Digital Transformation Beyond RPA Whitepaper
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whether running a company in reorganization, selling clothing, or re-engineering corporate supply chains, there are always lessons to be learned. Today, Kerry is applying those lessons, with additional training from some of the best technology infrastructure companies and universities, to optimize the positioning, messaging, and GTM strategies for Outsystems. He finds product marketing to be both fascinating and challenging, due to our continually changing consumer, competitor, and technology landscape.See All Posts From this author