The fall of 2019 was tense for the robotic process automation (RPA) industry. In October, RPA unicorn UiPath laid off 11% of its workforce, just months after earning a $7 billion valuation. The news sparked widespread concern that the entire RPA industry was headed for a reckoning.
Rather than being a warning sign of troubles to come, however, the issues facing one RPA vendor signaled an inflection point.
RPA isn’t going away — but the hype around it is. In fact, we believe this may open up the opportunity RPA needs to reach maturity and sustained growth.
The benefits of bots may be oversold
The perils of the hype cycle aren’t unique to RPA. Plenty of overvalued unicorns were forced to face harsh reality in 2019 as they faced the consequences of a growth-at-all-costs mindset. Slack, Lyft and Uber had disappointing IPOs, while coworking giant, WeWork, had to pull its IPO after the filing revealed evidence of corporate mismanagement.
But that’s not the only trend driving changes in the RPA market. For years, RPA vendors and global systems integrators have simply oversold what the technology can do. RPA isn’t a panacea. It can’t eliminate every inefficiency within a business or replace human workers entirely — and it definitely can’t function without ongoing maintenance.
In reality, deploying an army of RPA bots is a logistical challenge that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Many companies underestimate two factors in particular.
- Bots require lots of coding work. Someone has to build them, integrate them with existing systems, test them and then perform ongoing maintenance and updates. This requires regular spend on professional services that companies led to expect a pie-in-the-sky perfect automation solution may not have budgeted for.
- Bots break (relatively) easily. Each RPA bot is hard-coded to specific fields in a user interface (UI). That means that it may break when even small changes to the UI are made, creating another source of regular professional services costs.
While neither of these factors make bots ineffective, they do increase costs above that of a “zero-maintenance” solution — and are the most common reasons many companies end up maintaining fewer bots than they initially purchase.
Don’t discount RPA’s real benefits
The fact that the RPA industry hit a speed bump last fall shouldn’t devalue all the great things RPA has already done. It remains the best way to automate cumbersome, manual processes that interact with legacy systems. For retail, that includes product categorization and returns; for banking, it includes loan processing and trade execution. For all of these and many other use cases, properly implemented RPA has been shown to improve efficiency and accuracy, freeing up employees’ time to take care of more challenging, high-level tasks.
The RPA space is also still growing and developing new capabilities. For example, there’s increasing customer demand for solutions that go beyond just RPA to integrate AI components. These hybrid tools could broaden the use cases RPA covers by enabling technology to carry out more complex and nuanced tasks.
A bright future for RPA
With all this in mind, it’s clear that individual companies’ troubles shouldn’t necessarily ring alarm bells for the industry as a whole. Instead, it seems likely that RPA is at the point in the Gartner hype cycle where “the peak of inflated expectations” transitions into “the trough of disillusionment.” Fortunately, that means we’re about to hit the “slope of enlightenment,” in which the true benefits of a new technology start to be widely applied and understood.
To begin the climb up the slope, companies need to build a strong foundation for RPA with a realistic idea of its benefits in mind. They should take a holistic approach to process automation and leverage the right form of automation for the opportunity at hand.
Is it workflow automation, document automation or robotic process automation that will best help me achieve the desired outcome? Also don’t forget to engage key stakeholders in the process to ensure the automation technology is doing what it is meant to do – saving time, saving money, and improving the way people work. This means adopting an agile mindset that prioritizes transforming the business to stay competitive, over remaining attached to legacy systems.
Companies that keep all this in mind will be well-equipped to lead RPA into maturity — and reap the benefits in terms of greater efficiency, accuracy and sustainable business growth