Intellibot is the latest in a string of purchases by ServiceNow that reveals their intention to embed AI and machine learning into offerings. In 2020, they acquired Loom Systems, Passage AI (both January), Sweagle (June), and Element AI (November) in addition to Attivio in 2019. These acquisitions were integrated into the latest version of their Now Platform, code-named Quebec, which was launched earlier this month. As a result, Predictive AIOps and AI Search were newly added to the platform while the low-code tools were expanded upon and became Creator Workflows. This means ServiceNow now offers four primary solutions – IT Workflows, Employee Workflows, Customer Workflows, and Creator Workflows – demonstrating the importance they are placing on low-code and RPA.
ServiceNow was quick to remind the market that although they will be able to offer RPA functionality natively once Intellibot is integrated into their platform, they are still willing to work with competitors. They specifically highlighted that they would continue partnering with UiPath, Automation Anywhere, and Blue Prism, suggesting they plan to use RPA as a complementary technology to their current offerings rather than going head-to-head with the Big Three. Only a month ago, UiPath announced deeper integration with ServiceNow, by expanding automation capabilities for Test Management 2.0 and Agile Development projects.
Expansion in India
The acquisition of Intellibot, based in Hyderabad, is part of ServiceNow’s expansion strategy in India – one of their fastest growing markets. The country is already home to their largest R&D centre outside of the US and they intend to launch a couple of data centres there by March 2022. The company plans to double their local staff levels by 2024, having already tripled the number of employees there in the last two years. The expansion in India means they can increasingly offer services from there to global customers.
“Buyers will find that many of the automation capabilities that they currently purchase separately will increasingly be integrated in their enterprise applications. This will resolve integration challenges and will be more cost-effective.”
The cloud hyperscalers are also likely to play a growing role in the RPA market over the next year. Microsoft and IBM have already entered the market, coming from the angle of office productivity and business process management (BPM), respectively. Google announced just last week that they will work closely with Automation Anywhere to integrate RPA into their cloud offerings, such as Apigee, AppSheet, and AI Platform. More interestingly, they plan to co-develop new solutions, which might for now satisfy Google’s appetite for RPA rather than requiring an acquisition.
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This week at Microsoft Ignite, there was a heavy emphasis on RPA and low code as the tools it sees as the future of productivity. It used its annual conference for developers and IT professionals to make a slew of announcements about its Power Platform. Most notable is that from this week, Power Automate Desktop will be bundled with Microsoft Windows and is available as a free download. This marks a major step in the direction of mass adoption of RPA.
By Microsoft’s estimates, 50% of tasks carried out by information workers could be automated by currently available technology but are instead performed manually. Moreover, 500 million apps will need to be built by 2026, more than were developed in the last 40 years. Slowing down the pace of automation and the roll out of apps to enable digital business, is the skills gap, with a shortage of 1 million developers in the US alone. This is of course why Microsoft is betting on RPA and low code tools to empower citizen developers to do it themselves.
Microsoft was arguably slow to focus on RPA and low code considering its breadth of applications and good standing with developers. It only announced the general availability of UI Flows in Power Automate less than a year ago. Moreover, its automation suite worked best in the Microsoft universe but had limited interoperability with third-party tools. In May 2020, it acquired Softomotive, which signalled that it was taking RPA seriously and was willing to expand beyond the automation of its own software. By then, acquiring one of the big three – UiPath, Automation Anywhere, or Blue Prism – would have been excessively costly but Softomotive ensured it had both attended and unattended RPA capabilities to build upon. Softomotive’s WinAutomation remerged as Power Automate Desktop in September and with this week’s announcement, it becomes a native component in Windows.
By providing Power Automate Desktop for free with Windows, Microsoft appears to be attempting to generate interest from users who may not have previously been exposed to RPA. For the widespread adoption of RPA beyond just functions like finance, HR, and procurement, these tools need to be put into the hands of average users that can find their own use cases. Eventually, some of these basic users will need more advanced functionality available in the cloud-based version of Power Automate. Microsoft has a range of pricing plans including per user, per flow, with AI Builder, and unattended RPA.
Security and Governance
While making free desktop-based automation available to all, may be an effective means of raising the profile of RPA, Microsoft realises that it must provide IT and security teams with tools for control. It also announced this week additional features, such as:
Endpoint filtering to turn on selected connections but with restrictions
Connector action controls, e.g. allowing read permission but not write in some connectors
Tenant isolation to provide differentiated access to connectors according to business unit
Power Fx – Microsoft’s Low Code Language
Microsoft is one of the best-placed vendors to address the needs of citizen developers; bringing together its dominance as a productivity software provider and an important part of the developer ecosystem. This week it also introduced Power Fx, a low-code programming language based on Microsoft Excel. The logic of this new, simple language should be familiar to the millions of spreadsheet users. Power Fx provides more advanced citizen developers with a bridge from the drag-and-drop features of the Power Platform to low-code development.
Is 2021 the year RPA finally goes mainstream?
