What are the alternatives to RPA?

RPA is just a passing fad…isn’t it?!

What are the alternatives to RPA and automating processes and how do they stack up for your business?

Well, it depends who you’re asking, but in all honesty, there are times and circumstances that RPA will be the perfect solution to the problem, but there’ll equally be times that it will not (although these are becoming fewer).

Relevant Reading: What is RPA?

 

In reality, and here’s the horribly predictable answer no one wants to hear, but it really does depend. There are always alternative options to automation and RPA for improving and optimising business operations and processes, and this article explores some of the more popular ones, together with when and why one is more suitable than the other and some advice to choosing which one.

 

RPA Workforce vs People Workforce

Probably the most obvious alternative to automating a process at all, is simply to use more people. It’s the most common alternative to investing in any type of technology to solve a problem and has been for a very long time, including assigning the task to people located in lower-cost locations as in a shared service or outsourcing centre.

 

There are many advantages to this approach:

  • Flexibility to hire who you need, when you need them, including permanent or temporary resources.
  • People are amazing! And are capable of a great many things in addition to the specific task.
  • Having the work performed in lower-cost locations can bring significant labour savings and efficiencies.
  • There is strength in numbers!

 

Increasing the size of your workforce will have disadvantages too:

  • People can be expensive, even in lower-cost locations, comparative to the work you need to perform (or compared to a robot).
  • Learning & Development. People must be trained or retrained for skill acquisition and developed for professional and personal growth.
  • We’re only human after all, and humans make mistakes, which have consequences and costs to identify and correct.
  • Goals and objectives will change, as will those of people, but work goes on. People can’t be expected to do the same work forever, and tenure is much lower the more boring and mundane it is.
  • People need space, so the more staff you have, the bigger the office and the more equipment is needed. (even work from home staff).
  • More employees working from home demands new remote and digital ways of working for everyone to adapt to but proves that physical location is much less of a barrier than previously thought.
  • People need breaks, vacations, get sick and the bigger your workforce, the bigger the challenge in providing continuity and coverage of the various tasks they perform.

 

Fortunately, RPA can overcome most, if not all of these issues, especially for repetitive, routine tasks. With robots, the quality of work can be more standardised, tasks can be assigned and re-assigned very quickly and easily, and they operate 24/7/365 in a purely digital and virtual world and so don’t occupy as much space.

There will always be some things a human does better than RPA, the key is to augment your workforce with robots where possible and free your people from the robotic, so they can perform those more human and valuable activities.

 

RPA vs Traditional Coding & Programming

Historically, the most common approach to process automation was via traditional programming, using a variety of tools and coding languages such as Python, Shell, Java, C#, etc.

Programming is robust and works best (or at least quickest) if the actions you need to automate can be coded via an application programming interface instead of via the graphical user interface.

 

Process automation via coding historically might have several benefits:

  • Little or no software cost, from using generally free coding or open-source software.
  • If your company currently has developers, you may already have access to the necessary skills and resources and therefore have little or no service-related costs.
  • It’s possible to package parts of the coding developed to be used for the benefit of automating other processes in future, such as API calls.

 

Inevitably, there are some disadvantages of writing code too:

  • Coding and programming developer resources are highly skilled and relatively expensive and there will no doubt be competing priorities for their time.
  • Many tasks that you’ll want to automate need to be run through API / web hooks, however, many systems either do not have any APIs available or only have APIs that can perform limited tasks.
  • Coding cannot always easily or quickly respond to and accommodate ongoing process changes, which the business requirements demand.
  • Tasks which can only be performed at the user interface level via clicks and typing for example are hard to visualise and successfully code.

 

A major advantage of RPA is the ease of use. Technically skilled practitioners can learn how to utilise RPA tools very quickly, but business and operational users can also be trained how to develop automations, making for incredibly effective and rapid solution delivery if they’re also the process subject matter experts. Another advantage that RPA has over traditional programming, is the ability to seamlessly combine both UI and API automation to deliver solutions for the business.

 

Fortunately, you no longer have to choose between traditional coding and RPA, as both can very happily co-exist and align seamlessly. The choice between which to use and when is simply one of design, time and effort.

 

RPA vs BPM

Business Process Management or BPM is both a discipline and a technology, the latter following the former to enable BPM programmes. RPA and BPM also share very similar goals that involve many of the same phased activities during their lifecycles (discover, design, model, execute, measure, optimise) in improving the efficiency and productivity of processes, but they achieve this in different ways.

