We met with the C-level executive of a major outsourcing firm recently. He shared that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been dominating the headlines within his industry recently. Being a traditional outsourcing provider that relies predominately on labour arbitrage, there is a growing impetus to add RPA to their repertoire in order to avoid irrelevance.
So they are now at a stage of evaluating the various RPA tools and vendors. One of the key considerations they have is “ease of use”. More specifically, they are interested in a tool so simple to use that even non-IT Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can model the automations themselves. Or as one vendor seductively expressed it, “RPA that’s so easy, every employee can use it.”
This reminded me of a related discussion regarding the pros and cons of automation recorder that is bundled within some of the RPA tools. Obviously, the benefits are clear as day.
However, as responsible market participants, we feel that some words of caution are timely. To be sure, there is no right and wrong answer here. There are definitely use cases where a simple record-and-play automation works like a charm. But to over-emphasize the ease of use is kind of like overlooking the forest for the trees.
And here is why.
Firstly, ease of use is an extremely misleading term. What is simple to one might be difficult to another. To a seasoned programmer, features in a visual designer like drag-and-drop and point-and-click would be a walk in the park for them (though it should be noted that such features might not appeal to them in the first place). Not necessarily so for your typical SME. And configuring a bot entails so much more, including bot logic, components reusability, exceptions handling, governance and security, to name a few. It is rather optimistic to expect your SMEs to be able to handle all of this.
A less obvious reason is that there is a price to pay for the ease of use. Generally speaking, this means a restricted set of bot functionalities that is available to the “casual” bot developer. And as we are all learning from our SMEs today, in reality, our processes are really kind of complicated. Which necessitates the use of advanced programming tools, bringing us back to square one. Mind you, in many cases, the ability to handle process complexities is key to actualising real returns on our investment.
“Playing around with scripts for a while is fun, but if you’re serious: create a program.”
Which brings us to our final point. Ease of use is really a double-edged sword. If it is indeed so easy to create automations using RPA tools, what sustainable competitive advantage does RPA provide your organization then? Wouldn’t your competitors be able to readily replicate whatever you are doing? This is definitely food for thought for those organizations looking to embark on their RPA journey.
In summary, this is not meant to be a critique of the RPA industry. Rather, we strive to highlight some pertinent points that our readers might have missed, and to encourage constructive discussions and debates in this still admittedly nascent industry.
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