With RPA, it’s not just “Point A to Point B”

Imagine you decide one day to go shopping for a new ride. You do a quick Web search for what’s available, what’s in your price range, who’s selling what in your area, and so forth. However, something strange occurs. No matter where you go and no matter how you word your search, you keep coming up with a silver-colored, base-level, four-door sedan — mind you, it’s the same basic silver car, over and over. Every dealer’s website emphasizes that you don’t need different vehicle choices because it doesn’t matter what you get: all you want to do is get from Point A to Point B.

You say to yourself, “This can’t be right. What if I need more room to carry my family and friends around? What if I want something with more horsepower? What if I want a different color? What if I want some special features?”

And you’ve got it: This can’t be right. Yet that’s precisely how some vendors want you to think about robotic process automation (RPA). They want you to think it’s pretty much a commodity now, that one product is about the same as another, and that it doesn’t matter all that much which one you get. “Additional features? Bah! You don’t need those. Ability to handle complex tasks? Pfft! That’s not what RPA does! Server-based connectivity with mainframes? Ridiculous! It doesn’t matter.”

Well . . . yes, maybe you do; yes, it does; and yes, it does.

As much as some of the vendors out there may want to pretend that there’s no difference among the offerings, it just isn’t so. We’ll set that straight in a moment.

RPA: More than just a silver sedan

First, let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is RPA?

In its simplest form, the meaning of RPA is automating human-executed processes with no changes to the existing infrastructure or applications. Among RPA vendors, most interpret this to mean a software robot running on a desktop and interacting with the same user interfaces used by humans. Moreover, the general perception apparently is that there are two types of automation: RPA and everything else.

In this mindset, RPA is billed as the easy entry product that quickly automates mundane tasks to free up users to do the more important and interesting work; so, naturally, many people consider all RPA products to be equal when it comes to automating processes. It comes down to a feature checklist to determine which RPA product(s) to choose for each organization: whatever is an RPA product — by this interpretation, something that runs on a desktop and interacts with the user interface — will be considered. It’s silver sedans all the way down.

(OK, sorry; wrong metaphor.)

There is one big problem with this: not everybody wants or needs a silver sedan! There are many different types of processes that can be automated. Here are two big mistakes organizations make:

  • They lump all RPA products into the same bucket and look at only the feature list.
  • They consider only mundane, simple tasks/processes for RPA automation.

Companies, evaluate your processes

When considering automation opportunities (as we’ve discussed in earlier blog posts here), companies should first look at all processes, from the complex to the simple (“mundane”), and then find the right tool — and they shouldn’t look at just the tools that fit the simplistic definition of RPA.

There is a continuum of process complexity that ranges from simple through moderate to complex. Traditional RPA tools can handle simple, and some moderate, processes, while they struggle with some moderate and most complex processes. For these reasons, your automation strategy should include several tools, one for each complexity level. Many companies already choose at least a couple of products for their standard RPA solution. But these choices typically are based on either the best two feature sets (the classic “look-for-the-most-bullets-in-the-feature-list” approach) or one product for unattended automation and one for attended (also called assisted) automation.

Some families need multiple vehicles: a nice-sized crossover to carry everybody around, an econo-car for workday commuting, and maybe even a sporty car for one or more teenagers. One silver sedan just won’t cut it. And, when it comes to RPA, one product isn’t enough. What you really should have is one RPA tool for attended automation and two or three others for unattended automation. The reason you should have only one attended solution is because the users who interact with it can be confused by having to learn multiple products. You should find the best-of-breed product and do a thorough evaluation of it with end users to make sure it meets their needs. For attended automation, the users are key to your success, so find a product that is easy to use, yet powerful enough to handle users’ needs.

The reason you need more than one unattended solution is because, again, the same silver sedan can’t fit everyone’s needs. One RPA product might not be able to successfully automate some of the more complex processes and another might not be cost effective for simple processes. You should look at the problems you’re trying to solve and choose the appropriate solution to each problem.

Simple to moderate processes

Simple to moderate processes are those processes that have simple logic and few decision points. For those, look at standard desktop-based RPA tools. You can find a list of the usual suspects by searching on the Web; but don’t choose one just because it has the highest rating from Gartner or Forrester or another analyst you may prefer. Instead, look at the strengths and weaknesses of each tool and compare that data to your actual requirements.

Desktop-based RPA tools should be used to automate mundane, simple tasks. These products are designed to sit on a desktop and automate processes exactly like a human. They are perfect for simple processes such as data entry, but may not be appropriate for complex processes that require advanced business logic or have many decision points. Many of these products also provide a server to allow you to monitor the desktops and robots, and to dynamically scale when needed. Still, don’t be fooled by the presence of a server here: in most cases, the server does not contain any business logic or allow robots to share information. This is not server-based RPA.

Moderate to complex processes

For automating moderate to complex processes, you should look for solutions that specifically state that they can automate complex processes. These solutions are usually server-based, as opposed to desktop-based, and usually have some proprietary technology that allows them to access applications more efficiently and accurately, and with high scalability and availability.

These systems are designed to handle complex logic and usually provide more than just desktop access. For example, access to Web-based applications might be accomplished through a server-based Web browser allowing higher scalability, efficiency and accuracy. Another example is mainframe “green-screen” access. A desktop-based RPA product interacts with mainframes through a desktop-based terminal emulator via either EHLLAPI or screen-scraping, both of which present major challenges unless access to the mainframe is a very small part of the overall picture.

What to look for in RPA

Here are some guidelines that can help you choose the right solution:

  • How long does it take an end user to learn the process?
    – Hours to a few days = simple process.
    – Days to a week = moderate process.
    – More than a week = complex process.
  • How large is the daily inventory of work and how many humans does it take to complete it?
    – Requires 10 or fewer workers = low-volume process.
    – Requires 50 or fewer workers = medium-volume process.
    – Requires more than 50 workers = high-volume process.
  • What is the impact to the business if the process isn’t executed properly?
    – Minimal impact = low.
    – Fines that could hurt the bottom line = moderate.
    – Fines and interest that add up to millions = high.

The bottom line: Where the rubber meets the road

Remember, basic silver sedans won’t serve everyone when it comes to RPA. Even though the desktop RPA vendors have managed to make a name for themselves, there are better RPA solutions available for high-volume, high-value, complex processes. You don’t need a complex, BPM-like solution to automate these processes. RPA technology will work — so long as the architecture of the solution is designed to handle it.