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Microsoft and the emerging RPA Landscape

We had more action on RPA last week – one of the news outlets ran a headline saying:

Microsoft’s Acquisition Of RPA Firm Softomotive Prompts Sector Leaders Including UiPath And Automation Anywhere To Brace For War.

Business Insider

The headlines may be a bit jazzier than the actual situation but things sure are getting interesting! 

Here is how I see the emerging landscape: 

Microsoft RPA with Softomotive.
I have already heard a few people with hundreds of Bots enquire how they can migrate out of their current tool. This is because the cost difference is huge on a longer-term basis. With the acquisition of Sofotomotive, Microsoft has suddenly become a pretty good RPA option with a solid bang for the buck. They have included Softomotive at no extra cost for the current subscribers.

The Softomotive tool though still has its limitations since it was one of the least costly tools that did not have much hype and so lesser dollars to add features. 

Existing RPA Players 
The current RPA players say they welcome more competition and are re-checking their strategies. UiPath wants to add more R&D firepower – they announced that they are adding 100 new R&D open positions. 

The current players still have the best RPA tools in the market having matured their libraries working with many real-world clients. They have been evolving into some of the best Automation platforms with RPA at the core. 

The best strategy for the current RPA vendors is to be the Hedgehog and do ONE thing well. If you do not know the Hedgehog concept – it comes from the book Good to Great “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Great companies have an understanding of what they can be the best at.

Open Source RPA
I had a session with Robocorp Founder Antti Karjalainen this week. Robocorp has been getting a lot of attention in Silicon Valley and has raised more than 11M towards its RPA efforts. As he says, $0 bots open up more automation possibilities – you can focus on benefits rather than justifying bot costs. 

We also have other pretty good Open Source RPA options coming up. Robin, the RPA programming language from Softomotive also should get a boost with the Microsoft community. 

So, the overall RPA landscape looks pretty exciting. Add new players like SAP, Appian, and 70+ existing RPA vendors in different niches – we are surely in for more action in 2020. Watch this space! 

Here is a quick cartoon I came up as I thought through the current scenario 🙂 

I appreciate your comments and feedback! 

UiPath’s “Hyperautomation” Release

UiPath announced its latest release with some fanfare.

It sure was a lot of marketing and hype for most features that were already announced at their last Forward III. To add to that, most of the features are still in beta or in preview. 

The latest 20.4 Stable Release which is also called UiPath “Mr. Robot” apparently “to deliver a Robot for Everyone and make Attended Automation the central focus point.” does have some interesting adds.

Most of the interesting features did not come out clearly though due to the marketing messages like “Industry’s First End-to-End Hyperautomation Platform” – whatever that means. 
So, here is my summary of the three good feature additions that I could see: 

  • Test Suite: This adds Application testing and RPA Testing within UiPath. Now you can test your applications with the new “Test Automation” project. You can also test your RPA Workflows using the new “RPA Testing” feature. This is available as part of Studio Pro license – Yes another new license!  🤦
  • Improved Attended automation: They are working on a Picture-in-Picture (experimental) feature wherein you can continue to do other work on your desktop while the bot is running. Also, there is a new UiPath Assistant that allows you to schedule reminders for running attended automation 🙂 
  • UiPath Document Understanding AI: A beta version of IntelligentOCR for document processing. UiPath is late on this behind Automation Anywhere IQ Bot and Blue Prism Decipher (which unfortunately has not seen the light of the day much yet).

A few more notable features which you can explore on the community forum here

  • Improved UI automation framework (UI Automation Next), now in preview
  • New SAP-specific activities
  • Computer Vision Activities
  • New Mobile Device Automation platform, supporting ~98% of Smartphones or smart devices
  • IntelligentOCR package (Beta) for Document Processing.
  • UiPath chatbot connector w/ Google Dialogflow: NLP intent mapping to processes

I have been asking this week if the top 3 RPA vendors are losing their way a bit. Just look at the last six months for them: 

  • ~6 months back: UiPath laid off 400 employees.
  • Last month BluePrism CEO stepped down. 
  • Last Week, Automation Anywhere laid off 10% of the workforce.

During this same timeframe, Microsoft came up with a powerful Automation Platform!

I am sure UiPath is still on the path that Daniel Dines set out “let’s build the best thing that we can and then we’ll see what happens.”. It is probably stretching itself a bit too thin though with too many directions in the name of Hyperautomation.

Microsoft & Softomotive – a perfect match?

Edit May 19, 2020: Microsoft has confirmed the acquisition of Sofotomotive.

There are strong rumors that Microsoft is in talks to buy Softomotive. Softomotive is one of the pioneers in automation. Softomotive was founded in 2005 in Greece and moved its headquarters to London in 2015. It is a gold partner for Microsoft.

