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RPA: From strength to strength in 2019

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) got its fair share of press in 2019, and whether you look at Gartner’s endorsements, new entries to the market or just the sheer amount of business volume surrounding automation, most of the coverage was both positive and forward-thinking. This year, RPA has moved past being focused solely on  point automation solutions in singular departments, and companies are now looking to treat automation more like an enterprise transformation programme.

So, what stood out, and what made 2019 a truly transformative year for RPA? Here are some of the highlights that made 2019 a year to remember.

Blue prism acquired thoughtonomy

In June, RPA specialists Blue Prism announced they were acquiring Automation-as-a-Service platform, Thoughtonomy. This was very exciting news – seeing two prominent UK-based tech companies coming together to form a dominant force in the market shows promises for a successful joint venture.

Merging the growing, global scale of Blue Prism with the advanced, AI-driven technologies of Thoughtonomy which were built upon the Blue Prism platform, means they are becoming a real force to be reckoned with in the global RPA market. Both Blue Prism and Thoughtonomy have similar approaches to proving RPA solutions and aspirations for the future of their companies and RPA industry.

With both technologies being underpinned by the Microsoft stack, the platform integration should be a smooth process, accelerating the speed at which customers can benefit from their combined services and skills.

In addition to this, only a few weeks ago Blue Prism updated the market on its full year of trading, reporting a significant acceleration in sales in the second half of 2019, adding 685 net new customers during the year, while maintaining a customer retention rate of 96 per cent.

There was a downturn in UK productivity…..again

In October it was widely reported that the UK has suffered its worst drop in five years. Productivity in the UK fell at its fastest annual pace in five years in the April-to-June quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. The figure - measured by output per hour - fell by 0.5 per cent, after two previous quarters of zero growth.

While the story itself was not focused on RPA, it is clear that automation tools like RPA will have an impact in improving productivity growth in the UK. 

RPA will help to automate low value tasks while ensuring there’s a significant boost to output per input.  In this way, It is the ultimate ‘do more with less’ tool.

A great example is the manufacturing of cars: even since 2009, the industry has increased its productivity by 58 per cent. This has been achieved through automating processes on the production line using robotics. Retail is another good example: the reason we can get receive products a day after ordering, or even the same day, is because we’ve scaled up automation in the warehouse.

But if we look at financial services - banking, insurance and finance - for the same period, productivity has fallen by 10 per cent. This is because, rather than automating processes, financial services has become more complex, involving more people to achieve simple tasks such as creating accounts: tasks that could be completed by a bot. 

The fact is that productivity goes hand in hand with the adoption of new technology, and the UK needs to be at the forefront of exploring accelerated service delivery using technology if it wants to raise its productivity stats. We’re in desperate need of digital transformation around our working strategy and culture, and if we want to make technology and productivity gains, we have to change the way we work.

Not for profit uses RPA to make every penny count

At Blue Prism World 2019 London, Not for Profit and RPA were a combined theme that really stood out: there was a marked interested in seeing how we can help this sector in its journey to automation. Not only did Blue Prism have a dedicated NFP stand, but the event also featured a dedicated NFP session which was well attended by representatives from across the business, to stimulate debate and decide how the company could help support.

With 650 employees and over 1,000 customers, the fact that Blue Prism is actively involved in supporting NFPs with their RPA challenges is really great to see. It reflects many of the NFP/RPA use cases that have started to emerge: the emergence of digital labour means that NFP organisations have essential and scalable resource at their disposal.

RPA is providing these organisations with a flexible pool of digital workers which transform the way a business can function. It creates new efficiencies for organisations, by blending human and digital labour. This frees up staff from repetitive and time-consuming work, so you can take a new approach and evolve the way you think about delivering your charitable services.

RPA and AI become instrumental in healthcare

In August, the NHS announced that it will be investing £250 million into a new national AI laboratory, with a focus on earlier cancer detection, developing new treatment and lightening NHS staff workloads. The news was welcomed by many, with NHS Cancer Director, Professor Sir Mike Richards, predicting its “instrumental” role in urgently needed upgrades to unsafe screening IT systems.

