RPA – stop gap or long term solution?

I recently read an article entitled “RPA software is really just virtual duct tape” which compared the use of RPA, as a means to remove dull repetitive tasks from a process, to the use of duct tape as means to fix something on your car.  The gist of the argument being that duct tape provided a temporary fix, until the garage could fit you in to properly rectify the problem. The suggestion therefore being that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) should be implemented as a temporary measure, until a system the author deemed more long-term, was implemented.

To a certain extent I do not disagree with the above, but I do not agree that it is an accurate analogy of the role RPA can play in an organisation.

Delving into the original article a bit further, the basis for its overall position seems to be that if you need RPA then either: the process is flawed to start with, the application(s) in question are not being used properly, or the application(s) in question are not up to the task at hand.  Again these are all perfectly valid points, but it does assume that for every business process out there, there is an application, or ecosystem of applications, that fully interact with each other and inherently remove all the dull, repetitive, manual tasks within the process. Additionally, it appears to assume that if such a silver bullet existed, it would address all process issues within an organisation and the solution would be affordable (which sounds fairly unlikely given the functionality and bespoke nature).

The reality is, that while there may be a better solution for one of your processes, it is just as likely that it isn’t going to integrate 100% with another solution within the application estate. Ultimately you’re still going to need something that brings these solutions, or even just the existing processes, together in a way that realises cost savings, process efficiency and as a result an all-round improvement in user experience.

Another analogy the article used, was to compare the use of RPA as a means to address a manual step in an assembly line; implying you would need to improve the overall process and not add an additional ad-hoc solution into an already “broken” solution.  This is not an entirely incorrect assertion, but how do you improve, or in this case join, two automated processes? Could it be that with a bit of a rethink you could find a way to not just automate the intervening manual step, but to do it in a way that creates a single homogeneous process, as opposed to 3 discreet automations duct taped together?  Production lines are also a poster child of automation, with some steps like inspection and quality control still performed by humans for a variety of reasons.

Automation is not new, but the availability of free, easy to use automation tools does give everyone unprecedented access to automation.  Will this result in a duct tapesque themed mini-apocalypse within an organisation?  I don’t think so; worst case the misuse of RPA will just weaken and business case for further use of it. But as with the democratisation of anything, the opportunities come with the responsibility to use this new power appropriately and in a controlled manner with a cultural shift led by the business.

The author of the aforementioned article is right to be concerned about the misuse of RPA, but that shouldn’t overshadow all the benefits that could be realised with the appropriate use of it.

Ultimately the culture shift that will realise these benefits is one of “automation first”, this is not to say “automate everything” but rather to build consideration into our thinking of how automation could benefit a new solution, to ensure that it is there by design and not as an afterthought.

To go back to the original article’s analogy, automation as an afterthought is the duct tape desperately holding things together, whereas automation first is the lubricant in a well-oiled, high performance machine.