Pandemic drives growth in robotic process automation

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Businesses around the world are automating many workflows and the pandemic is accelerating the need for better, more integrated tools. Much of the push is being fueled by remote workers who can only work digitally without access to the paperwork that is the lifeblood of many office tasks. A critical tool to achieve this speed is robotic process automation (RPA) software, part of an increasingly disconnected network of automation that is replacing traditional workflows.

This insight was one of the main themes of Forrester’s new RPA software tools market report. The report sees strong growth that will push revenue to $22 billion in 2025, from $13.9 billion in 2021.

Traditionally, the letters RPA were associated with software designed to simplify and facilitate the flow of documents and other information through a team. Many companies use the tools to juggle scanned images of paper documents, such as tax returns or driver’s license images. Some use the tools for accounting work, others for legal compliance, and others find ways to simplify basic chores.

Forrester’s new report notes that the definition of the term is blurring as the overall automation market grows as well. As RPA tools improve, they add connections to other enterprise tools, in what Forrester calls an “automation fabric market.”

Embedding RPA into enterprise software suites or making RPA part of a broader intelligent automation game is a long-term trend as enterprises build a heterogeneous automation structure, the report said. It adds that by 2022 alone, “5% of Fortune 500 companies will adopt an automation structure to drive automation-driven business transformation.”

The word “robot” is often confusing to some because it doesn’t involve any physical devices. The term started because much of the work focused on physical paper, but the tools have become more sophisticated. New versions of leaders such as Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath provide workflow management tools that direct items throughout the organization.

The tools are often seen as a big part of the low-code or no-code movement, as they are designed to enable average employees in the organization to create and customize the data pipelines. While the term “no code” is often a dream, there’s no doubt that many companies appreciate what they can accomplish without a dedicated team of developers.

Forrester likes to call these “citizen process experts” and predicts that they will continue to play a greater role in creating and managing information flows. The report suggests that companies leading the way in “democratizing the understanding of processes and the use of automation” are the ones most likely to succeed in building effective RPA pipelines.

At the same time, Forrester hints that the difference between man and machine is becoming increasingly blurred. Some tools known as “process mining” effectively discover how data is already moving in the environment, making it much easier to duplicate them with a new RPA tool.

“Digital assistants will work side-by-side with people, first learning how people work with computers, and then proposing, building and running automations,” the report states. “Reinforcement learning will raise the complexity threshold of automation applications, while keeping people at the wheel. In particular, we see small and medium-sized product sellers offering basic digital assistants to complete a strong vision.”

As AI infiltrates the workplace, so does RPA

The RPA market is also one of the stealth vectors for AI infiltrating the workplace. From the outset, the tools include machine vision algorithms to scan documents and convert them into digital representations. Newer versions include machine learning options to make intelligent choices, such as finding the invoice number on a form.

Much of the growth will come from RPA services, a market that could grow to $16 billion of that $22 billion in revenue by 2025. Forrester estimates that 60% of this money will come from adding new automation workflows to existing stacks. The rest is advice and support for existing installations.

Adoption should be highest in the financial services, public sector and healthcare, three groups that are often fraught with paperwork and compliance challenges. Forrester expects these three alone to account for 41% of revenue.

While these sectors will continue to dominate, Forrester expects their market share to shrink, in part because the industries will grow faster. In recent years, finance and accounting went from 36% of applications in 2019 to 28% in 2021.

A large part of the market also needs to stay in the back office”, ie tasks that are performed internally to keep track of data. Still, Forrester sees some growth coming in the “front office” as companies integrate the automation tools with the open websites visited by customers. More documentation will be uploaded as consumers feed the RPA machines more directly.

In the long run, Forrester envisions that such integration will gradually end the growth of RPA-specific tools. Larger, more comprehensive pan-business automation fabrics will absorb the workflow and RPA will become just one part of this larger company. Tools such as chatbots, older data sets such as customer management systems, and newer, third-party options such as data-as-a-service vendors will all feed into this interconnected structure.

The report predicts that “Platform convergence in 2022 will focus on advanced tools to orchestrate workflows and data flows between people, digital workers and AI agents through a combination of surface and native integration.” It further explains that “Meanwhile, technologies such as process mining, chatbots and low code will increasingly find a place in these evolving platforms.”

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