Many readers may be familiar with the term robotic process automation (RPA), a technology whose software robots are changing the corporate workplace by mimicking employee task activities across internal and web-based applications.
For those just getting acquainted with this new type of automation, key points to keep in mind include:
- Speed: Robots complete tasks far faster than their human predecessor;
- Productivity: robots are free of human error and work 24/7;
- Scalability, robots can be quickly ramped up or down to match work fluctuations;
- Compliance, robots generate full audit trails.
Perhaps most significantly, software robots are implemented on the presentation layer where human actions reside so underlying applications and IT infrastructure are untouched. Therefore, deployments are faster, far less expensive and much less risky than typical IT automation projects. It’s not unusual to achieve several hundred percent returns on investment within six to eight months.
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Legacy Systems – ERP’s Achilles Heel
“Hasn’t everything that could be automated, been automated?”, is a common response to hearing about RPA for the first time. Frankly, it’s a very reasonable question. Corporations have been implementing ERP systems for over twenty-five years and BPMS for not much less. The automation footprint of these two technologies has transformed corporate workflows and data. But what’s often overlooked is how the overhang of legacy systems hobbles ERP effectiveness.
With age measured in decades and characterized by outdated programming languages, architecture and hardware, legacy systems are also generally unsupported by contemporary ERP software. But, despite these serious deficiencies, it’s common to see large corporations depend upon them to play important operational roles.
These roles persist because this old software either delivers critical functionality that business users have tweaked over the years, or it brings that functionality from mergers or acquisitions. It doesn’t take long for aggressive companies to wind up with dozens of incompatible, poorly documented, legacy systems from acquired or merged competitors. They’re rarely integrated with ERP systems and they’re not scheduled for replacement because either possibility would be too expensive, time-consuming and risky for the company.
When legacy functionality lacks ERP integration, the company suffers from incomplete end-to-end process automation. Moreover, since legacy information still needs to be shared with ERP systems, people are assigned to be that bridge - performing the tasks of keying passwords and copying/pasting information from one field to another. This mind-numbing activity is often called “swivel-chair” automation because it so accurately captures the nature of the work.
Of the many drawbacks to swivel-chair activities, two stand out with particular prominence: expense and scalability. This human bridge carries important information, so it’s not minimum wage work, and onboarding and reallocating workers takes time.
These two issues triggered the genesis and growth of the offshore business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. Caught in a profitability and performance bind, companies with legacy systems were instantly attracted to these service providers, who offered to take the swivel-chair mess off their hands and do it for far less money.
In the early days of the industry, an offshore BPO resource was roughly one-third the cost of an onshore person. Over time, that price arbitrage eroded. Now, the emergence of BPO automation based on robotics has turned it completely on its head.
Today, an onsite robot is roughly one-third the cost of an offshore resource and can do the work of three to five people. This paradigm achieves at least a 9X improvement over any existing resourcing solution and is the main reason why RPA technology is experiencing rapid adoption.
The Citrix Challenge to RPA
A key advantage of robotic technology presentation layer automation that doesn’t touch underlying systems caused people to question if it could sidestep the stumbling blocks of legacy integration: expense, time and risk. They discovered it did. RPA provides a compelling alternative to re-plumbing legacy systems. In fact, the growing disruption to the BPO business model testifies to the power of its attraction.
Ironically, the aspect of this technology which dealt so well with legacy integration presentation layer automation stumbles with a Citrix virtualization infrastructure. Since large corporations rely on ERP, and Citrix is a highly popular deployment architecture, this stumble is a serious matter.
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The crux of the issue rests on two opposing principles. One is that ERP users in a Citrix environment don’t interact with a presentation layer. The application is actually executed on the server, not the user’s workstation. Instead, what they see is a screen view streamed to their device from the Citrix server. As the Citrix server receives mouse clicks and keyboard actions, it instantly streams updated screen images back to the end user’s workstation, laptop, tablet, etc.
In opposition is the principal that presentation layers are necessary for implementing robotic automation. This necessity is based on the fact software robots need to know three things in order to automate a task: what to do; when to do it and where to do it. To find “where” some action must take place, robots use screen elements in the presentation layer.
Faced with automating Citrix environments without presentation layers, almost all software robots are like people in a room when the lights go out - blind. Over time, skilled developers can eventually configure robots past this problem, but those automated activities are often accomplished by workarounds, rather than permanent solutions, and prone to issues of their own.
How Intelligent Automation Unleashes ERP
Companies considering RPA for legacy system/ERP/Citrix business cases should investigate recent technology innovations from RPA providers that use artificial intelligence to create what can be reasonably be called intelligent automation. Three capabilities of particular relevance are:
- Computer Vision: robots with intelligent eyes “see” the screen using contextual relationships just as human users have always done. This provides them with unequaled 20/20 accuracy and precision.
- Automation Management: robots that learn to manage workflows; reacting to work volumes and service levels by queuing work and assigning robots without human intervention.
- Cognitive Automation: an automation platform with easy extensibility to cognitive partners such as Celaton, incorporating unstructured data into the solution.
The value intelligent automation brings to ERP/Citrix scenarios can be seen by taking a closer look at these capabilities.
The “where” problem disappears because intelligent automation robots don’t need a presentation layer with underlying screen elements in order to “see” and find screen features. With vision based on context, awkward workarounds like extensive and fragile robot configurations or outmoded screen coordinates are unnecessary.
Robots with computer vision can automate Citrix environments as quickly as simple desktop applications – typically ten to twenty times faster than standard robotic technology.
ERP systems are deployed to bring workflow speed, performance and scalability to the enterprise. Intelligent robot managers enable end-to-end automation that bridges legacy and ERP systems without compromising those enterprise benefits.
Human managers remain in the reporting, management and issue escalation paths, but robot-to-robot management ensures service levels by synchronizing queued work and robot deployments with scheduled workflows and events; and monitoring & triggering any necessary failover procedures.
While bridging the legacy/ERP gap is typically prioritized as the first step in expanding the enterprise-wide automation footprint, cognitive automation is a natural second step because it allows the inclusion of unstructured data. Cognitive automation and RPA are very different technologies, so partnering often makes a great deal of sense. Intelligent automation employs a highly extensible platform to make such integration easy.
Intelligent RPA is an Enterprise Technology
Intelligent automation unleashes the potential of an ERP system because it removes the swivel-chair, human bottleneck between it and important, but outdated and incompatible legacy systems.
Until AI-based innovations addressed the inability of RPA to meet the challenge of Citrix virtualization with solutions rather than workarounds, it wasn’t a complete enterprise technology. Now, with the advent of intelligent automation, it is and every enterprise should pay close attention.