Point of View

The rise of attended automation: how to get it right

December 9, 2020

Unleash your employees and processes by strategically using attended and unattended automation in tandem

When we talk about robotic process automation (RPA) today, we are usually referring to unattended automation: automation that uses predefined business rules to run without human intervention. The other part of the automation value equation, in no way less impactful, is attended automation, also known in many cases as robotic desktop automation (RDA): automation that sits on users’ desktops and is triggered by humans. As enterprises strive to scale their automation programs and fashion RPA into a native element of their digital business architecture, they are increasingly turning to attended automation as a core lever to help drive adoption at scale and achieve tangible value in the very near-term—while hoping to fundamentally redesign processes in the long-term. Attended automation must be a native part of broader automation, customer and employee experience (CX/EX), and enterprise strategies. It delivers unique value, and people love it, but an enterprise must manage attended automation’s user experience (UX) and maintenance differently than its unattended systems.

In a recent webinar, we examined attended automation’s evolving role as a complement to enterprise automation programs. We were joined by OP Financial Group, the largest financial services group in Finland, which is living and learning from its attended-unattended duality, and NICE, its attended automation technology partner.

You can’t talk about automation scale without attended automation

There must be a broader discourse between attended and unattended automation 

While unattended automation can be a useful tool on its own, the enterprise conversation is rapidly moving on to using a combination of automation tools and other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and smart analytics.

Around 75% of automation revenue (based on responses to our Top 10 research) comes from unattended automation—despite the number of attended bots outweighing unattended ones 10:1 (if not more). So often, enterprises use bot count as a measure of scale or automation maturity, but in HFS’ recent roundtable discussions, we’re going beyond by considering automation scale and maturity as defined by enterprise objectives, which is where attended automation comes in—but more on that later.

We need to redefine what attended, unattended, RPA, and RDA all mean in the broader automation discourse—step in, Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: The definition of RPA has failed. Confusion results when we refer to both RDA and RPA equally as RPA.


Source: HFS Research, 2020

The combination of legacy software with technology and process debt culminated in OP embarking on its automation journey

Success for OP ultimately came by focusing on redesigning and replacing legacy processes and systems in the long-term while ensuring automation achieved tangible value in the short-term… and that’s where attended automation came in.

OP’s 60-person-strong process automation COE is a one-stop-shop for all OP’s automation needs across platforms, best practices, development, and managing operations—serving end-to-end processes as a “hub of automation.”

 Exhibit 2: OP Financial Group’s process automation journey

Source: HFS Research and OP Financial Group, 2020

Piggybacking on Exhibit 2: OP started in 2015 with unattended automation pilot projects, but quite soon, it realized that to leverage automation at scale, it needed resources in-house. OP expanded unattended automation to several processes, but it needed more options to deliver value to the business, its customers, and employees. Over 2018 and 2019, OP adopted business process management (BPM) and attended automation tools alongside OCR and AI, building a full automation toolkit to enable new use cases and value.

Attended automation was a necessary step. OP leveraged Blue Prism for initial unattended automation success but needed more. OP looked toward NICE’s attended automation capability, primarily for contact center use cases such as assisting agents in real-time to better serve customers by automating data mining and service tasks on request.

To date, OP has automated over 350 workflows. In 2019, robots handled 2.9 million transactions. The company has achieved over €40 million in cost savings, a 77 internal NPS, and over 1,000 years in customer time saved. OP has also realized compliance and process standardization benefits.

In 2021, OP expects accelerated development at over 100 workflows per year, with attended automation covering approximately 10% of that. It’s fair to say OP is still in the growing phase of attended automation, but the original driver of short-term value is clear to see.

“Now” value: You can’t be too precious about the transformational nature of a technology when it’s delivering value to enterprises

Attended automation can bring unique value to enterprise automation programs.

Don’t wait years for value you can get now, and don’t spend years in legacy routines that don’t give customers value. When HFS queried OP Financial Group about whether attended automation is transformational, Jukka Moilanen, the Product Owner of Robotics at OP Financial Group, indicated that attended automation enables business value across a range of cases—enabling automation to scale in areas that need the fastest, real-time responses across thousands of users simultaneously. He went on to articulate:

“It’s impossible to fix everything. We need value in the short-term. Attended automation allows us to make things better for agents and for customers for the next year, two years, or more. This is very tangible ‘now’ and near-term value enabled by agile methodologies.”

Jukka Moilanen, Product Owner of Robotics at OP Financial Group

Designed well, attended and unattended automation in balance will breakdown silos for win-wins across CX and EX in the near-term and medium-term while determining what long-term robust solutions may be in store for the future.

Oded Karev, General Manager for NICE Advanced Process Automation, weighed in on the value point as well, indicating that many of NICE’s customers have treated automation as a tactical, one-issue solution: a provider automates one process, and, predictably, the client gets underwhelmed… it can’t scale. The most successful enterprises treat automation as a key strategic pillar of their business objectives by embedding it in roadmaps and process priorities—asking themselves, “What do I need in real-time and not in real-time to improve CX and EX? I probably need attended and unattended automation.” Karev went on to note that attended and unattended automation are complementary:

Attended automation success depends on the maturity of an automation journey: When you know unattended has a glass ceiling, attended can be part of the toolkit to enable use cases that unattended cannot… You have to understand automation strategically and align it to the whole business.”

Oded Karev, General Manager for NICE Advanced Process Automation

Attended automation also works to remove the stigma of automation anxiety—proving that automation is not stealing jobs. Rather, it’s enhancing employees’ abilities to do their jobs, which is a real positive for the automation market and in line with recent HFS research into the rise of digital associates.

Many people love and embrace attended automation—but there are clear differences in the benefits and challenges of adopting attended and unattended automation

Attended automation sits on desktops to allow faster automation response times and the incorporation of virtual assistants like NICE’s NEVA, which would be hard to achieve with unattended automation on a larger scale. When the employee experience so deeply determines the customer experience, the value of leveraging attended automation becomes even more tangible. This means, however, that there is a much bigger need for care and attention around UX design. Attended automation needs to run processes on desktops without overly disturbing users, such as contact center agents, and it must seamlessly integrate with their work when required. This tight integration isn’t required in backend systems, where unattended automation can take processes totally away from humans. There’s also a higher demand for maintaining the UX for a wide variety of users on a large scale, which leads to an inevitably wide variety of issues.

The Bottom Line: As the HFS OneOffice vision evolves beyond breaking down silos for a better CX, the importance of EX and attended automation’s role are clear: Unleash your employees to unleash your customers.

You can’t really talk about automation scale without attended automation; it can build unique use cases to achieve short-term value while your legacy systems and processes are fundamentally reimagined. On its own, attended automation is not transformative, despite generating unique value and love among eager employees. But when it’s implemented in tandem with unattended automation and aligned with business objectives, employees see the benefits to their own and customers’ experiences.

The rapid value the OP has achieved through attended automation and digital associates working in alignment with unattended automation and broader digital transformation is the epitome of the employee experience that forms such a core part of the OneOffice.

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