Robotics process automation, or RPA, is becoming big. And this month, RPA is our main theme. Information Age talks to three of the top players: Blue Prism, UiPath and Automation Anywhere. So here we begin RPA month by comparing and contrasting.
Is there a danger that some companies are implementing RPA, without fully understanding what it can offer, as a result they may be left disappointed?
Guy Kirkwood, UiPath: “We do not presume to know everything, which is why we recommend everyone implementing RPA follows a step-by-step guide to implementation, produced by analyst firm Everest Group. This Playbook is available free from UiPath.”
Many enterprises that have used Robotic Process Automation (RPA) have seen the power of digital transformation, even if only in a small way through a few automated processes. The transformational value they experience is often a tipping point that whets their appetite for even more automation and deeper levels of application integration. But, this creates a quandary about how to maintain the array of automations. Ultimately, their success depends on the scope of the centers of excellence (COEs) that maintain their automations. Let’s explore further.
Getting the Wheel Spinning – Getting that Old-time Integration Religion
I believe that RPA has helped companies that previously held back from adopting newer technology solutions see the value of a digital mindset. These converts are now finding more opportunities for automation, and greater conviction in moving to digital-first operating models.
In short, something comparatively simple like RPA helps inspire confidence and vision.
The Ironic Corner to Turn – Moving beyond what Initially Made RPA so Enticing
Once this passion is unleashed, organizations come to fully appreciate that RPA is only one tool for automating operations. Many desire to transform their high volume, fast processes, and must confront the reality that surface-level RPA integrations are often not sufficient. The next steps towards more powerful automations often include integration via connectors and APIs.
The following exhibit reflects the diversity of systems which may now need to be integrated in a digital-first operating model world. (Spoiler alert: we’ll be writing a lot more about the Digital Capability Platform in the upcoming months.) And there are many ways to go about creating the needed integrations.
Some enterprises have cast aside the promise of surface-level RPAs, and now use their RPAs more through APIs. This is a bit ironic and worthy of a discussion by itself, but let’s get back to what happens as the types of automations proliferate.
Holding it Together – not Firing and Forgetting
One thing that all integrations – surface, APIs, or connectors – have in common is that they need maintenance. With surface-level RPA, you need to do a lot of robot maintenance when application layouts change. But all integrations, RPA included, require maintenance for other reasons as well. The biggest is the need to resolve data ambiguities, e.g., common customer names (think Jane Smith) with similar account types requesting a temporary address change. Which record should be updated? How can this correctly propagate across all the relevant systems and processes?
This is why a COE should be responsible for all types of automations, whether through surface or other integration methods. By looking across all automations, a COE can not only more accurately maintain the automations, but also identify anomalies and conceive new ways to structure interdependent automations. Of course, adding AI-based tools into the mix adds even more API connections to manage. But AI connections are far from the only ones that will need to be managed; the landscape will become more complicated before it simplifies (yes, I’m trying to be optimistic here.)
I can hear some of you saying that the COE should be an overall digital center of excellence. My answer is a big “no.” Digital is a far broader field that often involves major legacy transformation projects. Automation is clearly a part of digital, but it is operationally focused on the practical realities that come from modernizing processes that still primarily run on legacy systems.
This is a different mindset and a different set of competencies. As a result, it is best to keep a separate automation COE focused on the details of operational processes, while separately working towards the corporate digital objectives in a broader digital office. And that automation COE’s remit should be bigger than just RPA – it must deal with the combination of all types of automations that are enabling the operating processes.
Everest Group report describes clear marketplace advantage held by service providers who offer end-to-end capabilities, onshore services, domain expertise and digital proficiency.
The Life and Pension (L&P) business process outsourcing (BPO) market has seen a consistent pace of year-on-year growth in the range of 9 to 10 percent since 2014. According to Everest Group, growth will accelerate in the future, jumping from a market size of US $2.3 billion in 2017 to US$3.1 billion by 2020. However, growth will be focused on four distinct areas as buyers demand these specific capabilities from their service providers:
End-to-end delivery capabilities: Insurers are moving away from managing multi-vendor engagements to consolidating their vendor portfolios. Buyers are also demanding greater value-addition from service providers, including support on faster launch of new products, customer experience and regulatory compliance.