The focus of RPA is to incorporate automation into specific processes – thereby eliminating manual effort and accelerating the completion of work. In the process of doing so, processes are often re-sequenced, modified, adapted and improved and the wider organisation as a whole, benefits from this.

The focus of a BPM programme is often broader and wider from the outset, in order to eliminate, simplify, standardise and automate entire processes through lean and optimisation techniques, however, many BPM systems often include RPA tools to enable the automation aspects.

Because RPA can be delivered tactically to specific processes as well as strategically to broader process improvement programmes, RPA can be less effort and quicker to implement and deliver discreet results and a quicker ROI.

Formal BPM requires more skill and experience of both the discipline and technologies and more effort in understanding, reshaping and reengineering end-to-end processes and managing people through the change and transition to their new world. This process can be time-consuming and expensive to develop, gain momentum and deliver results.

RPA and BPM are ultimately very closely related and can achieve many of the same outcomes. Many early adopters of RPA have realised that true success at scale across the organisation requires adopting a BPM-style approach, via a strategic level programme and entity-wide framework to identify, discover and design the future of the automated enterprise. However, RPA alone can deliver truly rapid and effective results without the need and time to reengineer a process.

Fortunately, again, you don’t necessarily have to choose between RPA and BPM, each will enable the other. Embarking on a company-wide automation programme will and should incorporate some similar disciplines to BPM but may enable more rapid results through the initial prioritisation of routine, repetitive manual work. RPA will also enable broader improvement and optimisation through the adoption of more advanced automation technologies as the programme matures.

 

RPA Process Discovery vs Process Mining

Every process improvement initiative, whether RPA or otherwise, has to begin somewhere. That “somewhere” is typically the discovery and understanding of the process to be improved or automated, so it’s worth exploring briefly this starting point, not so much as a true alternative to RPA, but as a complimentary enabler and alternative to traditional process discovery.

Process Mining is a scientific technique to analyse data event logs, effectively mapping the course of transactions throughout the organisation and the various systems. The outputs represent a series of insights and actions into how processes might be improved by eliminating steps, rework and lead or wait times.

The outputs from process mining tools build a process model or map showing the various transactional pathways, deviations and bottlenecks.

 

RPA Process Discovery techniques typically involve a traditional detailed walkthrough with the subject matter experts who perform the process, with the outputs documented using digital process mapping tools.

Relevant Reading: What is Process Discovery for RPA?

 

Then there are process or task capture technology that record the steps a person takes when using systems and automatically converts these to a ready-made procedure document or workflow for automation.

 

Each has its respective merits.

Process Mining is incredibly accurate and fast at capturing and presenting the diversity of extensive transaction volumes and variations, but only for existing process steps involving systems that produce event logs. There are a number of applications such as spreadsheets, legacy applications and virtual desktop environments that might be invisible to process mining tools.

Process Task Capture utilises computer vision and machine learning to unmask the hidden processes that run on virtual desktops or legacy applications but doesn’t always handle process complexity and variations very elegantly, especially where business and system exceptions are concerned. These tools are also restricted to recording only existing tasks and activities.

Process Walkthrough Discovery requires some expertise and experience to ensure the process steps are properly and accurately captured at the keystroke level, including all exceptions, variations and interactions between people and systems, but you have the advantage of not requiring any even logs, database connection or API accesses and being able to model proposed new process tasks.

Choosing between these options will depend on your budget, timelines and the complexities of your processes and systems, but across the three there’s something to suit all circumstances and all will work in unison with your automation programme or each other.

 

In conclusion, when you consider What Are The Alternatives to RPA, the answer is several, but choosing is the easy part. RPA and automation is a perfectly suitable alternative to using manual resources, coding or BPM, but it doesn’t have to replace any of them. RPA is another option in your toolbox and a lever to pull and generate new opportunities to support growth and optimisation within your business. An RPA workforce can allow cost-effective automation of tasks not previously possible, working in isolation or in collaboration with other techniques and technologies.

Where RPA might once have been considered an alternative to these different technologies and approaches, they ought really to be considered complimentary. RPA takes the best parts of coding (APIs and reusing and storing code) and combines them with the power of a human workforce, but with greater speed, accuracy and efficiency when and where it matters most.

 

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