Softomotive has two RPA products:

  • A standalone serverless product called WinAuotmation (Attended automation or RDA) and
  • A server-based RPA called ProcessRobot (Unattended automation).

They also have a free RPA language – Robin. I recently did a Webinar on Robin with the product owner. It is a free Domain Specific programming language created for building RPA software bots. They would like everyone to eventually use this language to create RPA! 

So taking everything into consideration, if the deal is real and goes through, Microsoft is going to get a whole lot of RPA. Along with this, they also get more than 8000 RPA customers that Softomotive has. 

From a Softomotive’s perspective, this is a great deal too as this could mean a big willing Microsoft community that could enable the wider use of Robin. Also, they get to be Microsoft’s RPA and probably RDA too.

Microsoft released its own “RPA” called Uiflows last year as part of the Power Automate platform. The Power Automate was a rebranding of its Microsoft flow which works like IFTTT. Microsoft just added a Selenium IDE on top which became UiFlows. Now, with this acquisition, Microsoft will add real RPA and quite a bit of it! 

Having said that, I am also hearing mostly from Softomotive people that they consider this as a big rumor. So, take this with a pinch of salt. We will see how this goes but this is part of an overall trend.

As I penned down my thoughts for RPA in 2020, one of the predictions was the consolidation in the space. This could just be just the beginning of that.

The real meaning of RPA and why it’s here to stay

What does Robotic Process Automation (RPA) stand for?

Is it screen scraping? Yes, it is the most visible part of RPA but there is much more to it!

In fact, it is much more than the technology itself. If we think in terms of technology, we are likely to get stuck thinking it has limited capabilities like screen-scraping or that it is a band-aid for the short term.

But if you think of it in terms of Software Robots, you begin to understand why this concept is appealing to many. Think of many software robots with built-in governance that you can unleash in your organization to assist your workforce or just automate some back-end processes completely.

That is the power of RPA! In this article, let us dig a bit deeper into what RPA means and why people are embracing it.

The Meaning of RPA

In one of my very first posts, I had mentioned that RPA is a capability that allows you to carry out tasks on a computer just like a human would. That is a simple lay-man description. Do we have a standard definition?

Yes, according to IEEE, RPA refers to the use of a “preconfigured software instance that uses business rules and predefined activity choreography to complete the autonomous execution of a combination of processes, activities, transactions, and tasks in one or more unrelated software systems to deliver a result or service with human exception management.” (IEEE Std 2755-2017)

There is no mention of Screen-Scraping! It also does not limit RPA to Legacy systems or any specific technology or methodology. So, why do we need new terms? Why not stick to RPA and make it better together?

Instead, we would like to explicitly bring in a lot more technologies and methodologies. It is all in good faith but that ends up confusing people and looks more like Hype and Posturing rather than helping.

The good news is that RPA keeps going.

RPA Automation is going strong

In spite of the various competing terms – Hyperautomation, Integrated Automation, Intelligent Process Automation, etc., RPA keeps getting more popular. Have a look at the Google trends.

C:\Users\nanda\Downloads\RPA.jpg

In recent times, many big players have jumped in. That is a validation of the market and the need for this concept in the Enterprises.

It is interesting that all of the new players are introducing integrated Automation solutions but get the most attention for adding RPA. Watch the headlines!

Microsoft

Microsoft introduced a pretty comprehensive Automation platform at Ignite 2019.

They realized that they always had an RPA-like platform (Flows) and all they needed was to add a UI integration to make it complete. So, they simply added Selenium IDE (Open source Test and record tool) and they were off to the races.

All were excited that Microsoft had also added RPA! They point to the Selenium component (UiFlows) as their RPA. But the entire Power Automate software (previously Flow) fits the RPA definition well. It is the “software that uses business rules and predefined activity choreography” to enable your automation.

Appian

Appian is one of the Leaders in the Low-Code space along with Microsoft (see magic quadrant below). They are also leaders in the Digital process automation (DPA) or iBPMs space. But still, they chose to add RPA through an acquisition.

Why would a low-code DPA player add RPA? Well, we will see why but the investors cheered the acquisition and the stock went up 34%.

SAP

SAP needs no introduction. They too added RPA by acquiring Contextor. SAP has integrated RPA along with ML, Chatbots to offer an integrated Automation platform they call as “SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation”.

Many of the existing players are adding RPA through different means.

Why are all of these players jumping into the fray?

They are hoping some of the magic would rub off.

There is Magic in RPA

RPA has certain qualities that attract the attention of people.

