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What does real robotic process automation look like?

Amid eye-popping investment figures, hype and claims from both established and emerging automation vendors, gaining clarity on robotic process automation is now a major issue. As the pioneers of RPA technology — which has fueled a rapidly expanding, yet confused market — we feel that it’s more important than ever to redefine what the technology is and what it isn’t.

Forrester Research identified nearly 40 companies offering some sort of RPA or intelligent automation capabilities. This has led to a lot of hype and disappointment on the part of users for what the technology can actually deliver. RPA assertions are important, and not every vendor can back up its automation claims. True RPA is complex and relatively misunderstood, so without a definitive reference point, organizations risk choosing either the wrong options or bad, poorly designed automation options.

Delivering true RPA

True RPA was designed from the start to successfully operate in large-scale, demanding enterprise deployments to enable tactical, business-led change. Since we began developing and evolving RPA software back in 2001, the technology has played an increasingly significant role in transforming the efficiency and productivity of workplace operations of over a thousand large organizations.

We’re now entering a new era of collaborative technology innovation being enabled by ever-greater, more intelligent business automation: connected-RPA. Connected-RPA enables organizations to increasingly release the combined creativity of digitally savvy business users who really understand their business. By giving them the ability to access and exploit leading-edge cloud, AI, cognitive and other capabilities, they can innovate and swiftly develop new, compelling offerings to keep pace with ever-changing market demand.

The origins of connected-RPA go back to when we started solving the “human middleware” issue in banking environments, where human workers perform mission-critical, repetitive tasks requiring interoperability and integration between enterprise-wide IT systems. RPA was the breakthrough software that carried out tasks in the same way humans do — via an easy-to-control, automated digital worker — or intelligent software robot.

Digital workers have also progressed from not only reading any third-party application like humans, but also conducting work like humans. They are interconnected, communicate with one another to collaborate, share workloads and operate as a highly productive digital team. Digital workers make adjustments according to obstacles — whether different screens, layouts or fonts, application versions, system settings, permissions or even languages.

It’s the unique, universal enterprise connectivity capabilities of digital workers, coupled with the increasingly intelligent way that they operate, that’s now being harnessed by business users to integrate with and orchestrate any new or existing technology application. Business users simply create automated processes by drawing and designing process flowcharts, which are then used by the digital worker to automate a task.

Having both human and digital workers working together, while seamlessly interacting with existing and new applications, creates a powerful, intelligent, collaborative digital ecosystem, which is the essence of connected-RPA. This also provides the foundation for ongoing digital transformation, and leading industry academics expect connected-RPA to emerge as the execution platform of choice for best-of-breed AI and cognitive technologies across the enterprise.

Although connected-RPA is business-led, to maintain long-term success it must operate in an IT-endorsed and controlled environment. Therefore, to ensure that they’re trusted by demanding enterprises, digital workers are designed to be scalable, robust, secure, controllable and intelligent. Business users train digital workers without coding, so the system infrastructure remains intact and IT development isn’t needed. If code is used to build automations outside the technology department, unwelcome shadow IT is introduced, along with unaudited process models that represent threats such as backdoors, security flaws and audit failures.

The process models run by the digital worker are made explicit in the process flow chart for each process automated, which is subject to audit and change control and security with dual-key authentication. This approach is highly secure and compliant, as all documentation is securely managed within a connected-RPA platform and protects the business from rogue employees, rogue robots and shadow IT.

Beware of imitators

The majority of newer RPA-labelled offerings, such as robotic desktop automation (RDA), desktop robot, or attended RPA, have been designed to deliver multiple, short record-and-replay tactical automations for navigating systems on desktops. Let’s be very clear: These automation technologies offer limited scaling capabilities and are masquerading as real RPA technology.

Desktop automation’s big promise is that business users working in front and back offices and across different departments can record a process and have software robots deployed within hours. Where processes are complex and require more technical skills, users can automate just some parts of the process that can be recorded and leave the rest. Organizations are being assured that their business users don’t need to involve the IT department, so by bypassing the IT work queue, they can experience both business benefits and ROI faster than other RPA approaches.

The problem with desktop recording and the notion of a personal software robot is that a single human user is given autonomy over a part of the technology estate — their desktop — which introduces a lack of control and by extension creates multiple security and compliance issues. Desktop recording spells trouble for the enterprise as it captures choices based on an individual’s interpretation of a process versus a central consensus for the best path. This obscures a robot’s transparency and hides process steps, which when duplicated over time becomes a potential security threat and limit to scale.

There are two other major drawbacks of the desktop approach to automation. First, if a robot and a human share a login, no one knows who’s responsible for the process; this creates a massive security and audit hole. Secondly, if a robot and a human share a PC, there’s zero productivity gain as humans can use corporate systems as fast as robots. So, this approach doesn’t save any time or make the process any slicker for a user.

By restricting automation to a multidesktop environment outside of the IT department or any central control, RDA vendors are effectively sanctioning and using shadow IT as part of their deployment methodology. This is potentially damaging for an organization as shadow IT, in the context of RDA, means unstructured, undocumented and uncontrolled technologies become part of business process flows.

For example, consider the creator of a desktop-automated process leaves the company or an organization changes. This can lead to audit failure due to an unknown fulfillment activity taking place or security holes, such as passwords embedded in these lost processes, fraud and denial of service. If your business allows departments to build these recorded desktop RDA scripts, then over time you will eventually create a shadow IT nightmare.

Ultimately, as the core architecture of desktop automation isn’t built on strong foundations, it may not be fit for the long-term demands of an enterprise environment. Many of these deployments never get beyond simple subtasks which have been executed using an agent’s login and run on their own desktop. Although they may help that particular task, they deliver limited capabilities and are not transformative at all.

Ultimately, false RPA limits the scale and potential of the technology to the confines of the desktop and introduces a variety of risks, too. True connected-RPA provides a platform for collaboration, securely and at scale, across more than 1,300 large organizations where human workers, systems and applications are already creating a powerful, intelligent, safe ecosystem of partners that enable a real digital transformation.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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