Onshore presence: Buyers in almost all the major geographies are now demanding an onshore presence of service providers. Buyers often seek localized presence to minimize language and cultural issues, to ensure quality of customer service, to ease relationship management, and to address political and regulatory requirements.
Domain expertise: As buyers expand the scope of services with service providers, they will be inclined to engage with providers that have deeper domain expertise.
Digital proficiency: Buyers are increasingly considering service providers for their digital initiatives. The ability to deliver integrated and modernized platform solutions will differentiate service providers in the L&P insurance BPO market.
“In 2019, we will see buyers in the L&P insurance BPO market increasingly partnering with service providers to leverage the latter’s technological capabilities and expertise,” said Saurabh Verma, practice director, Business Process Services, at Everest Group. “In particular, as insurers’ hurdles continue to magnify and the need to address inefficient legacy systems becomes unavoidable, buyers will be even more open to leveraging external administration platforms. Thus, providers who have invested in digitally modernized and integrated platform solutions are going to have a clear advantage.”
These findings are discussed in more detail in “Life and Pensions (L&P) Insurance BPO: Annual Deal Trends Report 2019.” This report provides comprehensive coverage of the global L&P insurance BPO market, including the adoption trends across geographies and buyer size, factors impacting the market, key solution characteristics, emerging trends and the service provider landscape.
Other Key Findings:
New deal signings were witnessed across multiple geographies including the United States, the United Kingdom, Asia Pacific, and Continental Europe. L&P insurance BPO signing activity was the most intense in North America and Continental Europe.
Ensuring buyer satisfaction has become absolutely essential for service providers as renewals account for the majority of signing activity. Additionally, as buyers endeavor to move up the value stream in their outsourcing relationships, service providers need to consequently build supporting capabilities.
Adoption of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and analytics in L&P insurance BPO contracts has steadily been increasing. However, the pace of adoption is slower than expected owing to multiple reasons such as complications around contract pricing for RPA leverage.
The demand for BPaaS models is getting stronger as service providers have developed suitable domain expertise and supporting platform capabilities over the years that could address buyers’ margin issues, volume fluctuations, and archaic technology infrastructure challenges.
The relationship between RPA vendors and their clients isn’t so different from the relationship between Marvel Studios and its fans.
Since the movie Iron Man hit the big screen in 2008, fans’ expectations of superhero films have skyrocketed. Despite the rising and evolving expectations, Marvel has satisfied its audience and has made a little pocket change in the process.
In a similar way, RPA buyers are expecting increasingly more from their RPA vendors. So, have RPA technology vendors been MARVELous in their customers’ eyes?
Our recent research study among 50 enterprise RPA buyers makes it clear that vendors have excelled in addressing their primary drivers, which are cost reduction and process optimization.
However, vendors didn’t score as high on secondary drivers such as improved customer experience, governance, and top-line growth. With increasing awareness about the potential impact of RPA beyond immediate cost and efficiency benefits, enterprises have started to view RPA as a primary contributor to their digital strategy, rather than a tactical measure.
Consequently, technology vendors should focus on continuously evolving their RPA solutions with a host of capabilities to help enterprise buyers achieve their strategic business outcomes.
As to be expected, the buyers in our research study found their RPA vendors excelled in certain areas and had work to do in others.
The key strengths for those vendors who were identified as the Leaders as per our PEAK Matrix™ assessment on RPA included:
Customer support and service
Ease of use and robot development
Vision and strategy
Key improvement areas for Leaders included:
Product vision and strategy
Product training and support
The X Factors
As there are so many RPA tools available in the market, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, it can be daunting for enterprises to select the right vendor for their unique needs. One critical part of the decision-making process is to focus on the X factors that are most important to their strategic agendas.
Our study found that factors including “ease of use and robot maintenance” and “scalability” highly correlate to buyers’ overall satisfaction levels. This is not surprising, as these are factors that buyers typically face issues with during RPA adoption. “Product vision and strategy” – and in some cases vendor expertise in a specific vertical industry or function – are also important buyer X factors.
While it’s clear that RPA vendors can do more to satisfy the needs of their customers – and that they’ll need to continually evolve their solutions – they have indeed been relatively MARVELous in delivering value and overall satisfaction to their buyers.
