A Single Gear or The Whole Machine

Ted Shelton

Ted Shelton

· 2 min read


I have written elsewhere about the Coming Trough of Disillusionment for robotic process automation (RPA). While I don’t believe that the overall market behavior of “inflated expectations” followed by a trough of disillusionment can be stopped, individual companies are capable of navigating their own paths independent of the overall market. Doing so requires a clear view of what RPA can and cannot do for your company.

In a blog post today HFS founder Phil Fersht posts a similar set of thoughts, decrying the overhyped valuation of the largest three RPA vendors (Seven Deadly Misnomers Why These Billion Dollar RPA Valuations Are Insane). I agree with all seven of his points but I think there is one more, particularly “deadly,” misnomer about RPA - and it is embedded in the very name of the category…

Robotic Process Automation we call it – but with RPA are we really automating the process or just a task within the process? Undoubtedly RPA can move a gear and gears do help to move the machine, but does RPA touch the whole machine? First perhaps some definitions:

  • A task is a business activity performed by one or several employees regularly and repetitively.

  • A process consists of a group of related tasks which together creates a result or value.

Take for example customer onboarding. I can certainly hand off a task to RPA – start with a “payload” that contains customer information to be loaded into source systems – financial, shipping, customer service, etc. and end with a result code that the data has been entered or a conflict has arisen to be solved by a human action. But step back for a moment and think about the whole customer onboarding process. First there is the sales person who has closed the new account and taken a first order. Some interaction with the new customer may then be necessary to confirm billing information and contact information for various roles. Perhaps the CEO should send a welcome email to the new customer. Countless tasks must be performed to complete the full process of onboarding that new customer.

The technology of RPA is well suited to the challenge of task automation. This is not to take away from the value that RPA can deliver but rather to point out that it is a part of an overall value proposition, not the whole value. Misunderstanding what RPA can do for your company is a root cause for many of the other “misnomers” on Phil’s list.

At the end of the day value is created when companies transform the operation of the whole machine, not just speed up a single gear.