There’s a storm coming and it’s called RPA.

Mihir Shukla / Automation Anywhere CEO & Co-Founder

Mihir Shukla is the CEO and co-founder of Automation Anywhere. By the end of this year his company will have over three million digital workers deployed in the world’s largest organisations.

RPA is likely to be the most transformative technology to emerge from the digital revolution and Automation Anywhere is at the head of the field when it comes to capitalising on the burgeoning demands of businesses that wish to embrace enterprise metamorphosis. A recent round of series B funding valued Automation Anywhere close to $7bn and it predicts to grow its global digital workforce to three million bots in 2020 – a feat that would make Automation Anywhere the world’s biggest employer.  

The RPA sector is currently worth about $1bn but the market is set to double in 2020 and continue its trajectory with an ‘average’ annual growth rate of between 25 and 30 percent over the next decade. Some analysts are anticipating even stronger growth than that. The total available market for RPA could be as much as $100bn with conservative estimates suggesting a more measured valuation of between $30bn and $50bn. There are many factors that will need to combine to deliver the upper end of those figures or conspire to dilute the potential – either way, the market opportunity is significant and the sector’s growth rate will outstrip all other technologies in the short term.

This is not just about automating mundane tasks as much as it is about creating a world where 40 percent of jobs require a human touch. It’s creating a world with more opportunities so that our children can flourish

Gartner’s latest report on RPA is unequivocal stating ‘it is imperative that IT leaders stay ahead of RPA use and market developments to ensure efficacy and business agility.’ The report goes on to set out a series of predictions that amount to an urgent call to action for any business leader wishing to prosper in the modern age of commerce. Gartner also predicts significant volatility in the RPA market with many of the new entrants being swallowed up by the early front-runners and the potential for megavendors like SAP and Microsoft to make significant plays. Gartner suggests ‘as many as nine out of 10 small pure-play RPA vendors will exit the market, merge, be acquired or somehow morph’ and concludes by stating, ‘everyone wants a share of the lucrative RPA pie.’

Mihir Shukla is CEO of one such front-runner – Automation Anywhere. Established more than 16 years ago, it has grown to market-leading status with over 3,000 customers world-wide, including a significant number of global enterprises such as MastercardDell EMCCoca-Cola, and McLaren Racing

Automation Anywhere offers the world’s only web-based and cloud native automation platform combining RPA, AI, machine learning, analytics, process discovery and a bot store. Yes, a bot store – just like an app store – the industry’s first and largest online marketing place for ready-to-deploy intelligent automation. Here, you can buy pre-configured software robots, called bots, designed to perform a specific business function ‘out of the box,’ such as an accountant or recruiter bot, or choose from more than 700 other bots that have been developed and made available by Automation Anywhere or the company’s extensive ecosystem of developers, partners and RPA practitioners from all over the world. Think Salesforce AppExchange for RPA and you will get the picture.

Steering a company through such a fluid marketplace is a challenge not for the faint-hearted. However, Shukla has a very clear vision for Automation Anywhere and the wider RPA market and surprisingly it’s focussed on humans rather than software bots; free up mankind to be creative, innovative and purposeful. The bots are just the enabler and the aspiration is to create a world where people have the freedom, flexibility and capacity to fulfil their potential. 

“Fifty or sixty years ago, the number of jobs that required creativity was as low as one percent. And now it is roughly four percent. Almost all the jobs that your readers have, as well as everybody here at Automation Anywhere, they didn’t exist before –  they’ve all been created in the last half century.

“I feel very passionate about this; as a parent we tell our children that they can do anything, which is what I tell my daughters all the time. But what does it mean ‘they can do anything?’ When there are only four percent of jobs that require some amount of creativity, how can they expect that they will be lucky enough to find one of those jobs? Is that world good enough for our children? I envision a world where at least 40 percent of jobs require some amount of creativity. This is not just about automating mundane tasks as much as it is about creating a world where 40 percent of jobs require a human touch. It’s creating a world with more opportunities so that our children can flourish.

“They deserve better than what we had and the younger generations will demand it. Most young people don’t have an interest in doing what my parents or I did. We did whatever we had to, no matter how mundane it was. That was the world I grew up in. The younger generations have no such interest. They grew up differently. They grew up with different tools and experiences and they say, ‘I want a career, I don’t want a job’. I want meaningful work. I want to do something that creates impact in the world that I live in. How can that be achieved if they have to go into jobs with mundane, repetitive work? If we can automate those tasks, we free up our younger generations to be creative and find careers where they are fulfilled. That’s my vision. That’s what automation is about and that’s what we are doing here at Automation Anywhere.”

