfolio,” says Gowdner. “Ensure your investments are put towards solutions and strategies that will meet your firm’s specific business needs.”
Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and UiPath are the three big RPA companies, according to Gartner’s analysis. What is most interesting about its assessment of the RPA market is that the major enterprise IT providers – IBM, Microsoft, SAP and Oracle – are missing. Gartner believes that over the next few years, the mega-suppliers will either snap up RPA businesses or build out their existing business process management portfolio to incorporate RPA.
In a recent blog post, John O’Brien, research director at IDC, wrote that Automation Anywhere and UiPath have poured vast sums into aggressive customer expansion programmes, creating large partner ecosystems, free product versions, cloud delivery, and free access to the product to build presence and scale.
“This arguably caught Blue Prism off-guard, and UiPath in particular has seen its valuation skyrocket to $7bn from $3bn last September,” he says. “Blue Prism, by contrast, is valued at $1.16bn.”
In July 2019, Blue Prism acquired Thoughtonomy for £80m, which IDC believes could help it remain competitive against its two nearest rivals. Thoughtonomy provides a software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based RPA product for small and medium-sized enterprises.
“On balance, we are optimistic about the merger, because the capabilities of the combined businesses should generate significant new upside opportunities for both,” says O’Brien. “There are, of course, risks in integrating its first acquisition and a mountain for Blue Prism to climb to reach UiPath’s valuation. But in terms of pure delivery capability for the customer, this deal certainly gives the company a big boost.”
Robots in the public sector
RPA appears to be a technology well suited to the public sector. In 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demonstrated how RPA could overcome a backlog of new pension claims. The process was heavily manual, which led to a backlog of more than 30,000 claims.
At the time, Shaun Williamson, senior product manager at DWP, estimated that the department would have needed to employ thousands of people and taken several thousand hours to catch up.
Instead, DWP’s Intelligent Automation Garage deployed 12 UiPath robots to handle 2,500 claims per week. This cleared the entire backlog in just two weeks.
In July, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust went live with a set of bots, using Automation Anywhere to provide automation in the finance department.
The trust established a centre of excellence for RPA, and people from across the business were invited to participate in workshops focused on their business areas.
Sandra Easton, chief financial officer at the trust, says the outputs of these workshops are used to identify areas of work to automate.
“We run a workshop to identify which processes will we automate and prioritise our pipeline of development,” she says. “In the finance workshop, we identified 38 processes. We have now done a second workshop for finance and will be adding a further 30 processes on our automation roadmap.”
One of the first bots developed for finance tackled the manual task the accounts team needed to do at the end of each month to reconcile accounts.
While the trust is on target to attain its goal to automate some 40 processes over the coming year, Easton wants the business to own the automation agenda. “I want people to feel they have the freedom to create the bots as and when they need,” she says.
At the start of the RPA initiative, people were concerned bots would make them redundant, but Easton says: “Once you understand RPA, it opens your eyes.
“I have a lot of experienced people. We are not getting the best out of them because they are spending a lot of time doing things that can be automated. We need to strive for efficiency and keep costs as low as possible. I want our team to be able to add value to the business.”
For Easton, an indirect benefit of RPA is that it enables the trust to free up funding to invest in clinical services. “We can invest in frontline care, which improves the patient experience,” she says.
However, Easton also sees opportunities for it to be deployed in a way that directly improves the patient experience, such as in the outpatient department or to improve operating theatre scheduling.
Reducing manual processes
There are plenty of examples of how RPA can be used to streamline business processes by providing an easy way to integrate between different IT systems quickly and reducing unnecessary manual data rekeying.
For instance, Cooperative Bank has used Blue Prism to automate 10 processes, including direct debit cancellation, account closures, Chaps payments, foreign payments, audit reports, internet applications, and card and PIN pulls.
Since these business processes required a high level of manual intervention and personnel, Cooperative Bank felt there was a strong business case to automate them, as Joanne Masters, business systems manager at the bank, explains.
“We exceeded our FTE [full-time employee] savings target by 25%,” she says. “We’ve been able to release staff as each process went live. The project has let us move a significant number of FTEs away from manual roles and into customer-facing positions.”
RPA does not solve enterprise integration
However, while RPA can indeed help organisations link disconnected business processes, it does not tackle the underlying problems CIOs face in trying to modernise the disparate IT systems that keep enterprises running.
Loosely linked systems, connected using RPA, may give the impression of a joined-up business process, but the underlying processes remain disjointed. Fixing them is far harder than using automation to paste over the gaps.
Gartner warns CIOs that businesspeople now believe they can develop their own automations without having to rely on IT developers. “RPA tools appeal due to the apparent speed to value,” it says. “This is especially the case when compared with other, slower options, such as developing effective APIs or replacing those legacy applications.”
However, without proper governance, Gartner believes the ease with which robotic process automation can be used to link systems together will drive a wave of shadow IT, likely creating as many problems as it solves.