Successfully adopting RPA can involve more resources than you bargained for. Here’s our guide on which five considerations businesses should carefully evaluate before taking the RPA plunge.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is not a new technology—it has been around since the early 2000’s—but there has recently been increasing buzz around RPA. Readwrite.com asks if it’s “the next big thing in automation,” while TechTarget.com describes an “RPA gold rush” currently taking place.
In a recent press release, Gartner® writes: “RPA software revenue is projected to reach $2.9 billion in 2022, an increase of 19.5% from 2021.” With all this hype circulating, we’re here to demystify RPA and bring awareness to major considerations in an age of labor shortage and economic downturn, when companies are looking for guidance as they ponder their investments in digital transformation.
RPA is a software technology that interacts with systems on the front-end at the user interface level to automate well-defined, repetitive tasks humans normally undertake manually. By interacting through the front-end, RPA is noninvasive—therefore, it can breathe new life into workflows using legacy systems, which can be costly and challenging to replace.
Like any form of automation, RPA’s benefits fall under three main categories: it saves time, increases savings, and reduces errors.
RPA’s unique value consists in its ability to automate any application with a graphical user interface (GUI).
In the old days of IT, organizations automated their business processes within applications by writing custom code and/or deploying specialized middleware. Both approaches were costly and time-consuming.
In today’s applications, IT teams implement automation using application programming interfaces (APIs), command line interface (CLI) scripts, and orchestration tools. These approaches are more efficient and scalable than custom code or middleware, but they only automate apps that adhere to modern software development best practices. Older commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) apps or in-house custom apps will often not support APIs.
By automating tasks using the GUI, RPA enables quicker and cheaper automation for legacy systems and older homegrown applications which would otherwise require costly middleware or custom development.
Why might organizations now, more than ever, be interested in RPA’s benefits? First, “The Great Resignation” has made it not only difficult and costly to find talent, but also to retain talent. RPA can fill some of the voids left by employees who have resigned, while also lightening the workload for the remaining employees. In understaffed environments, this improves employee morale and overall workplace experience.
Second, experts are divided on whether or not we’re headed toward a recession (or if we’re already in one), but it’s safe to say economic pressures are mounting. This economic uncertainty has some businesses starting to reduce their overhead costs by implementing hiring freezes and layoffs.
For a company experiencing financial stress, RPA can help in many ways. Errors can be costly and time-consuming—RPA prevents errors by completing repeatable, manual tasks perfectly and predictably. And while RPA could enable additional staffing cuts by automating some workers’ jobs, its true value consists in freeing up current employees’ time so they can focus on more value-creating activities. “The strongest computer in any business is the human mind,” says John Rubin, Field CTO at Stratascale: “RPA lets the employee use their brain to provide innovation for the business because their daily trivial tasks are being offloaded to a robot.”
RPA can drive real value, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s an easy button. Keep the below considerations in mind before hopping on the RPA bandwagon.
RPA is more than just purchasing a tool—there are often consulting services, deployment services, and training courses involved. According to Blueprint, a single bot costs between $5,000 and $15,000, and that is only about 25-30% of the total cost of implementing RPA—the other 75% revolves around services. If enterprises only consider the licensing costs, they will underestimate the size of the total RPA investment.
If an enterprise starts investigating RPA by speaking with RPA providers, they may experience sticker shock. Rubin explains: “Vendors want to look at your entire environment, quote out the cost of your entire infrastructure, all of your head count, all the licensing involved for today, plus three years’ worth. That gets to be very expensive and might actually preclude some organizations from even attempting.” Organizations may want to consider starting with a pilot or a scaled-down initial implementation, to get their feet wet and prove the value before making the full investment in an RPA program.
In fact, many enterprises might not need to spend an extra dime on licensing to get started with RPA. Rubin points out that the Microsoft Power Platform has RPA capabilities built into it with a low-code/no-code suite, and everyone that has Office 365 has access to these tools, so “the barrier to entry on automation [technology] might be a lot smaller than you think.” Microsoft-enabled organizations might start by experimenting with Power Platform before deciding whether it’s worth making further investments.
