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What comes after RPA? Rethinking Automation to support true Digital Transformation

Francis Carden, 5 minute read

We have seen a dramatic rise in the use of terms like “Intelligent Automation” and “Hyperautomation” to describe the next stage of digital transformation for organizations across the globe. Most think that these terms involve some combination of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence. But putting RPA at the heart of Intelligent Automation fails to acknowledge both that digital transformation can be accomplished without RPA, and that RPA can actually impede the very transformation that it promises to deliver. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: RPA does not make the grade in serious enterprise strategy thinking behind this “Intelligent Automation” movement. Even where RPA goes beyond screen scraping, as in the case of Pega RPA, it should still not be thought of as a long-term solution and it should definitely not be considered synonymous with Intelligent Automation. 

What is the rightful place of RPA in our digital transformation efforts? In this post, I’m going to talk about the current state of RPA, define its relationship to digital transformation, and argue that the most important question we can ask at any stage of an RPA project is “What comes after RPA”? 

Is RPA missing the point? 

There’s no denying that RPA can make some existing processes more efficient by eliminating mundane tasks and reducing human error. For really inefficient legacy processes, RPA can show some interesting returns on investment. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with organizational leaders. The common themes? (1) RPA use cases run thin very quickly, and (2) considered in isolation without a long-term strategy, RPA only adds to – and justifies the perpetuation of – enterprise legacy debt. 

Wrapping an old process – the way you process paper, emails, onboarding customers, hiring new employees, procuring products, making payments, customer service, supporting your customers (B2C and B2B) – doesn’t fundamentally improve processes or change culture, and it doesn’t encourage organizations to deal with ever-growing and costly technical debt. RPA clearly doesn’t replace or enhance old systems, storage, databases, reporting, code, older integration hooks. It’s just a Band-Aid.  

Viewed as an end in itself, RPA actually results in “legacy strangulation.” It piles more code on top of what you already have, and it rarely makes what you have any more intelligent. Far from it. The cost to support the older legacy stuff remains unchanged. And now more bot maintenance costs and technical debt are piled on too.  

When RPA was invented over 20 years ago it plugged tactical gaps in a way that bought organizations time. That is still true today. Over the same 20 year period, however, technology has not stood still. Now more than ever, technology allows us, not just to automate existing processes, but to rethink them entirely, to rebuild them, and to set businesses up for a faster growing more agile future.  

True Intelligent Automation 

As a technology, RPA is in the past. For many businesses, RPA is a necessary steppingstone on the road to digital transformation, but it is hardly sufficient and definitely not revolutionary.  

I worry that conflating RPA with Intelligent Automation might mislead businesses into mistaking a stopgap measure for a long-term solution. And more, that the very ‘intelligent automation’ investments that businesses are making in order to achieve “automation” will prevent true digital transformation from taking place. From its very beginning, RPA was designed to buy businesses the time they needed to modernize. Unfortunately, common misunderstandings about the role of RPA have seen much of that time squandered.  

True Intelligent Automation is not about using technology to deepen organizational commitments to outdated business processes. And it’s not about expanding the divide between business and IT.  

True Intelligent Automation is about using technology to bridge the gap between IT and Business (or eliminate it entirely). And it is about increasing efficiency, not by doing things the old way faster, but by transforming culture, through deeper collaboration. It’s about using technology, not to manage technical debt, but to eliminate technical debt and, as a result, to replace a constant feeling of dread with a spirit of innovation.  

What’s next? 

Despite the foregoing, I’m not critical of RPA. It obviously continues to serve an essential function, which is why we continue to offer and invest heavily in innovation to ensure that Pega RPA leads the market through deep robotics and features like auto-balancing and self-healing

What I am critical of is how so many still think about RPA. RPA can bring tremendous advantage if used in the right way, and it can bring tremendous disadvantage if used in the wrong way. 

We need to stop thinking about RPA as a defining feature of Intelligent Automation. If the goal of Intelligent Automation is Digital Transformation, and we find that RPA alone inhibits transformation more than it promotes it, then any definition of Intelligent Automation – or Hyperautomation, or whatever – that would claim RPA as its core technology, is fundamentally flawed. 

Thinking about RPA should always be accompanied by the question ‘What’s next?’ Or, put differently, every RPA investment should come with a strategy for eliminating it. Band-Aids work because they heal in a way that makes their future unnecessary. RPA that doesn’t work to make itself unnecessary is like a Band-Aid that prevents an open wound from healing. 

It is for this reason that Pega thinks of RPA as a feature rather than as a stand-alone product, and why we include one of the most advanced RPA technologies in every license of the Pega Platform. We know that businesses will need RPA at the early stages in their digital transformation efforts, but that long-term success will come through the adoption of a low-code development platform that eliminates technical debt, that brings business and IT together, that supports an agile approach continuous improvement, and fosters true innovation. 


What do you think? What do you think is the rightful place of RPA in a long-term digital transformation strategy? Share your thoughts on Pega Collaboration Center HERE.


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About the Author

Francis Carden, Pega’s VP of digital automation and robotics, is a columnist, speaker, and industry expert on the subject of automation and digital transformation.

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