infoTECH Feature

September 29, 2016

In the Market for Automation Software? Read This First

By Special Guest
Adam Devine, Vice President of Marketing, WorkFusion

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with…” slick marketing. That seems to be the motto for the current crop of vendors offering business process automation. Prospects want what BPA has to offer, but three things make it difficult to choose a solution. Let’s take a deep dive into each of them, as well as how buyers are canceling out the noise to adopt solutions that fulfill their needs.

1. Much Hype, Much Disappointment

Since it sprang upon the scene, the automation market has labored under the weight of a thick coat of bad marketing varnish. “Robotic Process Automation” (RPA) vendors have oversold the capabilities of their products with shiny, bold marketing, and some even market their products as artificial intelligence (AI) solutions when their technology provides strictly rules-based robotics.

After wandering on the periphery of awareness for years, rules-based automation software has achieved mainstream recognition as RPA. It is an excellent solution for automating routine, binary tasks that human workers perform on legacy applications—like entering passwords into and operating the user interfaces of SAP and Oracle (News - Alert)—and moving structured data from one system to another. Given the waning benefits of labor arbitrage and mounting pressure to reduce costs, the BFSI industry in particular blazed a trail into RPA, focusing on common horizontal business processes like eInvoice processing, Procure to Pay (P2P), Record to Report (R2R) and vertical challenges like KYC, AML, settlements and claims processing. In other words, the labor-intensive middle and back-office work that has for decades been mostly offshored.

This all sounds well and good, but not long after beginning POCs or, in some cases, full deployments, customers look at their results and ask, “Where is the 90 percent cost reduction I was promised? What about the suffocating volume of manual, unstructured data work in the rest of the business process? How do I affordably handle the exceptions in the process that need human action? How do I automate the rest of the process?” This is a bit of a paraphrase, but it’s a fair synthesis of how end users react after using RPA-only products.

The problem with RPA as a category is not the technology. It’s how vendors have marketed their RPA products. RPA does indeed automate the operation of desktop application user interfaces, and one “bot” can deliver about 1.5x the productivity of one worker, provided the work only involves structured data. It’s “hand” work – tasks that a human can perform without thinking, performed in accordance with a strict and rigid set of rules. RPA does not process unstructured data (PDFs, docs, email messages, news feeds, web content, etc.), nor does it have human-in-the-loop exceptions processing for when the rules governing a “bot” change. Additionally, some RPA solutions are not deployed at a server level, which, for customers who value security, means occupying a desktop and exposing passwords and other sensitive data to human workers.

If you’re looking for a technology to handle structured, rules-based tasks, RPA fills that bill. However, it belongs as a feature in a complete suite of automation capabilities, and it must be paired with machine learning to automate a complex process from end to end.

2. The Market Competition Phase

The market today looks like a Soviet vegetable stand: only one of each vegetable available. These differences are architectural, functional, horizontal and vertical. The various players in the market started with different theses, built different products based on their origins, and marketed to different sizes and types of businesses. Automation is halfway through the three classic software market phases: develop, compete and dominate.

It’s instructive to drill deeper into these phases to examine a more mature market: social networking. Friendster began as a platform for creating digital ties between people who already knew one another. MySpace (News - Alert) started with this functionality, along with increased discoverability between strangers and, interestingly, music. Facebook started as a way for students at elite universities to poke one another. We all know how this played out. Friendster and MySpace didn’t aggressively evolve their products out of initial development during the competition phase, and Facebook (News - Alert) became the dominant player by developing a wider range of user-friendly capability for a wider range of users.

BPA currently lies within the second phase: competition. Some of the early entrants have already failed, other players are marketing capabilities they do not have, and still others are only just now coming to market. Buyers find it hard to compare them because there isn’t a standard set of features to shop for, and some buyers don’t yet know what they need. After all, only a few years ago, offshoring was state of the art and business process automation was an expensive, uncertain scripting endeavor imposed upon data science and IT teams.

The nature of competition is that there is only one winner. So, before long, there will be only one scalable, widely deployed and battle-proven model, and there will be one vendor (maybe two) who competed well and took the dominant position.

3. Few Case Studies

People like word of mouth. One neighbor will ask another to recommend a good pest control service. In corporate settings, employees are instructed to “socialize” an idea to see if others like it. This is why case studies are so important and valuable. Clear, relatable, quantitative case studies from seasoned customers make it easy for enterprise software buyers to select a technology. These case studies are only just now surfacing, and that’s made it more challenging for buyers to make decisions.

Confusion remains in this new market, including about the features and benefits of robotics, cognitive automation and AI. There aren’t many real, believable case studies to help inform new buyers. Most buyers are only a year or two into their business process automation journey, few of them will continue to use the platforms they started with and many companies have only just begun their due diligence. Making meaningful bets is difficult without hard data.

Canceling Out the Noise

We’ve just examined three hindrances to choosing a BPA solution, and now we’ll examine three steps to overcoming confusion and making a suitable choice.

  • The first step is centralizing control of the buying process in centers of excellence (COEs). The fastest and most efficient purchase and deployment efforts have leveraged this model, which brings together operational requirements from user groups across different divisions, product knowledge and decision-making liberties. These COEs typically begin with reports and briefings on smart automation and digital operations from Everest, Gartner, Forrester (News - Alert), HfS and other leading analyst firms that are shedding light on the market. The COEs create a long list that becomes a short list that become a pragmatic, informed product selection.
  • Next comes the choosing of business processes for a meaningful proof of concept (POC) with one or more vendors (and a good vendor will be able to help you select the right processes). These processes should represent the way the business operates. If you’re a global banking or insurance operation, thousands of people ingest and process a combination of both structured and unstructured data and leverage and feed dozens of systems. You have some legacy technology that you do not wish to disrupt, and you have some point tools that you wish to rationalize out. You have both internal and external demands to accelerate transaction times and reduce manual work while improving accuracy. You are under the gun to cut costs immediately, and any solution you consider must pay for itself in under a year. So, a good set of processes for a POC will take these factors and challenges into account.
  • Finally, take the processes you’ve chosen and begin the POC. The CIO of one of the biggest European banks once declared that if a technology could not demonstrate results in one quarter, it had no place in the operation. This is an excellent rule for automation. Another rule to keep in mind is that POCs should have executive sponsorship. POCs are often affordable enough for divisions within companies to execute without executive support, but full deployments across an enterprise are not. There’s no point to doing a POC if your organization is not committed to modernization or transformation at the executive level. Get buy-in early. The POC is not only a chance to see how a product performs, but it’s a chance to see how a product would deploy. Does the vendor deploy directly? Through partners? As an on-premises solution? Cloud? Desktop or server, or both? POCs are your opportunity to not just kick the tires but to drive the car, and you should drive the car hard and fast in many conditions before you buy it.

Gathering the Troops

The automation market is coming into its own, and buyers should command the respect of vendors when it comes to clearly explaining a solution’s actual features and benefits. Enterprise operations professionals need this information so they can make the best decision for their business. So, for instance, RPA provides great value – but it isn’t sufficient on its own. Rather, it should be part of a suite of tools that deliver business process management (BPM), RPA and AI-powered cognitive automation. Be aware of the pitfalls listed above and use the suggested steps to find a solution that delivers real value.

About the author:

Adam leads market development, product and brand marketing and strategic partnerships at WorkFusion. He began his career in management consulting in the Financial Institutions Group at BearingPoint and has spent the past 14 years in tech product marketing and advertising. He was most recently director of strategy at 360i. Adam holds a bachelor degree from the University of Vermont.

Edited by Alicia Young

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