Some may say it is marketing but then all products do their marketing. Some messages stick and some don’t. The competition is frustrated that such a puny technology gets all the attention while theirs don’t. Why?

RPA is a great Concept with amazing Optics that deliver great results. Let us look at each of them.

The Concept

There is absolute magic in a bunch of Software bots taking up tedious human work and freeing them up to do better work.

The Industrial age created mind-numbing work with identical workers doing monotonous manual work. When we added service jobs, we carried it over to the white-collar jobs as well. Since many can relate to this, they love technologies that take away this work. Watch this award-winning short-film that I think depicts it well.

The Optics:

I have seen people excited when they see videos of the Software bots working. They have many ideas from the time they see it. The optics are created through the screen scraping as you literally “see” the Bot working. The Bot though could be performing many operations in the background like calling APIs or even analyzing using AI – all perfectly Orchestrated. On that note, here is a use case with RPA and AI.

Document Processing with RPA and AI. Watch the complete Bot in action here.

The Results

RPA when done right, delivers impressive results – it is Cheaper, Faster, and Better!

It gives you rapid results with in-year benefits. It improves your Quality, Accuracy, and Compliance which results in improved customer service and employee motivation.

Conclusion

Let us face it – RPA is here to stay. It is driving the adoption of AI, Chatbots, Computer vision, NLP, etc.

Technologies like Process Mining, BPM, Integration, etc. are also seeing a resurgence due to the renewed interest in Automation. You can now choose from a wide selection of technologies to innovate and enable modern digital enterprises.

Along with the wide variety of technologies though, we also have a lot of competition. This has resulted in vendors looking for different angles to stand out through posturing and hype. It’s time we got past these petty differences and focus on solving real problems lest everyone loses out.

The new normal with COVID19 will hopefully enable that.

Open Source RPA – TagUI Resources

TagUI is an open-source, cross-platform, command-line RPA tool that allows you to automate your desktop web, mouse and keyboard actions easily. You can write your workflows in simple easy to understand human language. Read more about TagUI and other Open-source RPA tools here. Here are some key features:

  • Human readable code which can be written in 20 languages
  • Screen-based automation possible using computer vision
  • Basic and Pro UI Steps – there is a cheat sheet
  • Can integrate with AI/ML using API calls, Python
  • For specific requirements, Javascript, XPath, HTML is required
  • Live mode for development and debugging. See outputs as you type
  • Simple installation: Just unpack and run
  • Good documentation

Here are the resources for TagUI: 
Official resources
TagUI homepage – https://makerspace.aisingapore.org/do-ai/tagui
TagUI GitHub page – https://github.com/kelaberetiv/TagUI
Demo videos – https://github.com/aimakerspace/TagUI-Bricks

Tutorials
J Bot Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1n_P6zyRA4D3o7OIcdSl2Q

Community contributions
TagUI Editor – https://github.com/adegard/tagui_scripts
RPA for Python – https://github.com/tebelorg/RPA-Python
Moxie RPA – http://moxierpa.com (free and closed-source)

Presentation videos
TagUI session: https://youtu.be/PrnBDnnABwE
Talk on TagUI RPA – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzE4tKlzzg4
Talk on RPA for Python – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2aQKWx_EAE

UiPath Activity Creator – Build custom activities quickly

UiPath provides you with the puzzle pieces to automate. These are called UiPath activities. Now if the puzzle pieces are not there, you may get them from the Community marketplace or may have to create them by yourself. 

Now UiPath has an easier way to create these Custom activities – the UiPath Activity Creator. It allows you to easily create custom activities that work immediately in UiPath Studio. The new extension is entirely wizard-based, meaning you simply fill in fields like activity name, description, properties, types, and the entire activity code is generated which includes:

  • Activities
  • Scopes
  • Simple
  • Designers (UI)
  • Property Fields
  • Bindings
  • Properties
  • Validations
  • Localization files
  • Package Metadata

After this, you just add the execution logic for your activity and you’re done!

UiPath Activity Creator Benefits

With this add on component, the learning curve to create custom activities is greatly reduced. You no longer have to deal with code or scripts, to create one. All that is generated for you in Visual Studio. By making it easier to create custom activities, you can help expand the UiPath RPA ecosystem that benefits you and the community.

Activity Creator in action

Here is a Step by step guide to get started: https://bit.ly/2ReCQaM
Here is a video: https://youtu.be/p8GrdJHwHPw

Impact of Covid19 on RPA Automation

As the Coronavirus Pandemic unfolds, we are having to deal with multiple crises at the same time. This tweet sums it up well.

We do not know yet know how all this will pan out. As per a survey by EY, a majority (73%) of executives expect COVID19 to have a severe impact on the global economy. More than half (52%) are having to reconfigure the operations, as they deal with the disruptions in their supply chains.

