Ecosystm launches the Trending-Vendor series showcasing the Top 5 disruptive vendors that are shaking up their market segment. Our first Trending-Vendor RNx is focused on Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – Ecosystm research shows that process automation is the biggest driver for tech adoption, with a staggering 127% investment growth in 2021. The Ecosystm RNx – Top 5 Trending-Vendor for RPA evaluates Automation vendors based on in-depth, quantified ratings from technology decision-makers on the Ecosystm platform.
If you are an End User and looking to automate your back-end or customer processes, this vendor ranking will help you evaluate your buying decisions based on key evaluation ratings by your peers across a number of key metrics and benchmarks, including customer experience, integration capabilities, and strategy.
If you are an RPA vendor, you operate in a competitive work with several enterprise vendors vying for a larger share of the pie – this is an opportunity to understand how your customers rate you on capabilities and their overall customer experience.
ServiceNow announced their intention to acquire robotic process automation (RPA) provider, Intellibot, for an undisclosed sum. Intellibot is a significant tier 2 player in the RPA market, that is rapidly consolidating into the hands of the big three – UiPath, Automation Everywhere, and Blue Prism – and other acquisition-hungry software providers. This is unlikely to be the last RPA acquisition that we see this year with smaller players looking to either go niche or sell out while the market is hot.
Expanding AI/Automation Capabilities
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.
Market Consolidation Accelerates
In the Ecosystm Predicts: The Top 5 AI & AUTOMATION Trends for 2021, Ecosystm had talked about technology vendors adding RPA functionality either organically or through acquisitions, this year.
“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.”
ServiceNow’s purchase is one of several recent examples of low-code vendors acquiring their way into the RPA space. Last year, Appian acquired Novayre Solutions for their Jidoka product and Microsoft snapped up Softomotive. Speculation continues to build that Salesforce could also be assessing RPA targets. Considering RPA market leader, UiPath recently announced that their Series F funding round values the company at USD 35 billion, there is pressure on acquirers to gobble up the remaining smaller players before they are all gone or become prohibitively expensive.
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.
Here are some of the trends to watch for RPA, AI and Automation in 2021. Signup for Free to download Ecosystm’s Top 5 AI & Automation Trends Report.
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
- Usage dashboards
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.
How will RPA be a part of your automation strategy in 2021? The Top 5 AI & Automation Trends for 2021 are available for download from the Ecosystm platform. Signup for Free to download the report.
Authored by Alea Fairchild and Audrey William
There is a lot of hope on AI and automation to create intellectual wealth, efficiency, and support for some level of process stability. After all, can’t we just ask Siri or Alexa and get answers so we can make a decision and carry on?
Automation has been touted as the wonder formula for workplace process optimisation. In reality it’s not the quick fix that many business leaders desire. But we keep raising the bar on expectations from automation. Investments in voice technologies, intelligent assistants, augmented reality and touchscreens are changing customer experience (Figure 1). Chatbots are ubiquitous, and everything has the potential to be personalised. But will they solve our problems?
100 percent automation is not effective
Let’s first consider using automation to replace face-to-face interactions. There was a time when people were raving about the check-in experience at some of the hotels in Japan where robots and automated systems would take care of the check-in, in-stay and check-out processes. Sounds simple and good? Till 2019, if you checked into the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, you would be served and taken care of by 243 robots. It was viewed by many as a template for what a fully automated hotel could look like in the future.
The hotel had an in-room voice assistant called Churi. It could cope with basic commands, such as turning the lights on and off, but it was found to be deficient when guests started asking questions about places to visit or other more sophisticated queries. It was not surprising that the hotel decided to retire their robots. In the end it created more work for the hotel staff on-site.
People love the personal touch when they are in a hotel; and talking to someone at the front desk, requesting assistance from hotel staff, or even just a short chat over breakfast are some of the small nuances of why the emotional connection matters. Many quarantine hotels today use robots for food delivery, but the hotel staff is still widely available for questions. That automation is good, but you need the human intervention. So, getting the balance right is key.
Empathy plays a big role in delivering great Customer Experience
Similarly, there was a time when many industry observers and technology providers said that a contact centre will be fully automated, reducing the number of agents. While technologies such as Conversational AI have come along where you can now automate common or repetitive questions and with higher accuracy levels, the human agent still plays a critical role in answering the more complex queries. When the customer has a complicated question or request, then they will WANT to speak to an agent.
When it reaches a point where the conversation with the chatbot starts getting complicated and the customers need more help there should be the option – within the app, website or any other channel – to escalate the call seamlessly to a human agent. Sometimes, a chat is where the good experience happens – the emotional side of the conversation, the laughter, the detailed explanation. This human touch cannot be replaced by machines. Disgruntled customers are happier when an agent shows empathy. Front line staff and human agents act as the face of a company’s brand. Complete automation will not allow the individual to understand the culture of the company. These can be attained through conversations.