That may sound rather philanthropic for an entrepreneur at the sharp end of the technological revolution, but talking to Shukla as I did, it was evident from the outset that he is driven and motivated by far greater things than world domination. Emerging from humble beginnings in a small town near Gujarat in India, Shukla had never seen a computer until he went to college and grew up dreaming of playing cricket rather than solving the world’s business productivity problems. He says he began pondering the big picture questions when he fell in love with computers and realised they had the capacity to change the world for the better. Admittedly, his first ruminations were focussed on how he could travel to the stars rather than automate the world. But those early reflections set in motion a lifelong obsession with solving a problem that so far had eluded a fix.

Squashing the myths of RPA

Before we get too deep into Shukla’s story and the unprecedented rise of RPA, it is important to make some clear distinctions and definitions. RPA is the term used for software bots – not physical robots. RPA can be deployed at scale, in minutes, and is capable of performing a plethora of tasks – from the front to the back office – for employee on-boarding, invoice processing, payroll, sales ordering and ERP data entry, all with the speed, accuracy and efficiency that humans can only dream of. Not that many humans are actually dreaming about going to work and carrying out the repetitive tasks that software bots were born to do. The common misconception that automation will displace workers and resign swathes of the population to the ranks of the unemployed is little more than scaremongering by those who do not fully understand or appreciate the power and potential of this technology. Let’s be clear – RPA is not the enemy of human workers nor does it spell the end for those currently employed in relatively low-skilled roles. 

RPA is not just a tool to eradicate the prosaic nature of repetitive tasks, it is able to set people free to accomplish things that were previously out of reach or at least very hard to come by

RPA has the potential to revolutionise the labour market, create new jobs not cull them, and establish a framework for future generations to work in meaningful, creative and purposeful occupations. Consider how industrial automation changed the manufacturing industry; yes some people lost their jobs but most were reskilled and now work side-by-side with their ‘robot colleagues’. Automation massively boosted productivity and efficiencies and there would be very few workers in a modern car plant that would want to go back to the way things used to be done – if they can even remember it at all. We think nothing of seeing AI powered robotics in a manufacturing plant and accept this as the norm. In much the same way we will all learn to live with the software equivalents. In a decade’s time few if any will lament the change, fewer still will want to go back and perform the repetitive mundane tasks that software bots eat up.

As Shukla explained, the role that RPA plays in the modern workforce and its threat to our prosperity as individuals is often misunderstood. Human workers who co-exist alongside their digital peers are more engaged, more satisfied, more rewarded and able to develop new skills which make them more employable in the future. And companies that employ digital workers are far more likely to attract the talent they need from the Gen Y and Z demographic receiving as many as three times the number of job applicants for roles that are supported by RPA than for those that aren’t.

“The question of displacing and impacting workers has been asked many times – the first time somebody asked the question was in 1777. Since then, it’s been discussed and debated a hundred times over and every time we get it wrong. Various magazine covers have declared that it’s the end of the ‘job market’ as we know it and yet today there are more high paid jobs than at any other time in history. Workers who operate alongside bots never want to go back to doing things the old way. I’ve walked the floors and asked thousands of customers if they would go back and the answer is universally, never. Ask yourself this; if you could go back to being 20 again and start your career over, would you look for a job that involved mundane work like order processing or data entry? Or would you want to work at a company where you could be creative and do meaningful work with all the repetitive tasks taken care of for you? That’s why employees who have experience with bots command higher wages and why employers with bots are more attractive to the younger generations.”

It’s not just high-volume and low-value tasks where RPA can make an impact. RPA and intelligent automation is making breakthroughs in high value domains such as corporate finance, environmental research, and medicine. It is also an increasingly powerful tool in front line services like sales and marketing and is intrinsically linked to ‘the experience economy’ where personalisation, propinquity and immediacy is paramount. Retailers, banks, insurers and even governments are implementing RPA to deliver new levels of service that are impossible to achieve with conventional strategies.