Organizations are responding in real-time to the rapidly evolving crisis. As they respond, RPA is seeing an impact at multiple levels. Let us look at the short term impact and how this may play out in the near future.

Current Impact

All Organizations are currently focused on navigating the immediate impact of COVID-19. It is impacting demand, supply, revenue, and profitability.

There are many places where RPA is helping with the immediate impact. We are also seeing adverse impacts due to the crisis. To tide over this, there is some pro-bono work being done.

Let us look at each of these starting with how RPA is helping organizations with the COVID19 impact.

RPA to the rescue

During this crunch time, many organizations are using RPA to deal with the immediate impact. RPA is helping largely in Healthcare, Government, Insurance, Retail, and at some Manufacturers that need to ramp-up quickly (For E.g. Sanitizers). Here are a few examples:

  • RPA is helping US Federal agencies with Covid19 response: At the General Services Administration (GSA), RPA is helping speed up collection of infection count data – one of about 20 new automation across the US government tied to the response. Other federal agencies have similarly turned to RPA to keep pace with the spread of the virus by analyzing data more rapidly, monitoring workforce health more precisely and performing tasks not being completed by workers.
  • RPA is supporting Retailers with online order surge: Amid the surge in orders due to the COVID-19, retailers needed to add many full-time and part-time positions for warehouse and delivery workers. This means processing millions of job applicants under significant time pressure. RPA takes off some load by doing background checks.
  • RPA is enabling badly needed COVID-19 Testing: RPA is helping US hospitals see if patients are already in the electronic medical record (EMR), records the test results, and sends them to the CDC. While it takes a human 2-3 minutes to execute, the RPA Automation executes in 14-16 seconds.

Adverse Impacts

In spite of these bright spots, many RPA customers are going through an unprecedented crisis. All Companies are dealing with some form of VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) right now.

In the midst of this uncertainty, Organizations are even turning off the bots as their Operations are unable to continue without people in the office. That is a sad situation and could be a wake-up call to have well-designed bots that can continue working even in such situations. Meanwhile, People who did RPA right are monitoring the bots remotely and keeping some semblance of their Operations going.

Some of the RPA projects are being put on hold or being canceled. Many Business leaders are seeing their transformation plans slowed down. Organizations are only implementing projects that can be implemented quickly and has clear outcomes. In light of the Pandemic, the projects that solve real business problems are being prioritized.

Meanwhile, RPA Vendors are helping out as much as they can.

RPA For Good

As Business deal with the crisis, there is some Pro-bono work being done by RPA vendors. They include free applications and services to tide over this in the short term. Here are a few examples of help RPA vendors are providing:

  • Blue Prism is donating resources and Digital Workers to automate processes related to COVID-19. They are stepping up to assist with automation projects that help alleviate the strain on businesses.
  • UiPath has launched a pro bono automation project with a Hospital to free up nurses dealing with infection control including Covid19. RPA Bots are helping with the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) at the Mater hospital. UiPath is also supporting Romanian public sector organizations in combating the Covid19 spread.
  • Kryon has helped one of Israel’s largest healthcare providers, Maccabi to automatically download of COVID-19 test results from the Israeli Ministry of Health. Kryon is offering to provide this same service to any healthcare organization, across the globe for free.
  • Appian is offering a free Application to Manage COVID-19 Response. “The app establishes a central command center to safeguard the health and safety of employees. It tracks health status, location, travel history, and any COVID-19 incident details.”

Even as Enterprises work through these crises, they are looking to accelerate Automation when they get back to normalcy.

Looking forward

While we do not know for sure how long these disruptions would last, we could see some form normalcy return in a few months. As we start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we would see action in at least two areas:

Accelerated Automation and Digital Transformation

Almost half (41%) of the global executives surveyed by EY expect to accelerate Automation when they get back.

Many companies had pressure on revenue and profitability targets even before the pandemic. They had transformation initiatives underway which they plan to double down on post-crisis. Around 43% of the executives say they will focus on prioritizing changes in new investments in digital and technology.

Apart from Automation, they would not want to be in the same situation again.

Taking steps to be more resilient

The Pandemic and the shutdown of activities all over the world have exposed the vulnerabilities of operations and supply chains worldwide. As per the EY survey, over half (52%) are taking steps to change their current set up.

Most businesses have started asking how they can be more resilient in the future. How can this work be performed remotely in any kind of disaster scenario? Can these be automated and monitored remotely?

Coming out of the crisis, all businesses could become more interested in how RPA and automation can help. They could explore options to automate as well as augment their current workforce so that the work can be performed remotely.

