RPA Takes On the Operator Role and BPM Enters as Engineer

Technology has been paramount in keeping organizations operational through the pandemic. Now CTOs are looking to speed up their digital transformation as a result and fully immerse themselves in the digital workspace, searching out innovative tools that can support them.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the latest automation tool designed to drive workspace efficiencies and productivity. But many organizations are asking themselves how RPA differs from business process management (BPM), and which road they should go down.

Talking differences

RPA is an agile approach for accelerating manual processes. It decreases manual, repetitive and rules-based tasks to minimize keying errors, speed up workflows and reduce costs. It also frees up employees from mundane tasks to focus on more important business tasks – for example, supporting customers, negotiating better prices with suppliers and monitoring product quality.

But we should keep in mind that RPA technology is based on low-level interactions such as mouse and keyboard use. It is about simulating the clicking and typing of a data entry clerk. Companies can use RPA to speed up a workflow. It has the advantage that it works around the clock and doesn’t tire out. A good use case: the automatic and regular generation of up-to-date price lists for sales reps. It can quickly and automatically retrieve customer data. In this respect, RPA is primarily a “robotic task automation,” not a “robotic process automation.”

To put it simply, with RPA you automate workarounds to mundane tasks. It treats the symptom, however, not the cause. Imagine a car patched with duct tape. It is faster than a full-blown repair, but only patches the problem and you have no idea how long it will last. This is what RPA does.

BPM, by its nature, is more complex. It is a holistic, structured and strategic approach including capabilities such as business analytics and workflow engines. It looks after process orchestration to eliminate bottlenecks, connect systems and enhance productivity enterprise-wide. It streamlines collaborative features and automates production workflows. Wide gains can be achieved in agility, flexibility, productivity and compliance, which can all lead to overall cost reductions and minimize risks.

BPM also enables integration with other, external technologies and offers a way to optimize and increase the efficiency of humans involved in processes. Companywide projects can bring about significant transformational changes for business.

Which way to go?

With RPA on the hype curve right now, many companies have huge expectations that may not be fulfilled. There are a number of misconceptions and misunderstandings around RPA that need to be carefully analyzed. In many cases, BPM actually offers a better choice for organizations looking for intelligent end-to end automation of business processes across departments.

RPA software basically builds a digital workforce of software bots that can assist employees in the automation of rules-based tasks and procedures. But don’t expect it to make decisions.

The software can handle repetitive tasks simultaneously which an employee may have to carry out consecutively. The big advantage here is that RPA can work 24/7 and doesn’t require sick days or vacations.

A good example here is an organization’s purchasing department. An employee may have to spend many hours searching through supplier websites to find and compile a list of the best market prices available. RPA can automate this task and carry it out error free at regular required intervals. The employee can concentrate their time on higher value projects.

As mentioned, RPA is a way for companies to automate structured tasks that involve several process steps that are repeated on a daily basis, such as transferring data from one IT system to another. The big advantage here is that RPA can relieve employees of tasks that take up a great deal of time, but deliver little business value and may be prone to errors such as spelling mistakes.

It is important to understand that RPA solutions on their own have a much more limited application scope than BPM software offers up. RPA, for example, doesn’t work with APIs. It basically impersonates data input by a human.

Organizations can utilize RPA to accelerate workflow, but not improve its quality or value. An unsatisfactory process will always be an unsatisfactory process, with or without using an RPA solution. In contrast, BPM brings with it a much broader approach that stretches across the digitalization, automation and optimization of the entire business process journey from start to finish.Click To Tweet– not only focusing on data-driven processes but also on document-based automation processes, which make up more than 80% of daily business. BPM also has the power to interconnect processes across different systems and departments. Employees stay connected to workflows and retain responsibility for decision-making. BPM and RPA can work together – BPM taking the lead and RPA taking a supporting role. They can be integrated seamlessly to leverage their benefits for intelligent automation. But it is important to note that RPA can’t replace BPM entirely.

RPA can’t make smart decisions

RPA is a great workhorse, but when it enters the world of ad hoc and adaptive processes it soon reaches its limits. Why? Because it lacks a human’s ability to adapt to change. It is also important to consider that RPA is designed to automate tasks. It hasn’t been created to fix end-to-end business processes across organizations.

With customer service, for example, RPA can retrieve data on a customer order or complaint very efficiently. But it only impersonates human data input. It doesn’t have a human’s ability to make a decision around the data.

This is where a BPM solution comes into its own. An AI-based BPM solution can optimize the process from end to end, from initial contact with the organization to the purchasing processes and any after-sales applied. It delivers all necessary information right in the process, finding the right employees to handle it and helping them to make the right decisions faster. This way service is improved as customers get faster and better responses.

Don’t confuse RPA with BPM

The issue is that many organizations confuse RPA with BPM and are under the illusion that they are interchangeable. Hence, they believe that both can manage and automate end-to-end process, which isn’t the case.

In reality, RPA can only automate repetitive manual sub-tasks that make up the parts of the entire process. BPM is way more powerful. It can manage and automate workflows and also design and enhance processes. Its deep-dive analytics and reporting functions can help to expose data silos and bottlenecks, for example, that may be hobbling performance and productivity.

RPA isn’t the complete answer to automating business

Often organizations look to deploy RPA for complex processes, which go way beyond its capabilities. This is probably, as I mentioned previously, down to reading too much into the name – robotic processing automation. In many scenarios, existing automation tools are adequate for the job and investing in RPA will not add any immediate value.

BPM is a comprehensive management solution and one that will provide long term business benefits. We live in a world that is increasingly relying on open APIs. It is easy to connect systems sensibly via APIs, instead of taking technology from the ‘70s, when host systems could only be accessed via terminal emulation. When data is transferred via an API, the process will become far more streamlined and efficient over time than with a workaround using RPA, for example.

An effective BPM solution offers the flexibility to change processes and add in new steps to help make a business more agile. Most BPMs also include reporting and analytics tools to quantify the results of workflows for smart decision-making.

Don’t run before you can walk

Deploying an RPA solution requires a robust and well thought out strategy. Migrating all of an organization’s complex business processes to RPA will lead to failure in the vast majority of cases. Organizations need to audit their processes and identify the ones that would benefit from automation. These will be quick wins for automation.

But, when it comes to modeling, organizing and working on ad hoc as well as standard processes and having the flexibility to review, change and convert processes with little administrative effort, BPM ticks the boxes.

Today, businesses of all sizes need BPM to meet process expectations, support collaborative remote workforces and have the scalability and flexibility to compete in a touchless, digital economy. 

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Gregor Joeris

Gregor Joeris

Dr. Gregor Joeris is Chief Technology Officer of SER Group and managing director, SERgroup Holding International GmbH