RPA is commodity – orchestrating it should now be the focus

SEPTEMBER 29, 2021

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has been a hot market for the last few years, with huge investments and valuations for its leading vendors. It’s a great technology for simulating human actions to open websites, applications and documents to extract or insert data, taking repetitive manual activities and making them automated.

What RPA doesn’t do is provide the full end-to-end business automation that is provided by the BPM (or Intelligent Business Automation) technologies. Many of the big vendors in the BPM market have been eagerly buying up small RPA companies to add to their product portfolios.

Flowable can integrate with leading RPA products, but we think realities around the long-term role of RPA for business automation is now being better understood – a band-aid while comprehensive automation is introduced to a business – and the RPA market itself is heading towards commoditization.

How RPA is becoming commoditized

Recently, Microsoft announced that their RPA product would be built into Windows 11 (to be released on October 5th). Meantime, it’s a free to download and use on Windows 10. Read more about their decision here.

Microsoft Power Automate Desktop is a full-featured RPA: you can use it to do all kinds of desktop tasks, opening applications and websites, driving navigation through them, and extracting or inserting data as desired. If you have a regular task of opening a spreadsheet, going to a specific set of cells in a sheet and copying them into another spreadsheet, or copying them into a corporate browser-based app – Microsoft Power Automate Desktop can do that for you. It can record your desktop actions to create an automation, or you can build them by hand.

All this is for free. All part of Windows. That makes it commodity to me.

It means you can do a lot of your RPA activities through software built into the operating system it’s automating, since pretty much all RPA is already run on Windows. That makes it a lot more challenging for the existing RPA vendors to differentiate and justify their advantages, of which I’m sure they’ll say there are plenty.  And there may be. However, with RPA becoming commoditized, for many organizations, it allows the focus to move up a level from the band-aid played by these mundane, repeatable, manual tasks, to where it really matters: the end-to-end business process of a customer journey or information flow.

This overarching business (process) automation is what RPA is not capable of supporting, especially as the business processes get more sophisticated or dynamic. There are whole classes of business problem that can be solved by linking data from different systems to users who review, approve or enrich it before it passes to other system or users. Creating automated ways of regularizing or mandating this are what allows a business to optimize their productivity, customer engagement, accuracy, and auditability.

Intelligent Business Automation vs RPA

The Intelligent Business Automation technology space has long had tools and techniques for describing and executing all kinds of business processes (traditionally known as BPM). From onboarding clients, to order fulfilment, to patient journeys, to disaster management – almost any business activity.

That also includes having open standards that define process flows (BPMN), dynamic case models (CMMN) and decision rules (DMN). The fact that these standard notations are open means that many tools support them, and many people are familiar with them. This is very unlike in the RPA space, where each vendor has their own proprietary way of representing their bots. You can’t export a bot from one vendor and import to another. With the open standard business automation notations above, you can take a process from one vendor and import it into another. I wrote a blog post with the technical details of a way to drive Microsoft’s RPA using Flowable’s  Intelligent Business Automation.

So now your transformation projects can be focused on end-to-end business automation, making programmatic service calls to other systems where digitized, or calling RPA bots where they are yet to be. Microsoft has made RPA a commodity, just like word-processing and spreadsheets.

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Paul Holmes-Higgin


Co-founder of Flowable and a long-time Open Source advocate, that he believes still has an important role to play in making innovation more widely available.

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