Companies that will survive long term are the companies that have the flexibility to keep the operations running in such uncertain situations.

Conclusion

Unmistakably, the future would have most of the current activities automated. We are also seeing that the newer generations would like to see more satisfying work. This Pandemic could help us accelerate to this Digital future.

It is a massive challenge and an opportunity. In the long term, the shifting of our work online could prove to be a great accelerator of digitalization for all kinds of businesses.

No one knows how all this is going to turn out. But, we know that there would be a new normal.

Surely, Coronavirus will permanently change the way we work, learn and live.

Top Five Emerging RPA trends

RPA is going through a Renaissance.

We are seeing widespread adoption of RPA and the market is booming. With many new and exciting technologies being added, the tools are more capable than ever before. This is leading to a much bigger market with more capable players.

A few existing players like Microsoft, SAP, and Appian have jumped in. This is great news as it proves the need for this technology in the Enterprise. The top RPA players like UiPath and Automation Anywhere are also breaking out in terms of the market share and the client spend velocity.

So, it looks like we are moving towards a more mature market with some clear leaders. These major players are embracing a common set of features. From Cloud to AI and more, we are seeing some exciting trends.

Here are my top five trends as of now.

Cloud-based Service

Automation Anywhere took the lead to deliver RPA as a service from the cloud. Microsoft has taken a similar approach. If you have used Automation Anywhere A2019, you would realize how cloud-based RPA is an easy and user-friendly approach. You can create automation from anywhere – Mobile, Desktop and across Operating systems.

In a Cloud-based RPA environment, all your Automation development, testing, deployment, and monitoring are carried out from a web-based interface. You download and install an “agent” on your desktop that your web-based app connects with to interact and run your automation on your desktop. For e.g. In A2019, you develop your Bot in a web-based Control room. The Control room directs you to install a Bot agent that runs on your Windows desktop. There is also a Mac-based A2019 Bot agent in the works.

You can see how this makes sense in a Mobile-First, Cloud-First world. We can automate on the go! Start your automation on one device and complete it from any other devices you have. This seems like a natural progression for any software including RPA. For an upcoming AI-first, Voice-controlled world too, this makes a lot of sense.

In the longer term, RPA could be one of the AI services provided by cloud providers like Azure, AWS or Google. You get a taste of that with Microsoft RPA – UiFlows. It is one of the tools that are part of the complete Microsoft Power Automate platform.

Low-code and moving to No-code

RPA is part of a bigger movement to low-code and No-code tools. Most organizations are tired of the multi-month projects that need developers who are hard to find. We are moving to the next level of abstraction in the evolution of technology.

While there is some confusion as to what constitutes low-code and no-code, it is commonly agreed that these are tools that enable you to create applications visually using a drag-and-drop interface. A no-code tool goes further to ensure citizen developers, often business people with no programming skills can develop the applications. To give an example from the RPA world, UiPath Studio would be close to a Low-code tool while StudioX would be closer to a no-code tool.

Like RPA, both Low-code and No-code markets are booming. The total market for low-code development platforms will be around $21billion by 2022, growing at about 40 percent, as per Forrester. There is a bigger No-Code movement where more Automation tools that are much easier to configure is coming up. We may see better Citizen developer Automation tools from the no-code movement.

Microsoft Power Automate is a great example of this integrated low-code and no-code trend. The RPA component – UiFlows is low-code. It can be integrated with AI Builder which is a low-code tool with drag-drop AI, You also have Microsoft Virtual Agents – another Low-code/No-Code platform to create Chatbots and more. The complete Power Automate platform is being designed from the ground-up as a low-code/no-code platform.

Ready API components

RPA started as a capability to interact with applications through existing interfaces. This worked well for many Legacy applications. But as the tool started being used for more and more use cases, it has become clear that we need capabilities to integrate with all types of applications through APIs and other available integration. Where available, APIs are the best way to integrate with modern applications.

While this meant stepping into the space of Integration vendors (e.g. iPaas), RPA vendors have been adding them either by themselves or through partners or with the help of the community. So, RPA tools have ended up creating components to integrate with the most popular applications and services. You can also develop your own custom components for the API that do not have pre-built components.

When Microsoft announced its RPA, one of the key features was the pre-built connectors for more than 275 apps and services that support API automation. UiPath has many pre-built components for all major applications on the UiPath Connect marketplace. Blue Prism has a Digital Exchange (DX) where you can find drag-drop components that can be used in your Automation – many of them use APIs in the backend. Even Open-source tools have the option of using Node-Red, a popular open-source workflow tool to integrate with available API and Online services.

As the platforms get stronger and with more community involvement, we would find pre-built components for almost all the APIs that we like to use in our Automation.

