Cutting through the automation software confusion

There are three primary reasons for confusion when it comes to choosing business process automation software, and they have to do with the maturity of this segment and its marketing foibles.

Automation products are not homogenous; their similarities and differences are not clear-cut enough to make a decision simple. In addition, the rose of process automation has lost its bloom because early products were over-hyped and couldn’t deliver. Finally, there is a dearth of helpful case studies because most enterprise operations are in the early phase of adoption.

However, large organisations are cutting through the hype and disappointment and rapidly adopting business process automation. Read on for a more in-depth diagnosis of the obstacles and how buyers are overcoming them. 

1. Mistakes made in marketing 

Bad marketing is like a murky varnish, and that’s what’s coated much of the automation market. “Robotic Process Automation” (RPA) vendors have oversold the capabilities of their products with shiny, bold marketing, and some even market their products as artificial intelligence (AI) solutions when their technology provides strictly rules-based robotics.

It’s been an almost 10-year journey, but at last rules-based automation software has achieved mainstream awareness as RPA. It is an excellent solution for automating routine, binary tasks that human workers perform on legacy applications—like entering passwords into and operating the user interfaces of SAP and Oracle—and moving structured data from one system to another. 

Given the waning benefits of labour arbitrage and mounting pressure to reduce costs, the BFSI industry in particular blazed a trail into RPA, focusing on common horizontal business processes like e-Invoice processing, Procure to Pay (P2P), Record to Report (R2R) and vertical challenges like KYC, AML, settlements and claims processing. In other words, the labour-intensive middle and back-office work that has for decades been mostly offshored. Unfortunately, customers often take a hard look at the results of their POCs - or even full deployments - and wonder, “Where is the 90 per cent cost reduction I was promised? What about the suffocating volume of manual, unstructured data work in the rest of the business process? How do I affordably handle the exceptions in the process that need human action? How do I automate the rest of the process?”

This is a bit of a paraphrase, but it’s a fair synthesis of how end users react after using RPA-only products. The problem with RPA as a category is not the technology. It’s how vendors have marketed their RPA products. It is true that RPA automates the operation of desktop application user interfaces, and one “bot” can deliver about 1.5 times the productivity of one worker, provided the work only involves structured data.

It’s “hand” work  –  tasks that a human can perform without thinking, performed in accordance with a strict and rigid set of rules. RPA does not process unstructured data (PDFs, docs, email messages, news feeds, web content, etc.), nor does it have human-in-the-loop exceptions processing for when the rules governing a “bot” change. Additionally, some RPA solutions are not deployed at a server level, which, for customers who value security, means occupying a desktop and exposing passwords and other sensitive data to human workers. 

To sum up, RPA delivers great results when applied to structured, rules-based tasks, but it belongs as a feature in a complete suite of automation capabilities, and it must be paired with machine learning to automate a complex process from end to end.

2. Vendors are jostling for first place 

Business process automation providers have created a market that resembles a fruit stand with only one of each fruit on display. These differences are architectural, functional, horizontal and vertical. The various players in the market started with different theses, built different products based on their origins and marketed to different sizes and types of businesses.

Automation is halfway through the three classic software market phases: develop, compete and dominate. Let’s look at these phases through the lens of a well understood market: social networking. Friendster began as a platform for creating digital ties between people who already knew one another. MySpace started with this functionality, along with increased discoverability between strangers and, interestingly, music. Facebook started as a way for students at elite universities to poke one another. We all know how this played out. Friendster and MySpace didn’t aggressively evolve their products out of initial development during the competition phase, and Facebook became the dominant player by developing a wider range of user-friendly capability for a wider range of users.

In terms of the automation landscape, some of the early players have already cashed out, other players are marketing capabilities they do not have, and still others are only just now coming to market. Buyers find it hard to compare them because there isn’t a standard set of features to shop for, and some buyers don’t yet know what they need. After all, only a few years ago, offshoring was state of the art and business process automation was an expensive, uncertain scripting endeavor imposed upon data science and IT teams.

As with all competitions, though, one model will emerge supreme: a scalable, widely deployed and battle-proven model. And there will be only one (maybe two) vendors who competed well and took the dominant position.

3. Evidence is scant

People like to know what their friends think about the new restaurant or the local handyman; it helps in the decision-making process. Clear, relatable, quantitative case studies from seasoned customers make it easier for enterprise software buyers to select a technology.

These case studies are only just now surfacing, and that’s made it more challenging for buyers to make decisions. Case studies for business process automation are still in the Wild West phase; the technology is still fairly new, and there’s still confusion between the features and benefits of robotics, cognitive automation and AI.

Most buyers are only a year or two into their business process automation journey, few of them will continue to use the platforms they started with, and many companies have only just begun their due diligence. Making meaningful bets is difficult without hard data.

Overcoming overwhelm: A three-step process

Overcoming buyer confusion consists of three steps. The first step is centralising control of the buying process in centers of excellence (COEs). The fastest and most efficient purchase and deployment efforts have leveraged this model, which brings together operational requirements from user groups across different divisions, product knowledge and decision-making liberties.

These COEs typically begin with reports and briefings on smart automation and digital operations from Everest, Gartner, Forrester, HfS and other leading analyst firms that are shedding light on the market. The COEs create a long list that becomes a short list that become a pragmatic, informed product selection. 

Step two involves choosing what business processes to use for a meaningful proof of concept (POC) with one or more vendors (and a good vendor will be able to help you select the right processes). These processes should represent the way the business operates. If you’re a global banking or insurance operation, thousands of people ingest and process a combination of both structured and unstructured data and leverage and feed dozens of systems. You have some legacy technology that you do not wish to disrupt, and you have some point tools that you wish to rationalise out. You have both internal and external demands to accelerate transaction times and reduce manual work while improving accuracy. You are under the gun to cut costs immediately, and any solution you consider must pay for itself in under a year. So, a good set of processes for a POC will take these factors and challenges into account.

Step three is actually beginning the POC. As a CIO of one of the biggest European banks once declared at a conference, if a technology could not demonstrate results in one quarter, it had no place in the operation. This is an excellent rule for automation. POCs need executive buy-in – literally. Company divisions can often find budget for POCs without resorting to executive support, but full deployments across an enterprise are a different story. There’s no point to doing a POC if your organisation is not committed to modernisation or transformation at the executive level.

Get buy-in early. The POC is not only a chance to see how a product performs, but it’s a chance to see how a product would deploy. Does the vendor deploy directly? Through partners? As an on-premises solution? Cloud? Desktop or server, or both? POCs are your opportunity to not just kick the tires but to drive the car, and you should drive the car hard and fast in many conditions before you buy it.

Automation is a village, not one hut

Buyers is search of automation software have a difficult task before them, considering the variety in the market and the loose marketing standards currently employed. Enterprise operations professionals need the straight dope about what RPA can and cannot do in order to choose a solution that benefits the organisation.

RPA is incredibly valuable, but it is only one hut, not a whole village’s worth of capabilities that can power transformation. Ops teams need RPA, business process management and AI-powered cognitive automation all working together to effect measurable change.

Adam Devine leads market development, product and brand marketing and strategic partnerships at WorkFusion

Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee