Disclaimer: I recently attended Tech Field Day 19. My flights, accommodation and other expenses were paid for by Tech Field Day. There is no requirement for me to blog about any of the content presented and I am not compensated in any way for my time at the event. Some materials presented were discussed under NDA and don’t form part of my blog posts, but could influence future discussions.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the new hotness in enterprise software. Automation Anywhere raised over $550 million in funding in the last 12 months. That’s a lot of money. But what is RPA? It’s a way to develop workflows so that business processes can be automated. One of the cool things, though, is that it can develop these automation actions by observing the user perform the actions in the GUI, and then repeating those actions. There’s potential to make this more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily software development types.
Automation Anywhere started back in 2003, and the idea was to automate any application. Automation anywhere want to “democratise automation”, and “anything that can be automated, should be automated”. The real power of this kind of approach is that it, potentially, allows you do things you never did before. Automation Anywhere want us to “imagine a world where every job has a digital assistant working side by side, allowing people doing what they do best”.
[image courtesy of Automation Anywhere]
Humans are the Resource
This whole automating all the things mantra has been around for some time, and the idea has always been that we’re “[m]oving humans up the value chain”. Not only that, but RPA isn’t about digital transformation in the sense that a lot of companies see it currently, i.e. as a way to change the way they do things to better leverage digital tools. What’s interesting is that RPA is more focused on automating what you already have. You can then decide whether the process is optimal or whether it should be changed. I like this idea, if only because of the number of times I’ve witnessed small and large companies go through “transformations”, only to realise that what they were doing previously was pretty good, and they’d just made a few mistakes in terms of manual process creeping in.
Automation Anywhere told us that some people start with “I know that my job cannot be automated”, but it turns out that about 80% of their job is business tools based, and a lack of automation is holding them back from thinking strategically. We’ve seen this problem throughout the various industrial revolutions that have occurred, and people have invariably argued against steam-powered devices, and factory lines, and self-healing infrastructure.
Thoughts and Further Reading
Automation is a funny thing. It’s often sold to people as a means to give them back time in their day to do “higher order” activities within the company. This has been a message that has been around as long as I’ve been in IT. There’s an idea that every worker is capable of doing things that could provide more value to the company, if only they had more time. Sometimes, though, I think some folks are just good at breaking rocks. They don’t want to do anything else. They may not really be capable of doing anything else. And change is hard, and is going to be hard for them in particular. I’m not anticipating that RPA will take over every single aspect of the workplace, but there’s certainly plenty of scope for it to have a big presence in the modern enterprise. So much time is wasted on process that should really be automated, because it can give you back a lot of time in your day. And it also provides the consistency that human resources lack.
As Automation Anywhere pointed out in their presentation “every piece of software in the world changes how we work, but rarely do you have the opportunity to change what the work is”. And that’s kind of the point, I think. We’re so tied to do things in a business a certain way, and oftentimes we fill the gaps in workflows with people because the technology can’t keep up with what we’re trying to do. But if you can introduce tools into the business that can help you move past those shortfalls in workflow, and identify ways to improve those workflows, that could really be something interesting. I don’t know if RPA will solve all of our problems overnight, because humans are unfortunately still heavily involved in the decision making process inside enterprise, but it seems like there’s scope to do some pretty cool stuff with it.
If you’d like to read some articles that don’t just ramble on, check out Adam’s article here, Jim’s view here, and Liselotte’s article here. Marina posted a nice introduction to Automation Anywhere here, and Scott’s impression of Automation Anywhere’s security approach made for interesting reading. There’s a wealth of information on the Automation Anywhere website, and a community edition you can play with too.