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Establishing a gold standard for RPA

April 15, 2021
To better understand the benefits of establishing a set of RPA standards, look at what the PDF did.

By Dan Shimmerman, president and CEO of Blueprint Software Systems

Robotic process automation (RPA) has quickly become the fastest growing enterprise technology for industrial and manufacturing operations, with total RPA sales for 2021 expected to exceed last year’s record-setting $1.5 billion by nearly 20%.

With a still immature RPA market expanding so rapidly, though, it’s perhaps not surprising that an industry-wide framework that standardizes RPA design has yet to emerge. Unfortunately, that absence of design standards is at least partially responsible for the fact that only 3% of organizations have been able to successfully scale their digital workforce while a reported 30-50% of all automation initiatives have failed to deliver on the lower costs, higher productivity, and improved customer experiences promised by RPA.

Recognizing that so many of the challenges RPA customers are experiencing are the by-product of avoidable errors and ineffective practices, it would appear that the time is right for the market to come together and establish a core structure for automation. Such a measure would serve to keep RPA on its upward trajectory and directly address the most damaging consequences created by a lack of automation-design standards, including:  

  • Lack of portability—At present, the ability to open, read and act on automation-project files is limited to the RPA platform in use by a company. Because each major RPA vendor has its own markup and format, it is virtually impossible for the company to change RPA vendors without starting over from scratch. And let’s face it, because starting over is both expensive and time-consuming, it is essentially a non-starter, which leaves the company locked into its current RPA vendor even if it is dissatisfied with their performance or has identified a preferable platform option. This situation could be even worse for firms using an automation vendor that goes out of business. With no support from the original vendor and no ability for their bots to operate on another platform, companies facing this situation have no choice but to rebuild their entire RPA system from the ground up, regardless of the time it takes or the cost involved.
  • Stalled automation pipelines—Many RPA programs struggle with stalled automation pipelines, which are usually attributed to weak RPA governance, lack of best practices with respect to identifying and prioritizing automation candidates, or the crippling burden of RPA maintenance and support. While each of these factors certainly contributes to the problem, a lack of RPA-design standards—which translates into a lack of compatibility and interoperability—is also a major (and often overlooked) culprit. For example, look at process-discovery tools, a key component of any automation toolchain. Without RPA-design standards and a universally established markup language, process-discovery tools mark up discovered processes in different formats. This means processes must be transcribed manually before they can be developed and deployed in the target RPA platforms—again a time-intensive and costly endeavor.      
  • Throttled market growth—While RPA is still seeing exponential growth despite its drawbacks, frustration with its inability to scale and deliver on anticipated ROI is causing many companies to rethink additional automation investments. Coupling that hesitancy with the issues resulting from a lack of RPA-design standards—most prominently interoperability and the lack of portability—is stifling market growth. It is also slowing the development of product improvement that could be achieved through a more collaborative effort.

To better understand the benefits of establishing a set of RPA standards, look at what the PDF (or Portable Document Format) has done to advance the paperless office and fuel digital transformations everywhere. When Adobe released the PDF as an open standard in 2008, the ability to save a PDF in any word processor and open it in another tool unlocked a level of cooperation and portability that was previously impossible.

There is no reason why the automation market can’t do the same by establishing a set of RPA-design standards. RPA standards and a universally established markup language would connect commonalities in the data into a format that all tools can universally understand. This, in turn, would

  • Enable organizations to easily migrate digital workforces from one platform to another and avoid proprietary vendor lock-in
  • Allow RPA programs to design automated processes once and run them in any platform they choose
  • Separate automation design from implementation because there would be no need to understand the technical details of any platform
  • Empower businesses to accelerate their digital transformations

In short, well-defined RPA-design standards would move the needle significantly closer to the gold standard set by the PDF benchmark. Ultimately, this would unlock the entire RPA ecosystem and supercharge an already vibrant market as it reaches new levels of investment and value capture.