Microsoft’s announcements this week are one of many signs in the last few months that the RPA market is on its way to gaining mainstream acceptance. Also garnering attention was the lofty valuation given to the market leader, UiPath, this year. It recently announced that in its Series F funding round, it closed at $750M, valuing the company at $35B. This is hot on the heels of confirmation that it plans to IPO, probably in the first half of 2021. Last year was also a rapid period of consolidation, with Appian, IBM, and Microsoft all making RPA acquisitions. It seems highly likely that in the next few months we could see acquisitions or RPA launches by some of the cloud and application vendors that have until now been waiting to see the technology mature.
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Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Dr Alea Fairchild says, “Education administration budgets are not increasing, but the pressure for quick response and more personalised interaction for students, means that administrators need to focus on interaction as the core competency. This requires institutions to automate as much of the volume back-office activity as feasible. The challenge is that individualised course structures mean more complex billing configurations.”
Dr Fairchild, who is active in international education in Belgium, says, “Individual study paths, including Erasmus exchanges, create a need for an audit trail on transfers, exemptions and completions.”
Ecosystm research finds that educational institutions are focused on adopting emerging technologies mainly to improve student services (Figure 1). The processes are being automated to reduce risks, errors and turnaround times for results and application processing, while also removing repetitive tasks so administration can focus on more value-add student-facing activities.
University of Staffordshire Embraces Digital Transformation
The University of Staffordshire is a “connected university” with an emphasis on industry connections and graduate employability. At the heart of Stoke-on-Trent and a regional hub for healthcare education, the university has six schools as well as a well-known degree in computer games design.
The UK-based University has over the years built a reputation for being keen on embracing digital as a way of better management, offering better student services, and serving the larger community. In 2018, Staffordshire University announced plans to build a multi-million-pound apprenticeship hub at its Stoke-on-Trent campus supported by tech giants including Microsoft to equip students with digital skills and to deliver more than 6,500 new apprenticeships over the next decade.
Last year, the University implemented a digital assistant, called Beacon, hosted on Microsoft Azure Cloud that provides support to their students on their learning and on-campus activities, including monitoring their emotional well-being and providing recommendations on groups and societies that they might be interested in. Beacon aims to ease the life of a university student, acting as a digital coach, and to minimise drop-outs due to stress and uncertainty.
The University of Staffordshire, recently implemented robotic process automation (RPA) as part of its digital transformation plan. Talking about the role of RPA in Education, Dr Fairchild says, “This is a recent trend in higher education, with other new initiatives seen at the University of Auckland and University of Melbourne. RPA as a tool is used in Education to achieve the service levels required to meet both students’ and potential students’ expectations. This includes downloading student applications, processing language waiver requests, and entering academic results. These are all rule-based, high volume applications where automation increases speed and reduces errors.”
The University is using Blue Prism Cloud to access the RPA software and has plans for a automation-led digital transformation roadmap. Dr Fairchild says, “Blue Prism is based on Java and uses a Top-Down approach. It offers a visual designer with no recorders, scripts, or any intervention. Blue Prism is based on process diagrams that utilise core programming concepts and create the operational process flows to analyse, modify and scale business capability.”
The Staffordshire Digital team initially implemented RPA in the Finance department, as it involves a lot of administrative and back-office operations such as management of finance, records, tuition fees details and more. The University’s emphasis is to free up personnel and make them focus on more productive areas. This is beneficial for both the administrative staff’s feeling of personal contribution as well as student service satisfaction levels. “Using RPA gives the opportunity to universities to revisit, redesign, and improve their existing processes in line with expectations from digital native students. For prospective students, the next wave of RPA integration is intelligent machine learning algorithms to help route emails and integrate chatbots to address questions on course selection,” says Dr Fairchild.
Gain greater visibility into the key adoption trends in Robotic Process Automation (RPA) solutions and industry best practices
The market is growing rapidly with large global RPA specialists such as UiPath, Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism and AntWorks experiencing high rates of growth in the region.
RPA vendors in Asia Pacific, are typically addressing immediate, short-term requirements. For example, healthcare companies are automating the reporting of COVID-19 tests and ordering supplies. Chatbots are being widely used to address unprecedented call centre volumes for airlines, travel companies, banks and telecom providers. Administrative tasks increasingly require automation as workflows become disrupted by remote working.
Companies can also be expected to scale their current deployments and increase the rate at which AI capabilities are integrated into their offerings
RPA often works in conjunction with major software products provided by companies such as Salesforce, SAP, Microsoft and IBM. For example, some invoicing processes involve the use of Salesforce, SAP and Microsoft products. Rather than having an operative enter data into multiple systems, a bot can be created to do this.
Large software vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce and SAP are taking advantage of this opportunity by trying to own entire workflows. They are increasingly integrating RPA into their offerings as well as competing directly in the RPA market with pureplay RPA vendors. RPA may soon be integrated into larger enterprise applications, unless pureplay RPA vendors can innovate and continually differentiate their offerings.
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