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Is robotic process automation software hitting the wall?

Robotic process automation software is a stop-gap measure for a business’ integration problems and serves as a bridge to digital transformation but falls short of being transformational on its own.

That’s the view of Francis Carden, vice president of digital automation and robotics at Pegasystems Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company in the digital process automation (DPA) space. Carden’s view runs counter to organizations that have made RPA the cornerstone of their digital transformation efforts.  For example, CGS, a business process outsourcing provider based in New York, views RPA as a key vehicle for digital transformation. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., a Chicago-based communications company, is pursuing RPA as part of its digital revolution initiative.  Numerous other enterprises have embarked on a similar path with robotic process automation software.

Carden, however, believes RPA is bumping into limitations as adopters attempt to scale initial deployments. Among those are cost and ROI.  Some organizations are initially attracted to RPA as a simple and inexpensive way to integrate systems. But as bots proliferate, the need to manage them grows. An enterprise might create an RPA center of excellence and institute other governance mechanisms to keep initiatives on track. But adding those elements requires investment.

“The problem you then have is your costs go up,” Carden said. “They [RPA adopters] get lulled into a false sense of security that it is cheap.”

More effort than expected

A Pegasystems’ survey of decision makers using RPA, published Sept. 10, found organizations “spending more time and effort getting bots up and running than anticipated.” Half of the 509 survey respondents said software bots were harder to deploy than expected and 41% of those polled said bot management was taking more time and resources than expected.

RPA’s return on investment, meanwhile, may fail to justify the cost, Carden suggested. For some projects, a complete overhaul of a business process would make more economic sense than RPA, he said.

“There is a cross-over point that varies,” he said or RPA efforts. “If the ROI is significant, then go for it. If it’s small, then for the upfront dev cost, ongoing maintenance [and] governance … looking at a re-engineered process becomes more viable. It’s not a one size fits all, but if the cost of tactical RPA gets closer to digital transformation, who wouldn’t want to transform?”

And then there’s the issue of a software bot’s lifespan. Changes to an organization’s underlying enterprise architecture will likely result in an increase in software bot breakage, the Pegasystems survey noted. Eight-seven percent of the  survey respondents reported some level of bot failure, although most of those reporting breakage described the problem as small to moderate in scope. Organizations, on average, believe bots will last about three years, according to the survey.

Carden said the breakage will accelerate. He believes RPA’s fragility stems, in part, from accretions of automation over time. Enterprises originally automated manual processes, an era he referred to as “computerization.” Subsequent efforts — from Excel macros to present-day RPA — have sought to automate those computer-based processes, he said.

“RPA is the automation of computerization,” Carden said, describing RPA as another layer of automation amid other attempts to stitch together old, computerized processes. “At some point of time, the house of cards must collapse,” he said.

Beyond robotic process automation software

Carden clearly has a horse in the automation race. His company, Pegasystems, views DPA as going beyond RPA to provide an “end-to-end strategy for digital transformation.” In this vision, RPA plays a role in transformation, but a transitional one.

Carden outlined the following scenario: An organization decides to “go digital” with a new customer onboarding system, spanning mobile and web engagement. Such a customer deploys RPA as fast way to tackle the necessary integrations with backend systems. RPA thus provides a bridge to digital transformation, but a temporary one. After the onboarding system goes live, the organization can, over time, descale the RPA installation, replacing bots with “true API integration into the backend systems.”

This approach makes robotic process automation software a short-term expediency. “RPA as a permanent solution for integration is madness,” Carden contended.

RPA, DPA and other emerging fields such as intelligent process automation, which blends RPA with AI, are all vying for enterprise and channel partner attention. The next couple of years will reveal which technology, or combination of technologies, gain the upper hand as the preferred tools of digital transformation.

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