Is upskilling and reskilling little more than a thinly disguised attempt by HR departments to rebrand Learning and Development (L&D)? The answer, as one practitioner pointed out at a conference in Poland, is “no.”
I recently presented to the Association of Business Services Leaders (ABSL) Chapter in Krakow, Poland about the talent acquisition challenges that digitization poses to Shared Services Centers (SSCs.) The argument runs roughly like this:
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is replacing human agents in transactional roles, freeing up capacity in the workforce. This can mean lay-offs at worst, or unqualified internal candidates reapplying for roles at best
There is greater demand for people with new skills both technological (design thinking, robotics, autonomics, analytics) and soft (pattern-recognition, complex problem solving, leadership, intuition) than can be met by simply recruiting externally
As automation takes care of transactional processes, organizations can enhance the value of their brands and the service they provide by having more people in roles which emphasize first contact resolution, emotional intelligence, listening, etc.
This new value chain focuses on outcomes: people are measured against quality of outcome rather than throughput (for instance, a shift from average handling time to CSat), which in turn requires new management thinking around staff incentives, culture, and business model.
So obvious was the message that emerged from the survey that one or two skeptics in the audience questioned why retraining that part of the workforce most affected by the trend of automation was even worthy of discussion. Is it not just good L&D practice? And surely survey respondents would not admit to anything other than good practice when asked the question?
Not quite true: there were survey respondents, albeit no more than 10 percent of them, who said that they were not planning to undertake upskilling and reskilling as a means of addressing talent shortages. A small majority, 58 percent, said upskilling/reskilling was the highest priority in addressing this same problem, while 10 percent, possibly the same nagging 10 percent, said it was a low priority.
The discussion continued after the presentation. Without experience as a practitioner, I wrestled with an explanation as to why this 10 percent stubbornly refused to fit the theory. Thankfully, the HR head of a Krakow-based SSC rode to my rescue and gave the answer.
This is the group, she said, which understands that reskilling and upskilling is indeed good L&D practice but remains wedded to external hiring of permanent and temporary staff. It is the group that fails to see that existing employees must be recognized as the key pool to meet scarce talent requirements in SSCs.
Her explanation, thankfully, echoed our contention that successful application of reskilling/upskilling to talent acquisition needs:
Senior leadership backing to ensure adequate resource and profile within the organization
Implementation of a skill-specific talent acquisition strategy to identify both critical areas of shortage and those most suitable for reskilling/upskilling
Quick roll-out of pilots in critical areas of shortage to build confidence and to learn
Breaking down of functional barriers and giving employees wider exposure to functional roles
A combination of effective duration and appropriate method (job rotation, on-the-job training, mentoring, peer-to-peer learning, and specialist external providers)
Clear communication of career paths, internal opportunity, incentive, and compensation
Patience and persistence!
She explained further. In her experience, the real difference between reskilling/upskilling as good L&D practice and reskilling/upskilling as a talent acquisition solution is simple. The talent acquisition solution approach is not considered aspirational, “something that HR does,” or nice to have. Rather, it is a strategic imperative.
How nice to have somebody who really knows what they are talking about answer a difficult question on my behalf!
The news of another big round of funding for UiPath, US$225 million series C, and a valuation of US$3 billion created a lot of excitement and amazement in the market. It followed on from Automation Anywhere’s whopping series A funding round of US$250 million in July, which valued the company at US$1.8 billion, and which surpassed UiPath’s earlier series B funding of US$153 million and a valuation of US$1 billion in Q1 2018.
These valuations are phenomenal. In UiPath’s case, the rise from US$1 billion to US$3 billion in less than six months is, I believe, unprecedented. You might think that investors are living on a different planet than us ordinary folks, and that this kind of valuation is plain wrong. I beg to differ.
Investing in the Future of RPA
My case rests on the rapid increase in market adoption and the huge investments that vendors are making in their platforms. As much has already been said about the fast rate of enterprise adoption, there’s no need for me to repeat it again here. Jumping to the second part of my case: RPA today is not the RPA that launched this market three to four years ago. The original developments lacked many of the features that we see today, e.g., computer vision to pick objects on the screen and robust control panels. Similarly, tomorrow’s RPA will be superior to today’s.
