The Coming RPA Trough of Disillusionment

Ted Shelton

Ted Shelton

· 2 min read

analysis robotic-process-automation

Are you ready for the RPA Trough of Disillusionment? Gartner’s time tested Hype Cycle model predicts that new technologies will go through a cycle in which media (and analysts) over promise the potential, inflating expectations, and ultimately disappoint early investors in the technology as it fails to live up to the promises.

As this recent post in the Wall Street Journal indicates, we are well into the over promise stage of the RPA technology curve - “RPA Provides A Lightweight Agile Approach to Automation” repeats the largely false view that:

“…people with business process and industry expertise but no programming experience can start automating processes with RPA tools within a few weeks of training…“

For anyone that has actually been involved in an RPA project or spoken to a Gartner or Forrester analyst this is a laughable assertion. There are no processes in which a single “happy path” can be “recorded” – RPA projects always end up requiring software development expertise to complete.

Of course the core premise of the article is correct – that RPA “allows companies to automate processes at a fraction of the cost and time of classic software development” – but to over-promise (to HYPE) the capabilities such that you claim that any business user can pick up RPA skills in a few weeks will (and already is) leading to companies feeling that they have been burned by our industry.

One of Gartner’s lead RPA analysts, Cathy Tornbohm, described three categories of client inquiries that she currently gets about RPA:

1. The Clueless – Many companies are still at the early stage of understanding what RPA is and what it can do for them - they have heard a few grand promises and are eager to learn more…

2. The “Harry Potters” – Yes this is what Cathy called this second category – companies that have done one proof of concept project that went well and now think that RPA is a “magic wand” that can solve every business transformation problem.

3. The Disillusioned – Unfortunately it turns out you DO need software developers for RPA implementations, and development, testing, and deployment can become expensive! And then there are the governance issues around security, change management, ongoing maintenance and management, and measuring the real ROI achieved… And brittle automations that break after becoming mission critical creating a brand new type of operational emergency!

All of this suggests to me that more and more companies expectations, fueled by the hype machines of media and egged on by RPA software vendors, are going to come crashing down. The challenge for those of us that see the long term potential will be to accelerate the “slope of enlightenment” that will help guide these companies out of despair and into a reasonable set of expectations for this promising technology.