“Although most people talk about lower-end tasks, the reality is many of the highest paid jobs involve mundane work. Our customers in hedge funds employ some of the highest paid people on the planet and they are automating processes to free up traders and analysts to do the work that they are expert at rather than trawling though data. We are also working with the medical profession on various drug research projects that are resulting in drug availability being accelerated by automation. RPA is not just a tool to eradicate the prosaic nature of repetitive tasks, it is able to set people free to accomplish things that were previously out of reach or at least very hard to come by.”

Getting started with RPA

So, what is a bot and how do you use one? In its simplest form a bot is a piece of code that performs a repeatable task that has a clearly defined set of rules. There are two main classes of bots; unattended and attended, with the former working completely autonomously and the latter requiring some level of human supervision. Bots can scrape information from a screen, read and understand text, make calculations, and with the addition of AI and machine learning, make educements, suggestions and improvements as it learns on the job. Bots can be built to bespoke specification or they can be bought off the shelf and perform predefined tasks right out of the box. Customers can use a ‘bot store’ where simple customisable bots are available that take very little coding (as little as three minutes to configure) or you can buy pre-packaged solutions like a ‘Workday payroll administrator’ that is, as you would expect, an authority on Workday payroll processes, pre-built with system expertise and loaded with knowledge tokens. These bots are deployed on a digital workforce platform which integrates with an enterprise’s systems and can harmonise data and processes across the full technology landscape.

Take invoice processing as one example where automation can work; when an invoice comes into an un-automated company a person will be responsible for opening the email, reading the email, opening the attachment, checking the invoice and typing some of that information into a system of record. A bot can perform those tasks autonomously (provided it has been given the rules) and is capable of working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with perfect accuracy. It never calls in sick, it’s never late for work and it never gets bored and makes mistakes. This is just one example and in a large enterprise, where there are thousands of these simple and repetitive jobs, RPA can have a profound impact.

However, despite the obvious benefits in this isolated scenario, the true power of RPA can only be realised through an unified strategy where bots are deployed at scale and integrated into a digital workforce platform that harnesses the power of AI, insight from analytics and is capable of connecting multiple systems across different lines-of-business and workstreams.

There are many obvious benefits to rpa like the cost savings and error reduction but ultimately without automation you can’t create the experiences that your customers and employees expect. Period.

One of the key considerations for an RPA strategy is to ensure that the process is optimised before it is automated. Using RPA to manage legacy processes which are not entirely performant will only derive minimal value – you may get better at doing something badly. RPA must be seen as a component of digital strategy rather than a silver bullet to resolve productivity issues so implementing bots in silos to perform isolated tasks will only ever take you so far. As Holger Mueller eloquently notes in his piece on ‘automation and the sentient enterprise’ elsewhere in this issue of ERP Today, “CxOs need to realise that RPA is a key step towards enterprise acceleration, but it’s not the final destination.”

The rise of Automation Anywhere

Whether you are a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, the time to engage with intelligent automation is now. The history books are littered with examples of established global enterprises that failed to capitalise on disruptive market conditions and disappeared almost overnight. The world’s biggest brands are all new – AmazonUber, Netflix et al, and they all have one thing in common – automation. The new global powerhouses didn’t invent the wheel – we were all buying stuff from shops, calling taxis and renting videos long before they emerged. These trailblazing companies took what we did every day and made it better. They gave us the same product, the same output, but made it quicker, easier, and cheaper and that is the holy grail for any enterprise with transformational aspirations

RPA is the piece of the transformation jigsaw that will allow true metamorphosis into a sentient and connected enterprise. Automation is the key to making this happen because it improves business efficiencies, reduces errors, and improves agility. All of which leads to a better and differentiated customer experience. Automation Anywhere makes this happen by offering a complete platform that can automate end-to-end business processes and this is a key differentiator in the RPA space. Most RPA vendors are focussed on simplifying back office processes such as accounts and payroll. However, through their digital workforce platform, Automation Anywhere is able to automate end-to-end process from procurement, finance, shipping, sales and customer experience. This capability elevates the value of RPA into a completely new league.

Automation Anywhere’s key strengths are its coherent web-based, cloud native platform, relatively low-cost entry point and total cost of ownership (TCO), its extensive partner network, considerable R&D resource and its community developer edition which is available as a limited free tool to users of all types and skill levels. It has the most extensive eco-system of all the RPA exponents with more than 1,400 global partners, has certified more than 240,000 professionals through its Automation Anywhere University (where students can access hundreds of free training courses) and has more than 150,000 people in its A-community – a hub for developers to collaborate. It also has nearly 600 staff working in R&D – significantly the most of all the RPA players – as it continues to enhance both the platform, its extensibility and intelligence across its offerings.

