The concept of “fads” and “trends” are often most closely associated with the fashion world. Fads are short-lived: they tend to gain popularity quickly, affect smaller groups of people, and may disappear just as quickly as they arrived. Trends, on the other hand, can have a longer-term influence on the market. They tend to be more powerful because they are addressing a nascent need, solving a critical problem, or may even be changing the way we live. A fad might include a game like Pokemon GO, which became a hot topic very quickly, but eventually died down as users became more familiar and began to get bored–the game did not necessarily provide users a way to stay involved and entertained. Social media, on the other hand, began a trend in social networking. What many people once decried as a “fad” has proven its ability to stick around and engage users, and has changed the way people interact and the way business is done.
In the IT services landscape, we have seen our share of both fads and trends. In the past few years, we have seen trends in development toward SMAC: social, mobile, analytics and cloud. All of these trends have collectively disrupted traditional business models, and continue to do so. One well-known buzz phrase in technology circles today is Robotic Process Automation (RPA). But is it a trend or a fad?
RPA is an emerging technology movement based on the concept of software robots that can be programmed to perform routine clerical tasks that are mundane, complex and highly repetitive. The robots, or bots, are built using RPA tools, and can access IT systems exactly as a human being would: via the user interfaces of applications. Such bots are becoming what the industry has deemed “digital labor.” Being able to assign manual tasks to a machine means that businesses can significantly reduce the need for human involvement in more menial work. The shift from human to machine has a direct impact on everything from performance and efficiency, to staffing and overall costs. With all the hype about the advance of RPA, people have naturally begun surmising that robots are on the verge of making humans “redundant” at work.
So is RPA a fad or a trend? Here are three questions we can ask to determine where it falls:
- Does RPA address a nascent need in business today?
- Does RPA solve a critical business problem?
- Is there multi-year data that shows RPA has delivered results?
In today’s digital world, technology silos have been created out of necessity. Additionally, SMAC has created greater complexity in the IT ecosystem within an organization. There is a problem of data synchronization across technology silos, which leads to redundant manual work. RPA does address the burgeoning business need to integrate across technology silos. Enterprise-level businesses are always investigating new ways to improve operational efficiency, and automation has been bandied about for many years as a vehicle that can maximize said efficiency. Until RPA entered the ecosystem, automation remained mostly a theoretical concept in many of these businesses. RPA is solving a critical business issue that has been at the top on the agenda for many organizations. The answer to all three aforementioned questions is a resounding “yes.”
While RPA seems to answer these questions positively, can it maintain standing as a trend? Ultimately, RPA may be a toddler who just learned to crawl. We need to see it walk, and then run, before calling it a mega-trend with significant and lasting impact. The big questions with RPA is not just about technology, but change management. Scaling RPA pilots into organizational-wide initiatives, and then governing them successfully, are the big challenges.
A key driver of RPA will not go away, however: operational efficiency. Today’s businesses are vying to maintain lean operations while delivering exceptional client experience at lowest possible cost. The relentless quest for operational efficiency is predicted to drive the growth of RPA. Once we learn to scale this to the enterprise level, and the question of automation is routinely asked inside of each development team, only then can RPA truly become a mega trend.