Process mining/discovery

Process Mining has been a popular tool, especially in Europe to understand the actual processes followed in organizations. They like to say that Process mining provides an X-ray of the processes. While you may visualize your processes as a neat Visio like workflow diagrams, the actual process being followed is more complex.

This has been the finding of many early RPA practitioners as well. We usually come back from business users with a neat flow but, the automation ends up not capturing certain aspects that have to be added later. The true complexity of the processes has been one of the biggest challenges for RPA. Sensing this, many Process mining players started tailoring their offerings to enable Automation. RPA tool vendors also started adding this capability by themselves or by acquisition.

Automation Anywhere recently added Process discovery to their set of tools. UiPath a few months earlier, added this as a product called UiPath Explorer by acquiring Process Gold. Kryon probably was one of the first RPA tool vendors to add this capability. Many more RPA tool providers have this capability or are in the process of adding them.

We also have a host of pure-play Process mining vendors. Celonis is the leader in the area as per most analysts. They have a traditional Process mining solution combined with a recently added Task Mining solution. From an RPA perspective, some of the other interesting players in this area include FortressIQ, Kofax, My Invenio and Timeline Pi.

The best part of the Process mining space is that the vendors have been adding more and more features especially tailored to automation. Some of the players like FortressIQ and Process Gold have a way to generate the RPA Process Definition Document (PDD) automatically. Most of them have a way to prioritize the processes for automation as well as create a business case with the ROI for each process.

Human – Bot Interactions

Allowing people to interact with the Bots have always been a felt need. Many of us in the RPA field have been adding this capability through Chatbot APIs, Emails, etc. We now have the RPA tool vendors adding this capability to the tools themselves or allowing you to develop Chatbots to do that.

UiPath introduced Apps to bring “humans in the loop”. You can handle exceptions or provide approvals using the UiPath Orchestrator on mobile or desktop. If you like a develop a Chatbot with UiPath, you can interface with Google Dialogflow through a component available in the market place. Automation Anywhere acquired Klevops that allows teams to work with multiple bots.

Microsoft Power Automate comes with Microsoft Power Virtual agents – a low-code tool to create Chatbots for your automation. The Chatbots are easy to create with drag-drop interfaces and can seamlessly be integrated with the Power automation flows. If you like to create a more complex Chatbot, you can use the integrated Microsoft Bot Framework for a more powerful solution.

This would be another interesting area as these features go mainstream. We would see most organizations using a team of people working with bots to carry out most of the processes. People would be interfacing with bots from anywhere anytime using their mobile devices making them more productive, providing great customer experiences.

Conclusion

While these emerging capabilities are present in some of the tools already, we are seeing these features become more mainstream. With more investments in this area, we will see more and more interesting trends emerge in this area.

It will be great to see capabilities like self-healing bots, automated RPA process generation becoming operational in the next phase. We will explore them as well when we see them mature and go mainstream.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Tools and Skills for 2020

It has been over seven years since RPA went mainstream. What are the new RPA skills required for this fast-evolving market?

The term Robotic Process Automation (RPA) was coined around 2012 by Blue Prism. Current RPA leader, UiPath (then Deskover) started building the RPA platform to train and orchestrate bots in 2012. That was also the year HFS Research wrote the now-famous blog post introducing RPA to the world. 

Over the years, we have seen that this capability to automate repetitive tasks has caught the imagination of many. RPA finished last year as the fastest-growing Enterprise Software market. With significant attention and investments in the space, RPA is evolving into a capable Enterprise Automation platform.

As the Platform evolves, what should our Enterprise Automation Toolbox look like? What are the corresponding RPA skills required? That is what we will explore in this article.

Let us start with the evolving RPA Platform.

RPA Platform

All the top RPA vendors now have a core platform – an “operating system” for bots that provide a way to build and manage the Bots. You can plug-in additional components provided by the vendors themselves, their partners and even people like you to create the Automation.

Gartner refers to RPA and surrounding tools collectively as “Complemented RPA” (CoRPA). They think that alongside RPA, we should consider intelligent business process management suites (iBPMSs), integration platform as a service (iPaaS) platforms and decision management systems as part of what they call “Hyper Automation”. Here is their view:

While the jury is still out on which tool(s) would be able to bring together the puzzle pieces shown above, we sure have a robust toolbox of technologies for Automation. But why do we need such a toolbox?

Advantages of an Automation Toolbox

A robust toolbox helps us uncover higher value opportunities compared to using RPA alone for automation.

A Deloitte analysis shows that both the number and value of opportunities increase as we move from RPA to RPA and AI and then to the complete toolbox.

