Where is RPA Headed in the Near Future?

A significant number of major technical, scientific, medical and even sociological or philosophical innovations find themselves misunderstood early on in their existences, earning broad acceptance only years – sometimes decades – later. History abounds with examples of this phenomenon, all the way back to Socrates, and continuing from Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei to Charles Darwin and the Scopes trial. Stem cell research during the past 20 years has faced a somewhat similar quandary, though there has also been some room for a middle ground.

In tech, the two cutting-edge concepts creating some of the most controversy are artificial intelligence and robotic process automation (as well as the more general concept of automation). This is, of course, a logical progression, considering how the latter depends on the former. Workers can sometimes believe methods of automation have the potential to invalidate their jobs, especially in fields like manufacturing, as Forbes noted. On the other end of the spectrum, businesses have been initially skeptical regarding the potential costs and uncertainties surrounding AI-based RPA for business process improvement.

As is so often the case, the truth of the matter is somewhere in between those two extremes. Let’s take a closer look at the current status and value of RPA and where it could end up going in the future:

The RPA market at a glance

Though it’s only been a major presence for the past several years – since the mid-2010s – RPA has already made a significant impact, and earned no small amount of revenue for those devising the platforms driving it. According to a report from ResearchandMarkets, the RPA market’s value will exceed $7 billion by 2024, riding the strength of a 27 percent compound annual growth rate that began in 2013 and will continue until at least 2023. Researchers’ opinions vary on the current valuation of the RPA sector, with estimates ranging from approximately $350 to $540 million as of 2017’s end, but regardless of specifics, a jump to $7 billion from barely half a billion would constitute a massive increase.

“Most of the major vendors in the global robotic process automation market are actively focused on enhancing their offerings to meet the ongoing demand for advanced business automation solutions,” the report’s authors stated. “This includes software integrated with artificial intelligence and cognitive learning.”

Major RPA functions

According to CFO magazine, workflow automation is the most common place to find current editions of RPA across enterprises, overseeing tasks such as record-to-report and order-to-cash. The news provider noted that some firms appear hesitant to try RPA for more complex core finance tasks as of now, but that many have already adopted such platforms for inventory accounting, fixed-asset accounting, cash flow statement preparation, various steps required for financial closing and consolidation, tax reporting and numerous other core finance processes.

Citing data from a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, CFO noted that more than 80 percent of large and midsize companies are engaged with RPA in one way or another – implementing it on a broad scale, starting to set it up or, at the very least, experimenting with this method of automation. Additionally, in a projection of the industry’s future, Gartner suggested that within two years, nearly 90 percent of corporate controllers at large companies will either be using RPA on its full scale or have begun to roll it out throughout their organizations. It doesn’t take much of a leap of logic to reasonably figure that this AI-fueled tool will be applied to many other administrative functions in the not-too-distant future.

More than 80% of large and midsize enterprises are using RPA for certain functions.

Fears of RPA-driven job loss are overblown

It would be disingenuous to say that automation won’t lead to a certain amount of staff cuts in a variety of businesses. There have already been enough workforce reductions to give at least some credence to that idea. However, it is equally hyperbolic to say that any type of automation – RPA or otherwise – is going to eradicate any critically large share of human jobs around the world any time soon. According to Forbes, while RPA chat- and phone-based bots may handle a notable range of basic customer support functions, for example, the personnel who used to handle them will likely not be laid off but instead reassigned to more complex customer-facing service operations. They’ll be more challenged by higher-level work.

Deanna Strable, CFO of the firm Principal Financial, told CFO magazine that while RPA might allow certain firms to avoid the costs of additional hires, it wouldn’t impact their existing workforce.

“We didn’t [adopt RPA tools] because of cost efficiency,” Strable said to the news provider in an interview. “We’ll monitor that over time, but it’s more because we’re a growing organization. We need to support that and also reduce the chance that we’ll have to increase staff.”

Challenges surrounding RPA adoption

No new technology has a perfect initial rollout, and RPA implementations have certainly seen their share of challenges. According to GCN, a significant number of public-sector RPA deployments within federal agencies – NASA, the General Services Administration and the Food and Drug Administration – have encountered several issues as the organizations have adopted these technological platforms. Their RPA adoption is much more recent than the private sector, and there is currently no standardized guidance within the federal sphere of public administration to mandate training employees on the use of RPA tools, or to govern essential protocols such as security.

In one case, a NASA office assigned false Social Security numbers to its RPA bots so that the automated systems could be issued personal identity verification credentials, a practice that could lead to major breaches down the line. Ed Burrows, RPA program director for the GSA, said that issues like these were unsustainable problems.

“That policy needs to be there to clear the way for faster ramp up, and it’s not there. It’s not even close,” Burrows told GCN. “Essentially, agencies are figuring things out on their own. There is a lot of variation in the way agencies are doing things.”

Such issues may not be quite as common in the private sector, where RPA has been in use for more businesses over a longer stretch of time. But the point Burrows makes above holds water in general, as it’s critical to roll out the use of RPA in a manner all employees will understand and benefit from. Appian’s application delivery platform allows for the quick development of apps powerful enough to help organize RPA usage across large enterprises.

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