In December, NHS Wales announced it had begun using RPA in partnership with human+ to streamline the prescription process and to manage complex medicines more efficiently: giving back pharmacists valuable time to dedicate to more pressing clinical work, and helping them to help the most vulnerable in the community. Medicines Homecare is a vital service for patients across the UK. Medicines these individuals are receiving are typically the most complex and high risk formulated by the NHS – aimed at relieving and treating the most serious chronic medical conditions.

Automating the validation of prescription documents for Medicines Homecare (which until recently had to be done manually), has delivered valuable savings in time and resource for NHS Wales and freed up pharmacists to provide more clinical care.

Microsoft makes the move to RPA

In November, Microsoft officially announced its entry into the RPA marketplace. But what does it mean? Well, Microsoft is certainly not the first of the giants to make the foray into RPA, but the entry is a good sign of the market’s momentum.

Microsoft has added RPA capabilities to its Microsoft Power Automate platform, which will deliver a set of API-based digital process automation (DPA) and RPA UI-based automation to create an end-to-end automation platform. This means that users can record step-by-step UI actions such as mouse clicks, keyboard use, and data entry, and then replay those actions to create services.

As with all things, the proof will be in the pudding and whether Microsoft can do RPA as well as the more specialist vendors in the space is something we’re likely to hear more about in 2020.

Given the Blue Prism product runs off the Microsoft .net framework and they have just greatly increased their product road map and Azure usage by acquiring Thoughtonomy. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think they may be consumed by Microsoft themselves. This would give Microsoft a market-ready RPA offering based on their technologies over night.

As further confirmation of the rise of RPA, we have also seen Salesforce embrace the technology and release a collection of native and partner lead RPA and chatbot solutions - each of these come pre-integrated to the Salesforce platform. This will only grow in 2020 and I’m sure we will see move vendors offering their solution this way.

The big players getting involved in this way adds a stamp of credibility to the technology that has been viewed sceptically by some. In addition to Salesforce and Microsoft SAP has acquired Contextor and IBM and Oracle may be on similar acquisition paths to buy their way into the market.

As these new larger players enter the market, we will see a new age of automation come to light as enterprises start to look at RPA as a true addition to their workforce, rather than a Proof of Concept IT project. Whether you’re a fan of RPA or not, it’s clear that it’s here to stay, and that organisations are taking a long-term and strategic view to RPA, with humans at the heart of its adoption.

My hope is that in 2020 we see a growing number of organisations taking on people change programmes using automation as the catalyst and driver of these. Organisations need to shift people from back offices and administration departments into R&D and Design. The technological automation part of the programme is the relatively easy bit. It’s managing the people change that’s hard.

This is what is empowering seismic changes to the way people work: In 2019, a leading London university dedicated itself to re-designing its professional services hub with RPA, with a focus on increasing efficiencies surrounding processes in HR and payroll for its 14,000 staff.

Over a three-month Proof of Value (PoV) period, the University’s HR team saw more than £75,000 of savings, based on 3,300 working hours being released back into the team from time-consuming processes via the power of automation. Rather than replacing humans, the university’s HR team is seeing it as a real enhancer and a chance for employees to focus on more-high value tasks, and even move on to more high value positions within the organisation.

It’s a great example of how  forward-thinking organisations may choose to give time back to the employee, while also increasing productivity. In 2020, we can expect to see more of the same, with these large scale human change programmes being powered by automation we will see payback in mental well being for the employees, employee retention rates and application rates. Here’s to a great year in RPA in 2020!

David Biden, CEO, Human+

David has been advising organisations on how to practically apply modern technologies to their business for many years. His passion now lies in helping complex organisations unlock the full potential of their own people through the use of Robotic Process Automation, while improving the lives of the citizens and customers they support.