A study by Wikibon shows that market opportunity increases as we add Machine Learning (ML), Analytics and integrate deeply with the business.

C:\Users\nanda\Downloads\Breaking-Analysis_-RPA-is-becoming-a-lynchpin-of-hyper-automation-4-1024x576.jpg

It is, therefore, logical to start using a wider toolbox for our Automation. What would that toolbox look like?

Automation Toolbox

Based on the emerging trends and taking a cue from Gartner “Hyperautomation” we discussed above, here is a take on the emerging Automation toolbox. Some of the suggested tools and RPA skills are also shown.

It comprises of two layers – one is the Orchestration layer in the middle (RPA, BPM and IPaas) and the surrounding tools that we can plug-in to Automate a wider array of use cases.

Orchestration Tool(s)

Our Toolbox requires tools that bring together the puzzle pieces needed for Automation. RPA started off by providing the puzzle pieces for interfacing with applications through the user interfaces. They are now adding the plumbing needed to plug-in most of the other components like AI-ML, Chatbots, Process mining, etc.

The RPA tools now have a head start connecting processes and doing so with a layer of governance. So while it makes sense to use iBPMSs or IPaas if you already have them, it looks like RPA is currently a good choice to provide the Orchestration using both AI and Analytics.

So, while we keep our options open to including BPM, IPaas and other technologies as they evolve, we will focus on a toolbox that has RPA providing this layer. A focused toolbox like this:

Let us dive deeper into the Toolbox and RPA skills starting with our Orchestration tool – Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

RPA

The RPA market is crowded with 60+ tools as of now. If I have to pick the tools to focus on right now, I would pick from the dozen tools that I cover here. If I have to further cherry-pick a few, here are the ones I would look to include in my Automation toolbox in 2020.

Automation Anywhere.

A2019 has certainly been one of the better tools this year. The tool is intuitive, cloud-based and even includes document processing with IQ bot. I have encountered many issues using the Community version so far but it is certainly headed in the right direction of enabling you to build bots quickly (with no-code) anywhere (cloud-based service).

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UiPath

UiPath released an end to end suite with Process mining (UiPath explorer) to human in the loop (Apps) and completely revamped Analytics (Insights). You even have a complete no-code studio to develop your bots with UiPath StudioX. I would have liked to see a more complete version of StudioX though. Their accounting issues and layoffs are a continuing cause for worry.

Microsoft Power Automate

If I have to pick a promising integrated Automation platform and an RPA skill for the future, this would be it. Power Automate offers RPA (UiFlows), 300+ APIs, Chatbots (Power Virtual Agents) and AI builder which includes Form Recognizer (OCR/ICR), Object detection, Prediction, Text classification, and Recognition, and more. All these are cloud-based and in No-code or Low-Code. The costs are also the lowest in the industry right now.

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Blue Prism

The RPA Pioneers have been looking better. They had a pretty good FY 2019. Blue Prism has a good list of features and products in the road map. Decipher seems promising as it would come included with the Blue Prism connected platform. It would be great to see them increase the number of innovative products, speed up their delivery and make them more Community friendly.

You have a variety of options on the RPA front beyond these four. And most of them provide the plumbing to plug-in the best of the surrounding tools for Automation.

With RPA providing the Orchestration, let us look at a few of the surrounding tools for our toolbox.

Plug-in Tools

As we saw in the overall Toolbox diagram above, we now have a range of tools that you can plug-in to enable our Automation projects. We will focus here on the top six tools that could be great to add to your RPA skills.

AI – ML

Most of the top vendors have been integrating AI into their RPA Platforms. AI has been helping RPA overcome many of its traditional limitations. For e.g. Computer vision has been used by many RPA vendors to improve the Screen scraping aspects itself.

We now have multiple options to add ML capabilities like Object detection, Prediction, & Classification to your automation. You can add ML as a service, use ML inbuilt into RPA tools or even rely on your Service provider’s platforms.

ML enables automation of a host of things including document processing which we will cover separately as it is a huge area in itself.

Document processing

By most estimates, more than 80% of data in Organizations are in documents and forms. This is one hurdle we bump into on most of the Automation use cases. Digitizing this information is key to enable any Transformation.

This area has evolved over the last few years with AI and we now have some good options from the RPA tool vendors, the big Cloud AI providers and from the OCR/ICR vendors.

Other than document processing, another challenging area for RPA has been the discovery of processes that are right for automation.

Process Mining

These are tools that provide you an X-ray of the current Processes within the organization. This is very useful for identifying and prioritizing processes to automate.

From an RPA perspective, we have some interesting options right now. Here are the top three:

Celonis: Based on various rankings, they are the current leaders in this space. Celonis provides Cloud-based Process & Task mining that enables Process discovery.

