In their journey to become digital-first, organizations are increasingly investing in process automation to improve operational efficiency and productivity, and reduce their costs. After digitizing assets, a natural next step is to use computer software and hardware to standardize, streamline and automate the business processes that utilize them. They’re investing in technologies like RPA and low-code application development platforms to automate workflows, replace manual, error-prone tasks, and transform themselves into smarter, more efficient workplaces.

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RPA and low-code are two different software products. They're related technologies, but there are a few differences you should consider if you're evaluating which is the right automation tool for your organization. To learn when you should be using what, keep on reading.

First, let’s start with a few definitions.

What Is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?

RPA is a form of business process automation technology based on the concept of software robots or digital workers. These software-based robots, or bots, can mimic many human user interactions with other software systems. For example, they can log into applications, move files and folders, copy and paste data, fill out forms, extract structured and semi-structured data from documents, and scrape browsers—just as a human would.

Because these bots can emulate human actions with high predictability and speed, RPA is often used in back-office processes to automate mechanical and routine tasks that don’t add much value but take up a lot of time—at the expense of more strategic and impactful activities.

How Does RPA Work?

RPA uses sets of predefined rules—“if this” happens, “then that” should happen. And whenever something happens that is not contemplated within these rules, the bot escalates the situation and requests human aid.

What makes RPA even more interesting is that you can combine it with other technologies like optical character recognition (OCR) and natural language processing (NLP), allowing your bots to “read” documents or forms, translate voice, convert unstructured to structured data, and input it autonomously into digital systems such as your CRM.

For example, you can have a customer or employee’s written or spoken interactions with a chatbot trigger an RPA bot to automatically collect all existing data on that customer from multiple systems of record and display it in a customer service dashboard.

You can also combine RPA with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), enabling your bots to improve their accuracy and precision over time by learning from additional training data and human inputs.

Benefits of RPA

When RPA is done right, you can benefit significantly:

Reduced costs and human error

You can replace dozens or hundreds of inconsistent, costly, human collaborators performing tedious, repetitive, manually-intensive work, with bots programmed specifically for that task, performing it predictably and without getting tired.

Increased scalability

Bots are basically a 24-hour virtual workforce, taking up little space and available to be deployed on-demand. So scaling up or down according to your business needs becomes much more achievable.

Easy implementation

You can integrate RPA bots into pretty much any digital infrastructure, without having to invest in custom software or in-depth system integration. Also, RPA is technology that citizen developers can easily implement to automate their tasks autonomously.

Increased value to the business

By freeing up humans from the burden of routine, low-value-added tasks, your employees can redeploy their time to more strategic tasks that bring greater value to your business.

Higher ROI

Because it doesn’t require changes to existing applications, RPA doesn’t trigger large IT change projects, which means that RPA projects’ payback periods are typically measured in months rather than years.


Although its business benefits are clear, RPA is not a panacea for every operational ill, or for every company and every process. Because it has the potential to eliminate jobs, it can create employee resistance and other talent management challenges.

And there are other issues, as well.

Limitations of RPA

RPA has the following limitations:

Subsequent changes add complexity

Because RPA bots usually interact through user interfaces, even minor changes to those interfaces will lead to a broken process. After all, programmed robots can’t adjust their behavior in the same way that humans can. The same goes for process changes. And even though some vendors are combining AI with RPA to try to overcome this obstacle, this approach is still very much in its infancy, and often expensive.

Bots need management, maintenance, and security

Deploying lots of bots to automate processes often means transitioning their longer term management and maintenance from individual departments to IT—which typically requires integration into the corporate IT infrastructure, as well as added IT overhead. You are adding another layer of architectural complexity, and IT has to make sure your RPA bots are working as they should, while at the same time, not adversely affecting any other IT processes or introducing more risk.

RPA can take the focus away from larger, strategic projects

Being a tactical, relatively easier way to achieve quick process efficiency gains, RPA may inadvertently divert attention away from your more strategic and critical projects, such as creating new systems to support disruptive business processes or replacing legacy large core systems that are holding you back.

The marriage of RPA and AI is still not fully mature

While the possibility of using RPA with AI to address complex and sophisticated processes is exciting, it’s still in its early stages. This can result in fragmentation and longer setup times.


So, When Should You Use RPA?

A great use case for RPA is automating business processes associated with legacy systems. Many of these legacy systems support back-office processes, don’t change that frequently, and lack some of the more modern ways to connect to them, like APIs. Since the only practical option to access them is via their user interface, and since their stability minimizes bot maintenance costs, RPA is a viable option.

A good example is having to interact with a legacy core system that was developed in COBOL or another outdated technology. In this kind of scenario, RPA acts as a practical alternative: unobtrusively enabling you to automate processes and make them more efficient, without having to rely on updates to the underlying legacy system.

Another good use case for RPA is departmental automation, where bot creation and implementation is managed entirely within the department, and not by IT. Many RPA tools are designed to be used by citizen developers, and as such, are good for automating those departmental tasks that might be a lower priority for IT (and fall below their cut line), but are important for efficient departmental operations.

