Probably the most interesting aspect of the current drive to automate the enterprise is robotics process automation (RPA). Although the name invokes walking, talking automatons milling about the office, the reality is a bit more nuanced.
In this case, robotics refers to software bots that constitute a “virtual workforce” to take on many of the rote, mundane tasks that highly paid knowledge professionals currently spend the majority of their time doing. With RPA, the idea is not to displace these workers but to free up their time to more productive pursuits, such as tapping new markets and creating new revenue streams.
RPA is expected to reach $8.69 billion in total market value by 2023, according to Research and Markets. Much of this will be in the form of rules-based automation as opposed to the more flexible knowledge-based category. Under a rules-based system, RPA applies decisions according to specific rules laid down by the operator. This gives the enterprise a good deal of assurance that the system will behave as expected – a crucial requirement when it comes to managing IT resources, streamlining supply chains and making payroll. But this doesn’t mean knowledge-based systems have no value. In fact, we can expect to see knowledge automation take the lead in analytics and cognitive processes where the end result is to make recommendations rather than take specific actions.
Both forms of RPA will require a certain level of system intelligence, however, which is part of what distinguishes this form of automation from previous mechanical or even digital versions. Even under a rules-based paradigm, RPA will be required to seek out and gather the appropriate information, determine its validity and context, and then decide on a course of action. Often this will happen at a pace and on a scale that is too great for human operators to handle, which is one of the main reasons why it is not expected to displace IT staff but enhance their existing capabilities.
Still, it stands to reason that at some point the enterprise will need to manage an ever-expanding fleet of RPA bots. Fortunately, there are platforms to do that. A company called Accelirate, in fact, has already deployed just such a system as a set of cloud-based services that allow the enterprise to expand its management capabilities as RPA becomes more commonplace. The offering includes an initial launch and acceleration service that can put up to five RPA automations in service within 90 to 120 days, followed by an operations and governance system and a point-of-delivery system to manage the influx of new RPAs. Ultimately, the company can help set up a full Robotic Operations Center (ROC) to oversee monitoring, maintenance, support and other functions.
One thing that could undermine the whole RPA movement, however, is lack of uniformity. Many of these bots will have to navigate far outside the confines of an individual enterprise’s infrastructure to engage with the Internet of Things, regional networking infrastructure and other enterprises. But as Information Age’s Michael Baxter pointed out recently, there are already more than 45 available RPA products, all using different designs and processes. Unless a universal standard rises soon, enterprises run the risk of investing a lot of money into an RPA platform that fails to meet performance standards as the technology evolves.
Expectations are that RPA will take the enterprise by storm in the next few years, but this will only happen once the executive suite is convinced they will be a help, not a hindrance, to the broader goal of digital transformation. At this point, there is every reason to think their impact will be positive, provided those who are developing this technology place their customers’ interests above their own.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata and Carpathia. Follow Art on Twitter @acole602.