Forrester’s latest RPA market report points to strong references for the ease bots can be bought (from Bot Store) and the speed they can be configured and deployed. Enterprise A2019 – the latest version of its RPA platform – has a web-based interface that allows users to develop bots and configure workflows in a highly scalable ‘zero-coding’ environment that delivers the same experience whether your platform is on-premise or in the cloud. Forrester says this creates ‘an easier design environment for business users and developers to collaborate on both simple and complex use cases.’ It allows for instant configuration with drag and drop functionality and zero coding, or you can build advanced automation using your own proprietary code and the inherent API architecture to maximise extensibility and customise RPA for unique business requirements. The platform also offers a variety of intelligence tools such as its self-learning automation engine that allows users to automate end-to-end processes with built-in AI capability to optimise tasks and workflows. Importantly, the platform delivers enterprise grade privacy, security, governance and control with granular RBAC (role-based access control) with encryption at rest, in use or in motion – meaning your data is always secure.

The recent introduction of ‘Discovery Bot’ is another significant breakthrough in their offering. The AI-driven solution is capable of searching out the best automation opportunities in a system by automatically capturing and analysing user actions to uncover common, repetitive steps as workers navigate between business applications. It then prioritises automation opportunities by ROI and creates the appropriate bot autonomously which can then be deployed in seconds. It is claimed that this process will accelerate an enterprise’s time-to-automation by a factor of five and Shukla says the introduction of this new tool is the culmination of years of development work.

“Discovery Bot accelerates the automation journey for organisations using artificial intelligence to automatically capture and analyse user actions to determine what business processes to automate. Then, with a single click, it can create a software bot. This is a vision we’ve had for years – a bot being able to create another bot.”

Can you afford not to embrace RPA?

The arguments for RPA are compelling. Digital transformation is having a profound impact across all sectors of commerce as enterprises seek out the best ways to buy, sell and deliver services. However, optimising processes built around human capabilities will only take an enterprise so far. Becoming seamless in end-to-end intelligent automation is the holy grail. Business leaders must adopt the most efficient, cost effective and accurate tools in their quest to remain competitive and, in many cases, RPA is that tool. If you take two identical businesses and embed RPA into one and leave the other to run on human effort alone, there will only be one winner.

Yes, there are some social considerations to think about. But whether we think about them or not, RPA is here and it’s here to stay. In researching for this article I was surprised at just how few people in the industry really understood RPA – some had never even heard of it at all. Ever wondered how Amazon manages to deliver things so quickly? That’s RPA. Thought about why your mortgage application only takes two minutes now when it used to take two weeks? That’s RPA. Impressed how comparison sites find you the best deals? That’s RPA. And there are literally thousands of other consumer interactions that are powered by RPA that we already take for granted. Imagine doing a comparison of insurance quotes and having to manually visit each site and type the same information in 20 times – we would never do that in our personal lives and don’t think about the automation that happens behind the scenes. Consumers are always the testbed for enterprise technology and RPA is no different – just look at how UIs in ERP systems have changed so they mirror the interactions we have all become used to on our smart phones.

As I said in the opener to this piece, RPA is likely to be the most transformative technology to emerge from the digital revolution and any enterprise not embracing it will almost certainly be left trailing those competitors that do. The threat RPA poses is not to the human workforce; it is to any enterprise that fails to grasp the opportunity. Business leaders should not be daunted by this but must take steps to ensure that they understand the opportunities and threats posed by RPA and start asking questions now.

“The first question I ask is can you afford not to do this? In a world where all businesses are becoming digital enterprises, where customers are demanding instant results, instant delivery, instant response, there is this culture of instant gratification that customers everywhere are demanding. What was acceptable five years ago is no longer acceptable. 

“The world has changed, and we expect instant results across everything we do from calling a cab to reading a book or ordering a pizza. We expect instant personal experiences from our banks, insurance companies and retailers. And in that world, can you afford not to adopt these technologies? Without them you are so far from the expectations of your customers. There are many obvious benefits to RPA like the cost savings and error reduction but ultimately without automation you can’t create the experiences that your customers and employees expect. Period.”    

Pictured: Mihir Shukla / CEO and Co-Founder of Automation Anywhere