ProcessGold (UiPath): Another tool in the leader quadrant as per Everest, ProcessGold is now UiPath Explorer. It can detect repetitive tasks using Process and Task mining and also monitor your automation.

FortressIQ: It is a cloud-based tool that records low-resolution videos of user computers to detect patterns and processes. Based on your inputs, the tool can also generate a Process Definition Document (PDD) for your RPA development.

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Along with AI and Process discovery, Analytics is an important puzzle piece for tracking automation initiatives.

Analytics

With advanced Analytics added to RPA, you can measure, report, and align your Automation with strategic business outcomes. You can choose to add Analytics using the RPA tool vendors or using Business intelligence tools. A few options to consider:

UiPath Insights: You can measure and report on the performance of your UiPath bot operations with their Insights tools. It can help your Center of Excellence (CoE), Process owners and business leaders track KPIs to make better decisions on the Automation initiatives.

Automation Anywhere Bot Insight: Another RPA analytics solution that provides real-time, business intelligence and operational insights on bot performance. As per AA “ Bot Insight transforms bots into “super data collectors,” gathering data and metadata across applications, processes, and all automated tasks.”

Tableau: Tableau is currently one of the most popular BI tools. It has an easy to use interface to create your reports and visualizations. You also have the ability to distribute reports and documents to other users via the web. Top RPA vendors have components to connect with Tableau. For e.g. UiPath has got this component on UiPath Marketplace.

You can also use tools like Qlik, Microsoft Power BI, etc. to add advanced Analytics. Next, let us see how we can add the ability for people to converse with the Automation.

Conversational AI

This includes text-based Chatbots as well as voice assistants like Alexa. They help you enable Automation use cases that required interaction with people through voice or Text (e.g. Customers, Employees, etc.). Bots powered by Natural language processing (NLP) and Natural language understanding (NLU) along with RPA can transform how organizations interact with stakeholders.

A few good options to add Conversational AI with RPA:

Google Dialog flow: This is a cloud-based virtual agent with NLP and NLU. The tool has an easy to use web user interface called the Dialogflow Console to make your Chatbots. UiPath also has a component on the UiPath Connect marketplace that enables interfacing with Dialog flow.

Microsoft Power Virtual Agents: This is a low-code tool to create Chatbots on the Power platform. You can create AI-powered Chatbots that can interact with the Power Automate platform. If you like to make more complex chatbots, you can code them using the fully integrated Microsoft Bot Framework.

Those were a few key tools and RPA skill sets that look relevant as of now.

Beyond Tools

While tools are important, it is always prudent to start with your Business problem and choose the tools that solve them.

As the HFS delegates at a recent roundtable said, “Automation Strategy must be led by an overarching business strategy”. Once automation is part of the overall strategy, all the stakeholders can work together to transform the organization. Most of the HFS laws below are good to look at before we even consider the tools.

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Another important aspect is to start with a group of people focused on RPA- a Center Of Excellence (COE). A COE would help you drive the initiative better by putting in place the right People, Process, and Technologies.

Conclusion

RPA has shown that it can enable Automation faster, better and at a low cost.

Now, RPA is evolving with lots of emerging technologies that promise to make Enterprise Automation one of the key priorities for organizations in the new decade.

With so many great choices, you can now pick and choose the best tools and skills that fit your specific Transformation needs.

A dozen RPA tools to consider in 2020

A dozen RPA tools to consider in 2020.

Top 3

  1. Automation Anywhere: A2019 with easy to use IQ bot. The best tool for 2020!
  2. UiPath: Great Roadmap. Losing steam a bit, like to see better delivery in 2020.
  3. Blue Prism: Slow and steady. Great FY 19. Hopefully will see Decipher in 2020.

Emerging 3

Subjective, based on reports and discussion with people

  1. WorkFusion: Continues to be the tool to beat for AI/ML. Great features.
  2. Pegasystems: Solid attended bots. Ramping up on unattended.
  3. EdgeVerve: Check out Assist Edge. Hearing people implement this.

Big 3

Key players are a must-watch.

  1. Microsoft: Big fish, all RPA is based on Msft tech. Interesting take with APIs & AI.
  2. SAP: Roadmap to add RPA to AI-based automation. Expect lots of action.
  3. Appian: Interesting to watch. May add low code RPA based on Jidoka.

Open Source 3

  1. Tag UI: Backed by Singapore AI. Added Python RPA. Fairly active.
  2. Robin: Language for RPA backed by Softmotive. Seeing quite a bit of action.
  3. Open RPA: A good take at creating RPA w/ Workflow foundation (like UiPath)