woman raising her hand in an audience
As with artificial intelligence before it, the popularity of robotic process automation has spurred a series of imposters PHOTO: Marcos Luiz Photograph

What constitutes a robotics process automation (RPA) system is, generally speaking, very straightforward. However, as this technology grows in appeal and market share, vendors are introducing tools that they describe as RPA offerings but which, in fact, are not RPA systems.

“There are lots of vendors out there that like to believe they have an RPA tool,” Rod Dunlap, senior director of RPA for insurance at Capgemini, told CMSWire. “But in reality, they are offering nothing more than a glorified macro writer trying to ride the wave of RPA.”

An RPA Bot in Action

Here’s an example of a typical RPA bot in action: A bank is processing a loan application for a customer. Its RPA system can gather all of the documents submitted by the applicant — copies of a W-2 form and a driver’s license, for example — and send them to the underwriting department. However, those documents were originally stored in the system as JPEG files and the underwriting unit can’t handle data in that format, so the RPA system re-enters the data in a different format. While this is going on, in accordance with the bank’s recent decision to try to better understand how its customers perceive its loan process, the RPA systems sends the applicant a customer satisfaction survey.

That’s an RPA bot in action. Without human intervention, it gathered the files, extracted the needed information and put it in the proper format, and then sent the data to the right department. And after that, it circled back to the client.

A Faux RPA Bot in Action

Here’s what that process would have looked like if the system hadn’t been a true RPA: There would have been a process for each step, and those processes may or may not have required some sort of human intervention — probably at the point where each process crossed into a new application or database. In particular, there wouldn’t have been a way to automatically account for the directive about the customer satisfaction survey. All told, five or six different tasks would need to be coordinated, either through traditional automation or by a human.

A Varied Ecosystem

That example is very straightforward. In reality, it can be hard to navigate the RPA market, especially for a novice — even if you’re only dealing with “true” RPA offerings. That’s because there are variations among the vendors, as is typical for any software category.

“Different companies have different maturity levels,” Rick McEachern, vice president for development and sales at Software AG, told CMSWire. “Some focus on perhaps vertical demand. Some are more horizontal. Each will have different proprietary technologies that serve as differentiation. Some are easier to use than others. Some use different kinds of image recognition technology that allows them to work across various types of applications. But ultimately the underlying idea — RPA — is the same thing.”

Questions to Consider

To make sure you are buying a true RPA system, here are some questions to ask yourself and the vendor:

Does the system accelerate a manual process or processes? “In technology terms, you might think of RPA as the last mile of the internet,” McEachern said. By that, he means that an RPA system squeezes out more efficiencies in that “last mile” and speeds things up. It does that by eliminating or limiting manual activities that drive up the cost of errors.

Are there multiple options of object level integration? “That is the first thing an RPA has to do — capture objects from the Windows operating system,” Dunlap said.

Can you separate your screen interfaces or activities from business code or business rules? “If you have to couple those together when you’re developing the code, then you’re building macros, not RPA bots,” Dunlap said.

Do you have a reusable object base? That is another characteristic of an RPA tool as opposed to a macro, according to Dunlap. By that he means the system should enable you to use the processes that the bot automates over and over again.