The next wave of workflow automation is advancing past robotic process automation, where RPA bots perform specific tasks, to a digital workforce where bots are capable of taking on nearly a full range of job responsibilities.
Already, RPA vendors are offering digital personas or digital workers, next-gen RPA bots designed to handle numerous tasks that have, up until now, been performed by humans in defined positions.
"Digital labor is the right term for this, because it's more than RPA," said Scott Likens, new services and emerging tech leader at professional services firm PwC. "The RPA is being rolled up into composite bots that, [while not] the same as a full-time equivalent position, do perform big pieces of certain jobs."
Case in point: Automation Anywhere's recent launch of its cast of Digital Workers. Each Digital Worker performs duties typically assigned to a specific job role within an enterprise. Its Digital AWS IT Admin, for instance, can read support tickets, reset user passwords, create an Elastic Compute Cloud instance and generate utilization reports.
The company's Digital Workers also include a Digital Azure IT Admin, a Digital Google Cloud IT Admin and a Digital SAP Accounts Payable Clerk.
"Centering automation activity around human roles was a very clear direction that we were getting from our ecosystem," said Mukund Srigopal, director of product marketing for the Digital Worker Ecosystem at Automation Anywhere, a leading RPA vendor based in San Jose, Calif.
Automation Anywhere joins other tech companies in advancing the use of robotics, machine learning and AI to automate jobs and not merely individual tasks. Arago, Blue Prism, IPsoft and Kryon are among the companies selling digital workforce technologies.
Analysts and researchers expect automation vendors to fully move in this direction, as enterprise business and technology executives increase their use of RPA bots.
Stephanie Stoudt-Hansen, research director at consultancy Gartner, said RPA adoption is growing at a frenzied pace, and some RPA software vendors are experiencing triple-digit revenue growth.
As that market grows, RPA vendors are already looking ahead and moving into more sophisticated offerings, Stoudt-Hansen said.
She pointed to Gartner's findings that the vendors' product roadmaps for RPA software "reflect the launching of more sophisticated capabilities via computer vision, prebuilt automation and autoscaled systems." Moreover, Gartner also expects the RPA market to shift from offerings that are task-oriented products to "more process-level automation that will eventually grow to process orchestration."
Challenges to automation
There are, however, challenges ahead for enterprise use of RPA software.
Stoudt-Hansen said Gartner predicts that more RPA providers will offer consumption pricing than in the past and each model will be different, making it difficult to compare providers' offerings. In addition, enterprises will struggle with RPA projects based on their own lack of analysis, guardrails or governance -- even if the products themselves are billed as plug-and-play or fully ready for deployment.
"This is where organizations are going to need to develop centers of excellence and processes so that they can scale in the future," she said.
As for enterprise executives looking to move beyond RPA and actually automate job positions, they will find they have few options at this point, PwC's Likens said, explaining that there are a limited number of positions standardized enough to make good candidates for automation.
"Recruiting, accounts receivable and accounts payable are standard processes -- so those are good targets. But there aren't as many good targets as you would think," he said. "We're still seeing a lot of these one-process automation [implementations]. Those are the low-hanging fruit."
Efficiency gains vs. transformation
Indeed, Likens said most organizations are deploying RPA bots to automate tasks -- not replace whole jobs with digital workers. Such RPA deployments are more likely to bring efficiency gains -- but not transformation -- because most organizations are automating existing processes without actually optimizing them as part of the RPA initiative.
Similarly, Stoudt-Hansen said organizations that want to maximize the returns on their RPA investments must focus not simply on the immediate value that automating a single task can bring, but rather on understanding how to re-engineer processes for automation, how to scale their automation technology and how to integrate automation into other systems and processes. Doing that hard work, she said, is where organizations can see the bigger ROI.
Likens said that, as RPA increasingly incorporates AI, with AI examining processes to determine the most efficient way to get from start to finish, its impact will grow.
"There's value in automating processes and digitizing what humans do," Likens said, referring to the current focus on automating existing processes. "But we've created a lot of processes that aren't that great, that aren't the most efficient way to get things done. Intelligent automation -- letting machines look at a beginning and an end and figure out the middle -- is the next level."
Indeed, RPA deployments are already building the foundation for that intelligent work by collecting volumes of data on processes, he added.
Deconstruction of job roles
Automation Anywhere's Srigopal said his company developed its Digital Workers with the expectation that business unit leaders -- and not necessarily IT professionals -- would lead automation deployments. (The Digital Workers are housed in Automation Anywhere's Bot Store, opened May 2018 to AI and machine learning developers and touted as the world's first bot store.)
While some enterprise customers might use RPA bots to fully automate some positions, Srigopal said that, more often, they're using it to augment their human workforce.
"We see this as being a digital persona that automates the repetitive work that a function does so their [human] workers can be redirected to more higher-value tasks," Srigopal said, who argued that this precision automation reflects a change in how work will increasingly get done in the enterprise.
"[Organizations] are moving away from whole jobs done by people to deconstruction of job roles into skills, with some skills done by humans and some skills done by software. Our Digital Worker fits right into that."
Likens, however, said organizations are a long way from building workforces that seamlessly combine human and digital talent. Instead, he said, they'll continue to identify tasks that can be automated through RPA and will move toward deploying digital workers for standardized processes. Companies will buy off-the-shelf solutions for tasks, processes and even positions that are performed in standard ways across organizations and customize automation solutions for those processes that are unique to their own enterprises.
Digital personas for hire, role of CIO
Cay Gliebe, senior vice president of marketing and product management at OneSource Virtual, a Dallas-based company offering consulting and services to clients using Workday software, said her company is looking to build, host and maintain digital personas that will be available for its own clients to hire.
"The plan is to have a digital workforce library, and customers can subscribe to it," she said. She expects to have digital workers available later this year.
Gliebe said she opted for Automation Anywhere because it enabled marketing to take the lead on this strategic offering, with support from IT. She hired an RPA product manager and three RPA analysts to run with this initiative.
Randy Black, senior vice president of R&D at OneSource Virtual, said the company has invested in web services and automation technologies throughout its 10-year history, making it well-positioned to capitalize on new RPA offerings.
Black, who oversees IT operations and services, pointed out that his technology team built and now supports the development, test and production environment for automation solutions, utilizing its own skills in integration, security and cloud to enable the work being done by Gliebe's team.
PwC's Likens dismissed the idea that IT will be shut out of automation deployments in the future, even as the technology evolves and adds more intelligence. IT needs to partner with the business, particularly around developing the infrastructure to support RPA bots, as well as providing the infrastructure and governance for scaling, securing and managing the bots as they proliferate in organizations.
"There's still a very strong role for CIOs to play to create the foundation for digital labor," he said. "You need IT to make sure it's sound and solid."