A Brief History of the Rapid Expansion of RPA
Roger Berkley explores how RPA found its way to the BPM space
Various prominent technology analysts and publishers talk of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a completely new 'thing', 'trend', or 'wave'. The reality is: RPA truly is a methodology breakthrough in Business Process Automation (BPA).
This RPA breakthrough is not particularly arising from a new core technology, but from a group of collaborating technologies that are emerging in a robust and enterprise-grade set of vendor supplied systems.
With the use of RPA, other previously peripheral technologies such as Optical Character Recognition and Image Recognition seem to have found their way to the BPM space.
RPA is rooted in Business Process Management (BPM) as a practice, and positioned as a new -additional- approach to performing business process automation.
So, what was process automation before RPA?
Traditionally, other than most IT systems being automation engines themselves. BPA at that time was kept for the few enterprises that have reached a top-tier maturity in their business process landscape.
Simply because achieving process automation required an existing base of streamlined automation-ready business processes, in real terms that meant having modelled business processes running in a workflow engine.
Historically, the 1990’s largely built on the holistic approaches of the 80’s like Total Quality Management and therefore brought mammoth-like enterprise BPM systems such as early IBM BPM and similarly early Oracle BPM. Interestingly, the same era has brought some of the most sticky mammoth legacy systems we face today.
The reality is that era was notorious for BPM, largely due to long-running BPM initiatives with big budgets and less than expected business benefits.
Moving along to the 2000’s, a time of what could be described as a model-orchestrated process automation software platforms such as Pega BPM, TIBCO BPM, Bizagi, Camunda BPM and Bonita BPM.
Surviving the 2000’s as a 'BPM software' company had to be considered lucky. It was a time where no major technological breakthroughs had occurred for some time. It was also a time taken for agreement and standardisation.
Negative press on BPM was climbing once again to the peak. Business interest in BPM was somewhat eroding. Between 2004 and 2011 the search term Business Process Management had lost 69% of its global search points in Google Trends.
Fast forward through to 2016-2017 and the RPA market is forecasted to reach $2.9 billion by 2021 (Forrester), a slightly reserved number in comparison to other sources.
On the sell side, the largest RPA software providers are entering late rounds of $30-40 million funding bringing in somewhere from $70-100 million each. At least 20 considerable new RPA providers have popped up in 2016-17, effectively doubling the overall market landscape. Put all the investments made together with the racing RPA providers and think how this cash is put in a market segment which was mostly non-existent a couple of years earlier.
On the buy-side, the prevailing thought of the first large enterprise adopters was mostly: "This RPA thing seems to be taking off. Maybe we should get someone in to pilot with an 'easy process' and see for ourselves".
Those who have proven some concepts, and there have been several localised successes. Then it was time to scale; therefore some have expanded their proofs of concepts to more processes, without necessarily grasping an understanding of such endeavours to their businesses.
Is this a 'just scale it' paradigm?
The paradigm shifts
There are two big paradigm shifts in the RPA space. One is introduced by RPA itself, and another stems from the capability of adopters to position and administer RPA in their businesses.
The first is a shift in the outcomes of performing process automation. Previous BPA was effectively producing more interfaces to be maintained by enterprise users (i.e. it was increasing resource intensiveness).
RPA is pragmatically automating existing interfaces and taking the burden of maintaining them. With this shift, RPA is suited for automating the iceberg portfolio of legacy applications, and with that, decreasing resource intensiveness.
The second shift is evident in the current obstacles to scaling RPA in businesses. Yes, it's late-2017 and RPA is stumbling . Some suggest a current adoption rate of just 4%. Several robotics programs have been put on hold, or CIOs have flatly refused to install new bots . No wonder really. Look around, and consider how many sell RPA as a software solution, or as an added IT responsibility, or even a rudimentary means to . Why outsource if it is automated?
The success of scaled RPA
I could bet that the success of RPA initiatives at scale depends on achieving the second of the paradigm shifts. That is, positioning RPA in its respective natural place in the enterprise, within a BPM practice, as a means to automating business processes.
If you do not yet have a BPM practice -or team- and would like to make RPA a success in your business, I'd suggest starting to build this practice before making the leap onto the RPA bandwagon.
If you would like more insight into RPA and where it can be deployed in your organzation download a copy of the white paper Robotic Process Automation: A New Era of Agent Engagement