And because RPA is relatively easy to learn and start using, it’s also a good tool for your first automation projects, or proof of concepts, where you want to just try something out and see how it works.

In short, you should consider using RPA for automating business processes if:


  • The business processes targeted for automation are manually intensive, repetitive, and stable
  • The systems connected to these processes lack APIs
  • The processes are self-contained within a single department
  • Departmental resources are available to build and manage their own bots
  • You’re piloting, or trying business process automation for the first time.

But what if your business processes themselves need changing? What if they require data and coordination across multiple departments, or a lot of exception handling and input from your employees? Time to consider also using low-code app dev technology.

When You Should Use Low-Code for Process Automation Instead of RPA

Low-code is an app dev solution that offers developers an intuitive, visual, AI-assisted drag-and-drop interface to rapidly develop software. It’s called low-code, because the time and effort typically required to produce enterprise-class applications using such platforms is relatively lower. Low-code platforms today cover a broad range of use cases, from creating web and mobile apps to automating and orchestrating core business processes.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, RPA is a good solution for automating departmental tasks that are optimized and stable, and for connecting to legacy systems that lack modern APIs. But if your departmental processes are inherently inefficient, all you’ll be doing with RPA is automating a bad process.

If you’re looking to automate cross-functional processes, including automations that are “attended” or require human input, orchestrating the bots that run in different departments can be a challenge using RPA. And if your processes are constantly changing (as is often the case when you are trying to re-engineer or improve your processes), you may be incurring a lot of extra bot maintenance.

Here’s when you should use low-code instead of RPA:


  • When you’re automating cross-functional processes, or processes that span multiple departments and systems of record. RPA is a great tool for helping departmental employees (non-IT) to start automating their departmental tasks. It’s a lot harder to use RPA when you need to stitch these separate departmental automations into a coordinated, efficient, cross-functional process. Low-code is an efficient way to build custom applications to coordinate and orchestrate your unique business processes.
  • When your automated processes require human input or intervention. While some back-office applications run automatically in the background on a timer, many automated processes trigger exception handling processes, which can require human intervention. Generally speaking, RPA tools lack the intuitive user interfaces or robust capabilities for capturing these human inputs. This is where low code can help. Many low-code platforms come with UX/UI templates that are designed to improve human-to-computer interactions. A further advantage of low-code is that you can build the applications for your unique interaction and process, rather than using the standard one-size-fits-all tool provided by the RPA vendor.
  • If you are trying to improve your business processes (and not only automate them) and want to take an iterative, continuous-improvement approach. Any changes to your systems, interfaces, or processes, will likely require changes to your bots. A good strategy is to use bots for processes that are stable and for systems and interfaces that don’t frequently change—in order to minimize bot maintenance costs. Low-code platforms, especially those with good change management capabilities, are better suited for automating processes that may frequently change, as is often the case when you are trying to learn from what you did previously, to adjust and improve what you do in the future.

As these examples show, RPA and low-code are not incompatible, where you should always use one or the other. In fact, they are complementary technologies, and can effectively be used together to drive operational efficiency and productivity gains. The trick is to know the strengths and limitations of the respective technologies, and when to use what, depending on your unique situation.

Complementing Low-Code with RPA

There may be cases where your legacy systems can’t be changed—or at least not for the near future—or cost-effectively integrated with applications built with low-code. Or there may be cases where IT resource constraints result in departmental automations being deprioritized, but citizen developers are available to help get things started.

This is when you can use a combination of RPA and low-code, where the first bridges the integration or resource gaps that exist, and the second provides the additional capabilities needed to iteratively improve attended automations and orchestrate cross-functional business processes.

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You’ll be able to expand the capabilities of your system in a matter of a few days or weeks with a brand new app, while using RPA bots to send and retrieve data, to and from legacy systems.

That’s exactly what Redington Gulf did. The multi-billion-dollar IT distributor uses SAP, but wanted to keep its system as “vanilla” as possible to avoid additional costs associated with expensive SAP customizations.

So, the company used the OutSystems low-code platform and RPA to build around SAP a new rebate management solution. Now, RPA bots with optical character recognition capabilities read documents like emails and PDFs and put select data into Excel sheets. Then, the app built with OutSystems takes care of the business logic, validating the data and presenting it through a modern, mobile-friendly UI. You can read the full case study here.

Final Thoughts

Robots and RPA will not only stick around, but they’re going to get smarter. But much like any technology, it’s important to understand both its capabilities and its limitations, and how they’re changing over time.

RPA is a useful tool, when used for the right things. And it can be even more powerful, when used in combination with other technologies—like low-code platforms. It’s important to have clear goals and objectives, look at your processes holistically, adopt a more comprehensive strategy to intelligently automate your core business processes, and measure your progress.

Sometimes, you’ll want to start with RPA; other times, low-code or other development tools will be the answer. And there will be times when a combination of the two will bring you the most value. Once you choose the right processes to automate and start to overcome the next set of challenges after you’ve deployed RPA bots, you will find that the results are well worth it.