As someone who assesses RPA technology on an annual basis, I see a fast rate of product development, not just year on year, but in some cases quarter by quarter.
Everest Group’s “RPA Virtuous Circle” highlights the continuous cycle of developments in the market.
Much has been said of organizations struggling to scale their deployments. I completely agree with this, and for a while I’ve been asking vendors to do something about this issue. I am delighted to see that they have been listening and are investing in features for scaling. These include enhanced robot run time control and management features including intelligent control systems for dynamic workload balancing, auto-scaling, and even identifying processes for further automation. Another major stream of development is turning RPA platforms into the glue that holds together business process management systems (BPMS), different varieties of machine learning, and narrow artificial intelligence. These will ultimately be integrated and will combine seamlessly to provide end-to-end process automation.
While vendors do their bit for scale, organizations should also examine their deployment models for RPA and take a more programmatic approach. Automation is going to be a serious competitive differentiator, and a programmatic approach would significantly speed up organizations’ adoption and realization of desired outcomes. Everest Group’s RPA Pinnacle study highlights some of the approaches that organizations have taken to achieve excellence in RPA.
Of course, these enormous investments in RPA do carry some risks. There is the possibility of tech giants bringing their own RPA solutions to market, in turn pushing out the current RPA vendors. But that wouldn’t be easy to do, as the existing vendors have gained a lot of hard to emulate know how in the past few years. And any one of the existing RPA vendors could be acquired in a major acquisition, but then the investors would get the handsome returns they anticipated…just in a different way.
Taking the Manufacturing Model to Business Processes
Another reason for my optimism about the recent investments in RPA and vendor valuations is that I recently got a glimpse into the future of business automation by looking at manufacturing. On a visit to Siemens Digital, I saw how the concept of digital twin and simulation of manufacturing processes is helping speed up production times and efficiency, even in manual/human processes.
For years, corporate global services functions have attempted to copy manufacturing principles, e.g., adopting Lean and Six Sigma methodologies. Today, they have moved on to automation, which manufacturing adopted decades ago. Having started on automation of global services, enterprises are not going to turn back. They will continue to follow manufacturing’s lead.
Leading organizations are already giving their processes version numbers with supporting documentation, having taken each step through a rigorous Lean Six Sigma methodology. On the automation front, while the focus has been primarily on tactical needs, it will increasingly move to outcomes and the finished “product,” as in manufacturing.
We will see enterprises develop digital twins of their processes or robots, and run complex functions end-to-end in virtual reality before committing to the final model for deployment in the real world. Future versions of RPA will have to support these requirements, and that is where some of the millions of funding will be spent; on product development and advanced features.
Today’s RPA products are paving the way for a far bigger change in automation of global services than we have seen to date. They are the building blocks of the platforms of the future for an inevitable automation journey that every organization will have to take sooner or later. That is why the current group of vendors are so attractive to investors. They are betting not just on today’s growing revenues, but what is to come.
How hot has Summer 2018 been around the globe? Red hot…but not as hot as the RPA marketplace. The speed of evolution in this industry segment is almost without precedent. Firms that had revenues worth tens of millions of U.S. dollars just a couple of years ago are talking about reaching a billion in revenue in just a couple of more years.
So why all the excitement? Some chalk it up to Robotic Process Automation being a clever product idea and others to the even cleverer marketing of sexy robots.
But the reality is that it’s the perfect storm – or heat wave – of innovation and capital intersecting at just the right time.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that enterprises have already captured most of the potential value from offshore labor arbitrage. But when you combine the need for a new source of cost savings with the acute shortage of labor in the U.S. and Europe, you have a market condition in which enterprises are screaming for automation that allows continued productivity improvements for less money, with less human labor-based effort.
The RPA Virtuous Circle Story
These four keys make up the RPA virtuous circle: More sophisticated software platforms, real value propositions, significant capital infusion, and aggressive buy/build decisions. Let’s unpack each one to get the full story.
More sophisticated software platforms – the software platforms underlying RPA are not new; some of them have been around for many years. But as interest and revenues in the segment grow, the vendors are investing in better software and getting invaluable real-life implementation experience. And great use cases and robust feedback loops will drive enhanced software innovation.