Many vendors use words like “easy” when it comes to deploying RPA. Don’t let rhetoric like this fool you. Rubin explains, “RPA, or automation in general, is a really complex task we’re dealing with. We're talking really complex and complicated logic and things that have to go from one to another with a lot of checks and balances in between in order to make two disparate things that aren't designed to talk to one another, talk to one another.”
RPA does what you tell it to do—it executes workflows. However, RPA doesn’t build the automation workflow itself. Building out a workflow is an intricate task that requires a degree of expertise. Producing errors in the rules you set for the bots to execute can cost your organization both time and money, and lead to a mistrust of RPA, even if the bot did exactly what it was (incorrectly) told to do.
Dan Newman, another Field CTO at Stratascale, explains how RPA bots must also be continuously maintained: “These are not automated tasks that can shift with changes. They have to be told every change. So, bots have to be revisited to make sure things are working.”
Therefore, not only can RPA be expensive to implement and maintain, but it can also lead to a very poor return on investment (ROI) if implemented incorrectly or not optimized to meet your business’ needs.
On top of tackling the hidden complexity of deploying and maintaining RPA, organizations may also encounter adoption challenges.
Deployment versus adoption of RPA are two vastly different things. You’ve probably heard the mantra “people, process, and technology” as the gold-standard framework for implementing new technology. But one aspect that often gets overlooked in the “people” component of this framework is culture. Cultural adoption of a new technology is integral to its success, and RPA is no different.
Understandably, automation can often be met with resistance from employees due to fears of being replaced by technology, so, approaching RPA as a way to support your employees rather than replace them is key. Adobe’s CIO, Cynthia Stoddard, is quoted as saying: “The way that we view RPA within Adobe is that we don't view the productivity improvement as a headcount reduction. We view it as creating virtual workers that work side by side with our human workers.”
While RPA automates end user processes, and your employee might not ever directly interact with RPA in the side-by-side visual Stoddard describes above, the end-user will be aware of things like more time on their plate. Employees making the most of their newfound time will be another key to successfully adopting RPA. Newman suggests tracking the bot’s ROI closely: “If you automate 4 hours of an 8-hour workday, you have to know if you’re getting that extra 4 hours in something more valuable to justify the cost of the bot.”
Organizations must manage the communication, as well as the organizational and cultural changes effectively in order to drive acceptance of RPA and ensure full business value from their implementations.
If your goal is to automate tasks, RPA isn’t a magic wand, but it can be a helpful place to start by creating a clear business case before a full investment.
If you’re an organization with legacy systems and plentiful tasks that can be automated, then RPA might be the right fit for you. In addition, if you’re looking to digitally transform your business and have a product, platform, or process without a program interface, then RPA can fill in those gaps.
Organizations should view RPA as one component of a holistic automation program and stand up cross-functional teams dedicated to using automation to digitally transform their businesses. In addition to RPA, the program could include the following components: Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Business Process Automation (BPA), API orchestration, low-code/no-code, and custom software development. Rather than seeing RPA as the next big thing to solve all your organizational challenges, you might think of it more as a launch pad into broader discussions around how you can use automation to drive digital transformation.
RPA is nearly 20 years old, and yet recent events have many businesses looking for new efficiencies, and RPA enables automation even for legacy systems. By considering the above more carefully, you can be aware of some of the costly pitfalls.
In addition to assisting with RPA, Stratascale provides comprehensive support for clients on their automation journeys—from figuring out what to automate, to process mining, to quantitatively measure where automation can create the most business value—Stratascale’s automation experts can help. For more information, please contact us.
Coming from a background in conducting original ethnographic research, Mary-Kate brings a humanities lens to the technology she writes about. She’s passionate about using her background in primary and secondary research to bring innovative solutions to clients in both the digital experience and automation spaces. Outside of work, Mary-Kate enjoys both traveling and hiking.