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How RPA and digital transformation work together

Enterprises that think RPA is a good endpoint for digital transformation efforts are in for a rude shock. While automation is a good start, it can leave deeper issues unresolved.

The practical upshot of robotic process automation is that organizations are able to eliminate a lot of manual tasks. This frees people to focus on more high-value work that is hard to automate, bringing human touches to solving problems and complex customer interactions.

It turns out that these are some of the primary goals of broader enterprise digital transformation. For this reason, many organizations today are looking at RPA and digital transformation strategies to see how they complement each other. However, RPA is not a substitute for digitizing your business and improving your customer experiences. Organizations should use RPA for interim solutions while larger transformation efforts move towards completion.

Why RPA can be a good starting point for digital transformation

RPA evolved from several different technologies. One was automated testing tools that simulated people performing work to ensure that systems worked. Another was the enterprise content management universe, where firms needed to extract data from incoming forms, both scanned and otherwise electronically delivered. Like RPA, those tools excelled at taking information from one system and automatically moving it into another system, rapidly and reliably.

The RPA products of today are very much like macros in Excel, except free from the confines of the spreadsheet. The latest tools allow people to record their actions without worrying about how to explain to the RPA software exactly what steps to take. Users can subsequently go in and fine-tune the recorded process as necessary.

The goal is simple: to eliminate repetitive, manual tasks. When deploying RPA, organizations should find those tasks and automate them. Many users have reported a reduction in errors and the time spent on the tasks. Organizations can typically realize positive results within weeks, freeing up resources immediately for other efforts.

Why RPA is not enough for digital transformation

RPA sounds great, but there is one problem. RPA treats the symptom and not the cause of information disconnects. It automates a manual task of moving information between different systems. It doesn't automate or digitally transform a process. If anything changes in the interfaces used in the script, the bot will break. This includes changes to the authentication methods.

The question organizations need to answer is, "Why aren't systems sharing information already?" Robots run on a schedule, so data supplied to systems by RPA can't be updated automatically. RPA works well for the vast majority of actions but can be challenged to handle exceptions.

In reality, systems need to communicate directly. The entire process needs to be digitized and automated from beginning to end. However, that effort requires modern systems that are not locked-down information silos, people willing to bridge those silos, and time.

RPA is one piece of the digital transformation toolkit

The business needs to drive digital transformation, but IT must be involved to implement the needed technology changes. The challenge is that IT has limited resources and is unable to digitally transform every part of the business at the same time. The IT department may need to update or replace a key system before any RPA and digital transformation effort begins.

The first step to fully automating and digitally transforming a process is to upgrade the user experience for the customer. As that evolves, the transformation effort streamlines the data inputs and outputs of the user interface. The flow of information gradually expands to downstream systems. Over time, IT can automate additional rules behind the scenes, removing the need for people to initiate the proper governance of the data.

RPA gets organizations over the hump. It allows the organization to automate tasks without waiting for every transformation to be complete. When done properly, RPA can help areas of the organization make interim progress while waiting for their turn on the priority list.

An extra benefit to using RPA occurs when organizations allow staff to build bots themselves. The resulting robots quickly reveal more about what people do daily. What are they automating? What are their pain points? Like shadow IT revealed the unfulfilled needs of staff, RPA shows IT where it needs to focus its digital transformation efforts.

Full digital transformation is the ultimate goal

The most important thing to remember is that RPA is a tool for staff. Those that need its help are the best people to create robots. IT should focus on providing support to allow the robots to run automatically and use well-defined authentication methods.

If organizations view RPA as the end of the road of digital transformation, and not a means to an end, they are missing the point. Robots are fragile. They are dependent on things not changing. An upgrade to the ERP, financial system or website used by the robot can break the automated task. Worse, these kinds of changes can cause a bot to move incorrect information around.

That is why digital transformation is the long-term solution. Done right, it creates lasting interface contracts that allow processes to evolve as business changes.

Organizations that treat RPA as an interim fix while digital transformation efforts proceed will be leaders in the long-term. Those that assume they are done when they deploy RPA will quickly be surpassed by others.

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