Real value propositions – while a great idea is always fun to talk about, the story quickly fades if the economics are insufficient. In RPA’s case, enterprises are finding real savings and, probably most important, operational improvement. What makes this such an exciting story is that RPA doesn’t apply to just one aspect of the enterprise – it applies anywhere human resources are being deployed for labor-intensive services. So not just G&A functions, but also core business operations.
Significant capital being infused – where there is monetary value creation, Wall Street and Silicon Valley will certainly be found nearby. In the RPA segment, multiple investments in excess of US$100 million have been made. In total, we have seen more than a half billion dollars in investments in just the past six months. These are huge flows of capital, especially considering that in many cases they far exceed current revenues.
Aggressive buy/build decisions – of course, when that much capital is deployed, there’s tremendous pressure to take action to generate real, quantifiable results. The most obvious is to deploy larger sales/account teams to support the growth. But, there will be also significant development needs as use cases expand. We also anticipate that RPA firms will go on a buying spree of niche competitors or companies that increase automation functionality for items like OCR, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing.
Right now, the velocity of the Virtuous Circle is increasing…better software, increased enterprise value propositions, and another round of investments.
To learn more about Everest Group’s take on RPA, view the replay of our popular August 8 webinar on the latest developments and implications for enterprises. By registering, you will also receive a a copy of the presentation and deck for download after the webinar.
My recent meetings with the top RPA vendors made it clear that RPA is shifting into new gears of adoption and implementation. But the vendors also made it clear that the true promise of RPA is getting lost in flashy headlines and hype-ridden marketing messages.
Here are my five recommendations for how enterprises can drown out the noise and harness RPA’s real benefits.
Experimentation is Over – The Value is Real
The question “Should I pursue RPA?” has been answered and is widely being replaced with “How can I leverage RPA to gain the most value?” As you see in the graphic below, the benefits of RPA are very real. Nearly every enterprise we have spoken with is seeing real savings – typically around 30 percent lower cost and 30-50 percent improvement in accuracy, cycle time, staff productivity, etc.
Forget about RPA Vendors’ Pitches
Despite all the hype, enterprises must remember that RPA vendors are not selling a digital workforce; they are selling software that can speed up, improve, and support many processes currently performed by staff members. While this is sophisticated software, it’s not a physical entity or an army of robots. It can be tempting to get lost in the imagery, but enterprises need to be careful not to lose sight of what they are getting. Otherwise, they can be left with the feeling that vendors have overpromised and underdelivered.
Ignore the Buzz Words
From OCR to NLP to Intelligent Automation, there’s no shortage of RPA buzzwords. But the labels themselves don’t really matter. What does matter is the ability to identify processes that are using precious staff resources, limiting operational improvement, or diminishing the customer or employee experience. Enterprises should start with the process they want to improve and then approach the vendor with that specific need as the starting point in the context of their overall automation – including and beyond RPA – journey.
Focus on the Operating Fundamentals
The basics of building an enterprise automation capability can seem amazingly easily…until it becomes obvious that it’s not. Some enterprises undoubtedly acquire robots for simple plug-and-play automation. But when mission critical processes come into play, serious and complex issues – like enterprise-grade security and business continuity – come into play and must be carefully and thoughtfully addressed. Don’t allow these issues to become barriers to RPA adoption (as many enterprises do), because, if well implemented, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Automation Tools are a Must for Business Growth
Automation tools can help enterprises tackle the labor shortage challenge by making their existing teams more productive and retaining key employees by offering opportunities to perform higher-value work. Although cost savings are important, an automation-augmented workforce is key to competing and excelling in the marketplace.
To help you avoid getting caught up in the industry hype around RPA, we’ve created a simple graphic that describes the four key dimensions you should be thinking about. This enterprise automation analysis framework looks beyond vendors’ marketing pitches and addresses questions based on opportunities from your point of view, including:
Business problem complexity – how big and complex is the business process?
Rate of operational improvement – how much of a business process improvement do we want to see?
Solution/technology investment – which of the many different automation solutions should we deploy (considering investment and benefit)?
Operational execution – how do we best implement in your organization?
At the end of the day, however you choose to move forward with RPA technology, start by considering your enterprise’s use cases and business requirements. Then, build the business cases to support them. And then set your automation team loose on an increasingly exciting new set of capabilities.