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The pandemic convinced businesses to rush ahead with automation strategies, but the industry has so far failed to convince the C-suite to reconfigure how their organizations work, and it has failed to convince employees that they even want to work with bots—risking leaving billions of dollars of value unrealized.
That was the warning bell industry experts sounded when they gathered to talk about native automation at the HFS OneOffice™ Digital Symposium in June 2021.
HFS coined the phrase “RPA” (robotic process automation) with Blue Prism back in 2012 and helped trigger the extraordinary rise of this market segment, so it was only logical for HFS to announce its demise.
We meant that the end of the standalone RPA era was here. What we see is the market rapidly moving toward a more comprehensive set of capabilities as enterprises strive to make automation native within their post-pandemic OneOffice roadmaps.
Against this backdrop, the right question for the industry’s finest automation brains at The HFS Symposium was “Native automation…remembering the industry known as RPA—So what’s next?”
HFS’ founder and CEO Phil Fersht hosted the panel and challenged participants to share their reflections on the pandemic’s impact. Did organizations really change their priorities? Or were we just listening to our echo chamber? Perhaps most intriguingly, how is the category of RPA evolving? Will it be more of the same? Or will we see more significant shifts? And how do we get the discussion on RPA back to outcomes and how it might shape the way we are working?
The panel included:
Source: HFS Digital Symposium, June 8-9, 2021
The panel did discuss, largely, the value proposition of RPA rather than automation, but the insights are more widely applicable. Mihir Shukla (Automation Anywhere) started with an honest and astute reflection: “The truth is nobody of us knows. Except that we have learned a lot of the last year and that we will continue to learn. A hybrid model [of office and remote work] is the most likely scenario that I am seeing.”
Wayne McQuoid (Credit Suisse) double-clicked on that by reflecting on the changing nature of automation. “The need to drive automation across our organization has been just built into our DNA, […] to help with people’s insatiable desire for data, to help with decision making. Processing that data has become front and center of our activities.”
Mihir also commented that many companies had brought their 2023 or even 2025 digital strategies forward, implying that organizations haven’t changed strategy—just compressed timeframes.
HFS SVP and automation guru Elena Christopher (HFS) challenged the panel on that expectation: “Yes, we see a different speed, but also the necessity of managing change. COVID was a wake-up call. We need to be clearer as to what we want for the future, beyond just a Band-Aid.”
Vijay Tella (Workato) concurred: “With COVID, the inertia to change got busted. The real question is, how do you solve the enterprise rewiring problem?”
Ted Shelton (Bain) rose to Elena’s challenge and provided more holistic reflections: “Before the pandemic, the main reason to implement automation was cost reduction. And in many cases, the business case couldn’t be justified for automation because if you have embarked on outsourcing, then you have already taken a significant portion of cost out. But then the pandemic showed us how fragile those work connections like outsourcing were.”
The panel agreed that the pandemic had changed the approach to automation, so what does that mean for the next evolution of automation software?
Harel Tayeb (Kryon) provided some context for the future of RPA by double-clicking on the marketing noise. He rightfully pointed to the many buzzwords, such as RPA, AIOPs, and the likes, distorting discussions. According to him, the future is all about productivity. He made the argument that the data layer is completely different from automation. Thus, data is the baseline for any decision made by users, whether human beings or robots. Therefore, in Harel’sview, orchestration tools will dominate the market.
Elena asked pointedly whether there is an inevitable collision course between data and cloud. As she put it, most RPA deployments are being delivered on-premise. Both will come together eventually, but how does this look today?
Michael van der Steen (Adidas) responded: “I don’t see it as a collision course, more as a collaboration. Automation is just one of the tools in your toolbox. But we have to be clear that the user is serving the consumer. Thus, we need to understand what the consumer needs. Only then can we be successful as a company. Automation should be used to overcome the problems of key systems like SAP and Salesforce. It is here where both worlds are coming together.” Michael provided more details as to how data and automation have to intersect: “Unlocking the data allows us to use tools like Celonis, Fiori, and AI. It is not all about the latest and greatest, but looking at the evolution of some of those tools. For instance, UiPath is combining task mining with automation, thus is providing the detailed user perspective, while Celonis is providing a high-level picture.”
