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Automation as a strategic technology

By Kevin Kroen, Principal, Intelligent Automation Leader, PwC US and Munish Gupta, Principal, SAP CX/XaaS Leader, PwC US | Published: Aug. 28, 2023 | Read time: 5 min.

For the past seven years, the automation ecosystem has largely been synonymous with solutions like robotic process automation (RPA) as a stopgap technology to help quickly automate time-consuming, repetitive processes without having to take on major IT modernization work.  

The results from these efforts have been mixed. From this first generation of work, most use cases tended to focus on areas heavy on new technology integrations where RPA’s main benefit was playing the virtual swivel in moving data between ERP and legacy systems where little integration existed. 

And while RPA can help streamline several processes by filling in forms, completing routine reports and extracting data, many organizations have run into issues when attempting to design automation solutions that addressed more complex, intelligent workflows or needed to integrate with strategic platforms. 

This realization can often generate organizational resistance, fueling demands for a “real” strategic fix. Leading organizations took it a step further and would set retirement plans for RPA bots as they expected them to decommission when more strategic processes could be put into place. In other words, RPA has been viewed as the alternative to a strategic technology solution, not the primary.  

RPA can continue to be useful in certain cases. This includes high growth environments that lack organizational capacity to invest in more strategic architecture or environments where strategic investment may be logistically difficult (e.g., those with heavy dependency on third-party systems). 

Adopting holistic automation

The word "automation" should evolve — from robotic process to holistic business. This can happen in two distinct ways:  

First, automation tooling should involve a wide range of technologies that include better process intelligence coupled with process automation tooling that spans across UI, API and other integration layers. It should include the integration of intelligent technologies to help deal with business processes driven by unstructured data and judgment-based business rules. Tooling should also streamline user-driven workflows where human activity can be inserted as needed.  

Second, automation technology should move away from piecemeal solutions for processes to a strategic toolbox that is implemented as a layer on top of newer transformation initiatives. In other words, automation technology shifts from the stopgap to the strategic.  

Nowhere is this need more evident than in large ERP transformations, such as SAP, which can run into challenges brought on by lack of an automation-first mindset.  

There is often a struggle during discovery in understanding the process landscape front to back and as a result, many organizations cannot realize the extent of the planned benefits case due to manual processes being put into place or heavy customization has been done. Not to mention there are often integration challenges between the ERP platform and front and middle office systems. The very nature of solving complex business processes often requires holistic, flexible tooling. Yet, there is a historical lack of mature tooling to focus on custom, integrated workflows.  

These challenges create the case for complimentary technology that lets users focus on building automatable processes from the beginning, not as a makeshift technology put in after the fact. 

Think automation-first  

Utilizing a business automation platform that can confront these challenges can add a considerable amount of value, helping to close out that last mile of an ERP transformation. Traditional RPA-first platforms that have moved beyond an RPA-only model into a more holistic view of automation, such as UiPath, provide an example of how this could work.  

Process, communications and task mining can help organizations discover business cases early in the implementation planning phase so they know when and where automation can be applied. Solutions can then be configured to help automate work and create more seamless experiences using the combination of UIs and APIs. Analytics, testing, integration, data and unified management and governance can help keep automation and operations running at speed and scale, while allowing organizations to plan and build upon deployments. 

ERPs are designed to help solve and streamline complex business environments and a business automation platform can be the driving force that informs the transformation. It provides a critical element to keep the core clean strategy, generating better customer and employee experiences and giving more certainty into ROI helping to elevate the ERP solution — and the enterprise — to its potential. 

UiPath announced a major partnership with SAP with this vision in mind. This is an important milestone in the journey of automation technology as this could set the model for how automation sits in on the strategic C-level agenda as an important imperative alongside major technology transformation. We expect to see additional joint ventures in the automation ecosystem that will likely continue to help integrate and expand the definition and value of automation as a strategic imperative. 

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