But the context of automation must be defined for it to mean anything specific. Robotic Process Automation, RPA for short, is a business term that is well known for some, and gibberish for others. In my experience, we in the tech consulting industry often manage to hide the message or meaning of something in a sparkling haze of terminology. It might make technology or services sound mysterious and interesting, but if the message is lost then what’s the point? By the end of this blog post, you’ll see what I mean, I hope.
So, to make sure we share a frame of reference I’ll start by defining these two terms:
Is generally defined as the use of technology to perform tasks or processes without human intervention, with the aim to reduce manual labor, improve efficiency, reduce errors, and increase productivity by replacing manual or repetitive tasks with machines and/or software.
That makes sense, but it’s still generic. We can use it in reference to a bunch of different markets, technologies, and professions. There’s Manufacturing Automation - involving the use of machines and robots to perform various functions in factories, then there’s Test Automation – involving the use of software tools to run automated tests in software applications to ensure that they function properly. And then there is:
It’s defined as the use of software robots, or bots, that are using pre-programmed rules and algorithms, to perform mundane, repetitive, and rule-based tasks that otherwise would have been performed by humans. Some of the key benefits of applying RPA in an organization are increased efficiency, improved accuracy, enforced compliance and security, and not to mention the treasure trove of mental and social benefits that stems from employees not experiencing stress or feeling unfulfilled at work. It can be applied in all kinds of industries and organizations since there is busywork everywhere.
The term itself is somewhat problematic since the word “Robotics” is commonly used in reference to physical machines. Like that dog-looking thing that won’t fall if you kick it, or a robotic arm that places caps on tubes of toothpaste in a factory. And the word process just means a series of steps or actions that are taken to achieve a particular goal. The point is that semantics can be confusing and sometimes unnecessarily so. Anyways, the term “RPA” has been used for years now and is fairly dug in, so one might say we’re stuck with it.
Now, before I get to the juicy part of this blog, let’s have a quick history recap.
RPA as we know it today has been around for a while, but compared to other technologies and disciplines it’s a young one. It can be traced back to the early 2000s, when screen scraping technology was first used to automate manual tasks that involved interacting with graphical user interfaces (GUIs). It wasn’t until the early 2010s that the term “RPA” was coined, and the technology began to gain wider recognition and adoption. During the late 2010s we saw several specialized RPA platform vendors pop up, such as Robocorp, UiPath and Automation Anywhere, that each provide a set of tools to develop and operate bots. It’s been a competitive marketplace and the capabilities of these tools have grown over the years, evolving from simple screen scraping and GUI interaction to the application of various types of AI to automate more complex tasks.
I entered this field in 2019 and quickly became enthusiastic about it. Many of the tools provided by platform vendors were low-code and, paired with easily accessible online learning resources, it was surprisingly easy to get the hang of using them. Easily accessible marketing and sales material, as well as the general hype, made it easy to sell consultants and services. And the idea of building cool tech, fast and cheap, made the field feel like a golden ticket.
And it seemed to work.
But after having worked for a while and delivered a few bots, I had this uncanny feeling. Everyone in this field seemed to act confidently, but behind the scenes there was often an air of insecurity. I’ve racked my brain on it for years and have some thoughts on why that was the case, and sometimes still is.
And yes, here comes the juice.
As with many emerging technologies, there’s a lot of hype and buzz surrounding it. But hype is a double-edged sword, it can draw attention, spark interest, and inspire action, but it can also lead to misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations about what that technology can do. When contracts are drawn up and big investments are made, and the underlying expectations of implementation time, effort and ROI are not met, the people responsible for realizing those expectations are put in a tough spot. It can lead to strain on customer relationships, unsustainable working environments and the loss of talent, as well as the branding of the technology field as just a fad, not to be tried again.
With hype comes a lot of buzzwords. Overall, they can be useful for marketing and promoting awareness of new technologies, but they can also cause a lot of confusion. One buzzword associated with automation and RPA is “Intelligent Automation”. This term implies that bots have intelligence and are capable of learning and adapting on their own, which is not entirely accurate. Forms of AI, such as machine learning and Large Language Models like ChatGPT can be applied to enhance the capabilities of bots, but the use of such tools is not a given. In many common use cases of Automation, it’s far from necessary to apply any real form of AI, or “intelligence”, to get the job done well.
Another issue with buzzwords in the automation market is that they can make it difficult for customers to differentiate between automation tools and services. There’s Robotic Process Automation, Business Process Automation, Digital Process Automation, Intelligent Automation, and the latest one - Hyper Automation. Why on earth are there so many sub-categories? Do they represent separate technologies, strategies or philosophies? Or are they labels written up by marketing departments?
Based on my own experience, and feel free to challenge me on this, many of the platforms and tools that are associated with Automation and RPA/BPA/DPA/IA/HA-services can be used for the same purposes. The tools look different, are based on different programming languages, differ in terms of pricing, licensing, user base and speed of evolution, but most of them can be applied to the same ends. It’s all Automation. What matters is the results we achieve by applying these tools.
In my opinion, the conceptual core of RPA (and other associated terms) isn’t groundbreaking technology. But the tools available to us, and the ease with which we use them, to realize the value of automation is groundbreaking. It’s just that the narrative around it has become way too complicated and it needs to change.
Let’s forget about the hype, the LinkedIn likes, and which tools are anointed as market leaders this year. And let’s stop adopting every buzzword that’s thrown at us. The tools we use are constantly evolving and we service providers need to stay on our toes and adapt. But we don’t need to rebrand or reposition ourselves or our services every time a new tool or feature emerges. Oftentimes, all that does is undermine us and the value we offer. The purposes and end goals of Automation remain the same. Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be.
Let’s keep our eyes on the value that Automation can create in the long term, like increased productivity and improved mental health. Let the service provider worry about what tools-of-the-day to use and how to achieve results, and let the receiver focus on evaluating and challenging those results.
And that’s a wrap. Feel free to reach out to me and share your own thoughts on these topics. If you disagree, challenge me. I might learn something!
And if you liked this post, please tune in to next one where I’ll talk about how we at Tietoevry Create have gone along this path of Automation, failed our way to experience and insight, and built our own playbook on how to realize the potential of Automation in the modern organization.
Automation Team Lead