Humans as supervisors for AI – The New Workplace
Empathy, intuitiveness, and creativity are all human elements in the intelligence equation. Workers in the future will need to make their niche in a fluid and unpredictable environment; and translating data into action in a non-replicable way is one of the values of human input. The essence of engineering is the capacity to design around human limitations. This requires an understanding of how humans behave and what they want. We call that empathy. It is the difference between the engineer who designs a product, and the engineer who delivers a solution. We don’t teach our computer scientists and engineering students a formula for empathy. But we do try to teach them respect for both the people and the process.
For efficiency, we turn to automation of processes, such as RPA. This is designed to try to eradicate human error and assist us in doing our job better, faster and at a lower cost by automating routine processes. If we design it right, humans take the role of monitoring or supervisory controlling, rather than active participation.
At present, AI is not seen as a replacement for our ingenuity and knowledge, but as a support tool. The value in AI is in understanding and translating human preferences. Humans-in-the-loop AI system building puts humans in the decision loop. They also shift pressure away from building “perfect” algorithms. Having humans involved in the ethical norms of the decision allows the backstop of overly orchestrated algorithms.
That being said, the astute use of AI can deepen insights into what truly makes us human and can humanise experiences by setting a better tone and a more trusted engagement. Using things like sentiment analysis can de-escalate customer service encounters to regain customer loyalty.
The next transformational activity for renovating work is to advance interactions with customers by interpreting what they are asking for and humanising the experience of acquiring it which may include actually dealing with a human contact centre agent – decisions that are supported at the edge by automation, but at the core by a human being.
Ecosystm research shows that process automation will be a key priority for technology investments in 2021 (Figure 2).
With AI and automation, a priority in 2021, it will be important to keep these considerations in mind:
- Making empathy and the human connection the core of customer experiences will bring success.
- Rigorous, outcome-based testing will be required when process automation solutions are being evaluated. In areas where there are unsatisfactory results, human interactions cannot – and should not – be replaced.
- It may be easy to achieve 90% automation for dealing with common, repetitive questions and processes. But there should always be room for human intervention in the event of an issue – and it should be immediate and not 24 hours later!
- Employees can drive greater value by working alongside the chatbot, robot or machine.
Ecosystm Predicts: The Top 5 Customer Experience Trends for 2021
Download Ecosystm’s complimentary report detailing the top 5 customer experience trends for 2021 that your company should pay attention to along with tips on how to stay ahead of the curve.
The Education sector is currently facing immense challenges with enabling a remote learning environment and ensuring the safety of staff, employees, and students. This is on top of the usual challenges of resource optimisation, student retention, student recruitment, and so on. Moreover, today’s students are millennials and post-millennials, who are digital natives – pushing educational institutions to adopt technology to attract the right cohort and provide an education that equips the students for the workplace of the future. The industry is being driven to transform, to keep up with student expectations on delivery, access to the resource, and how they choose to communicate with their educators and peers.
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.
Like its peer organisations, in the wake of the pandemic, the university was able to implement a blended learning program – offering courses through digital and remote learning systems from this semester for the entire 2020-21 session.
Focusing on Transformation through Automation
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.
The pandemic crisis has rapidly accelerated digitalisation across all industries. Organisations have been forced to digitalise entire processes more rapidly, as face-to-face engagement becomes restricted or even impossible.
The most visible areas where face-to-face activity is being swiftly replaced by digital alternatives include conferencing and collaboration, and the use of digital channels to engage with customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.
For example, the crisis has made it difficult – even impossible, sometimes – for contact centre agents to physically work in contact centres, and they often do not have the tools to work effectively from home. This challenge is particularly apparent for offshore contact centres in the Philippines and India. The creation of chatbots has reduced the need for customer service staff and enabled data to by entered into front-office systems, and analysed immediately.
Less visible are back-office processes which are commonly inefficient and labour-intensive. Remote working makes some back-office workflows challenging or impossible. For example, some essential finance and accounting workflows involve a mix of digital communications, printing, scanning, copying and storage of physical documents – making these workflows inefficient, difficult to scale and labour-intensive. This has been highlighted during the pandemic. RPA adoption has grown faster than expected as organisations seek to resolve these and other challenges – often caused by inefficient workflows being scrambled by the crisis.
The RPA Market in Asia Pacific
There are many definitions of the RPA market, but it can broadly be defined as the use of software bots to execute processes which involve high volumes of repeatable tasks, that were previously executed by humans. When processes are automated, the physical location of employees and other stakeholders becomes less important. RPA makes these processes more agile and flexible and makes businesses more resilient. It can also increase operational efficiency, drive business growth, and enhance customer and employee experience.
RPA is a comparatively new and fast-growing market – this is leading to rapid change. In its infancy, it was basically the digitalisation of BPO. It was viewed as a way of automating repetitive tasks, many of which had been outsourced. While its cost saving benefits remain important as with BPOs, customers are now seeking more. They want RPA to help them to improve or transform front-office, back-office and industry-specific processes throughout the organisation. RPA vendors are addressing these enhanced requirements by blending RPA with AI and re-branding their offerings as intelligent automation or hyper-automation.
Asia Pacific organisations have been relatively slow to adopt RPA, but this is changing fast. The findings of the Ecosystm Digital Priorities in the New Normal study show that in the next 12 months, organisations will continue to focus on digital technologies for process automation (Figure 1).
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.