Mihir built on that by suggesting, in his view, both concepts are a perfect match. “I would go further and suggest that in two to three years’ time, on-premise RPA will be dead because the benefits that the cloud provides are just enormous. Faster deployment, faster innovation, better resiliency, better security, and virtually infinite scaling. The comparison I have in mind is CRM and how Salesforce has become the de facto standard of CRM. I expect that the same will happen in RPA.”
Jason Kingdon (Blue Prism) couldn’t resist a dig at UiPath and Automation Anywhere by reflecting, “As we have a server-based approach, the freedom of where the data resides is irrelevant. Our architecture is designed with collaboration and distribution in mind. Blue Prism has said from the beginning that there are issues with Desktop Automation because these approaches are personalized; they operate in a personal context. They work well for the individual but not for the end-to-end process flow.” He concluded by suggesting that automation is not about cost-saving but about the experience and the speed of that experience you offer to the customer.
The panel widely shared Jason’s point about supporting employee and customer experiences. This is central to the HFS concept of the OneOffice.
Arjun Narayan (Soroco) picked up this very point, “The OneOffice is all about the end-user, even though all too often they get glossed over. And automation is just one lever to improve the journey toward the OneOffice. If you think of users as your population, you don’t want to do open heart surgery first.” He added, “You want to do testing and diagnosis first, and look at all the non-surgical alternatives. Then you want to put the population on a continuous improvement program.”
Phil closed out the discussion by challenging some of the narratives of the leading RPA providers that tend to over-emphasize technology. And he asked the fundamental question, “Are we willing to change the way work is being done?”
Ted addressed the elephant in the room, “The one thing we have not addressed is whether employees want digital co-workers. We failed to convince managers that they want digital employees. And we failed to convince the C-suite that this is a strategic investment. And to understand better the role of automation in the future is to better understand the role of process. This will only change when companies understand how to redesign processes and fundamentally change how they operate and how to utilize machine learning, AI, robotics, and then focus on what people do best—namely being creative, curious, empathetic.”
“Until we redesign work so that the right workers are doing the right jobs, convincing all those workers that they want this new world, we won’t get there. Fundamentally, I believe today automation has just had a marginal impact,” Tedcontinued. And he warned against listening to our echo chamber, highlighting the need for more events like the Symposium to take stock.
Arjun double-clicked on these points and expertly closed out the discussion with a philosophical reflection, “Ted is spot on. The way we have to change is to turn it from a technology conversation into a human conversation.”
As Phil hinted, turning the discussions on automation from technology toward outcomes and experiences is central to our core beliefs here at HFS. We are always open to learning more about the experiences of every enterprise exec on their automation journey.
The panel on “native automation” was in broad agreement that the pandemic has fundamentally changed automation discussions. We heard about accelerated investments and that users have to become more central when defining automation strategies. However, in our view, there was less clarity around what exactly the outcomes should be and how the RPA market is evolving. The market has to finally make progress from task automation and employee productivity toward end-to-end automation. As we have been clear that the end of the standalone RPA market is nigh, we need more clarity about future scenarios. Will most RPA vendors end up in ISV ecosystems such as SAP and ServiceNow? Or will the incumbents like UiPath and Automation Anywhere transform into a new breed of workflow and broader automation powerhouse? But, more than anything else, we have to bring the discussions back to outcomes and supporting customer and employee experiences—not discussing technology and hyping software functions and functionalities. In the end, automation is an enabler—but not a strategy for the OneOffice.
You can read other POVs and a comprehensive ebook about the Symposium, plus watch video highlights of the two-day event, here.