A common gripe in the UK and European tech communities is that there are few homegrown unicorns, few billion-dollar players to rival those of the US or China. “We just can’t grow them here,” people say – at least, not since SAP or (whisper it carefully) Autonomy. Even the UK’s DeepMind went for a song – a reported $500 million – when Google snapped it up and rebuilt its AI vision around it. Meanwhile Europe seems to want to break up the US giants rather than grow its own.
Yet if you mention the name Blue Prism to many analysts and commentators – even seasoned IT journalists – the answer tends to be “Who?” The fact that a British software company in two markets of the moment - AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) - has an AIM capitalisation of £1.2 billion ($1.57 billion) and has sprung from the UK’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – Warrington, between Liverpool and Manchester – seems to have escaped their attention. Is Blue Prism just not Shoreditch or Cambridge enough to write about?
How can a $1.5 billion British outfit with offices in New York, Washington DC, Miami, Austin, Chicago, and San Francisco – as well as in London, Paris, Munich, Solna, Bangalore, Sydney, Tokyo, and Singapore – still fly under the radar? After all, this is a company with a customer list that includes Lockheed Martin, Jaguar LandRover, eBay, drug store giant Walgreens, Siemens, Lloyds, O2, Heineken, Fujitsu, Du Pont, Mitsubishi, Dow, Accenture, and EY. Indeed, it has partnerships in place with all the major consultancies and systems integrators.
Co-founder and CTO Dave Moss tells me:
Awareness is growing, but this isn’t an overnight story. We are building a business at scale around the world. Putting the right infrastructure in place to make that growth sustainable has to be our priority Businesses in the North of England, where we started our journey, have held us up as an example to other companies, which is very humbling. We are proud of our roots and heritage as a globally successful British software company. If you look at our customer roster though, around 50% of our income now comes from the US, which is rare for a UK company.
The company’s bafflingly low profile may be something to do with a belief that its software robots simply automate routine enterprise tasks and, on the face of it, play to the perception that one robot in means a dozen humans out. But that didn’t stop Blue Prism from attracting 2,000 people to its two-day annual conference in London last week.
It’s also not how the company sees itself, according to Moss. In his view, RPA is not about replacing humans, but about augmenting and increasing companies’ capacity to carry out critical tasks, by deploying what he calls ‘digital workers’ rather than the more prosaic term ‘bots’ or software robots:
Digital Workers is a more accurate term than robots, as what we are doing is providing new, business-led capacity to organisations – digital workers that can collaborate with and support the existing workforce and really become part of the fabric of the modern enterprise.
Moss cites the example of Lemonade in the US. By deploying AI, apps, and chat technology in place of brokers and paper forms, Lemonade disrupted the insurance sector, allowing customers to make claims in minutes instead of weeks, he says. However, this does little to dispel the belief that RPA is about replacing humans, not augmenting their skills. But he says:
Connected RPA is all about closing that digital entrepreneur gap – empowering large enterprises to find their own, internal entrepreneurs, join them together, and use technology owned by the business to deliver ongoing innovation.
By using our technology, ‘top down’ joins forces with bottom-up transformation. Organisations find new capacity and speed to value and, with what we call the Connected Entrepreneur Enterprise, use their size as a strength to fight disruption and innovation from competitors.
Act small to stay big
It’s often been observed that, at a certain point, large organisations stop being entrepreneurial and start behaving like inward-facing bureaucracies – slow, defensive, and vulnerable to nimble startups.
As the over-familiar mantras go, Walmart didn’t invent Amazon, Airbnb reinvented vacations, and Uber disrupted transport. But these 21st Century conference clichés ignore some inconvenient facts: Walmart may not have the market cap of Amazon, but it is still by far the largest company in the world by revenue – real wallet share, not mindshare or stock ticker.
Meanwhile, despite having almost no assets, Uber has been haemorrhaging cash since day one and still loses a billion dollars a year – its upcoming IPO notwithstanding. And Airbnb likes to pretend that it has assets when it suits it, even when they belong to millions of private property owners.
The point is that being entrepreneurial isn’t necessarily the same as raking in real money, and plenty of disrupted enterprises – retailers, banks, and oil and energy companies – still seem to dominate the global revenue league. Indeed, Amazon is now so massive and over-extended itself that it is becoming less and less clear what the company does, or who its core customers are. Is being all things to all people a sustainable strategic vision?
But for many traditional market incumbents, thinking like a startup is a necessity, and Blue Prism believes its digital workforce gives big companies a cloud-like ability to scale up and down to meet business opportunity. In other words, RPA supposedly helps companies do that thing that innovation consultants bang on about while pacing the conference stage like tele-evangelists: move fast and break things.
But as BT – a company that could do with moving a lot faster and, frankly, being broken up – observed at the Westminster eForum event on internet regulation recently, mantras like ‘fail fast’ are the diametric opposite of safety by design. So how can RPA help companies innovate – but without breaking their own businesses, markets, or customer bases? Moss says:
BT is actually a customer of ours, and doing some very interesting things with the digital workforce. In today’s market, businesses are faced with reduced IT budgets, which gives them fewer resources to innovate.
On average, only 20% of an IT budget goes towards new ideas – most of the shrinking IT budget is spent keeping an ever growing roster of systems running. What we are doing at Blue Prism is solving this problem by increasing the capacity of the ‘development’ pipeline by democratising IT and giving the business back more time.
What businesses do with this extra time is in their power, but we are allowing their digital-savvy employees to create and innovate within an IT-endorsed and controlled environment.
This seems to suggest that the message about the benefits of automation, AI, and ‘digital workers’ is filtering through into the workforce itself, despite the media’s efforts to demonise robots of every kind as malignant job-killers and Terminators-in-waiting.
Blue Prism’s own research appears to bear this out. On behalf of the RPA provider, research firm Sapio surveyed over 1,400 business decision makers (those with a final say over IT budget spend) in the UK, US, Japan, Australia, France, and Germany, together with over 3,500 knowledge workers. According to that survey, 83% of knowledge workers are comfortable with re-skilling to work alongside a digital workforce, while 78% say they’re ready to take on new roles.
Only 37% of knowledge workers harbour fears of losing their jobs to automation – despite more than three-quarters of them (78%) having experienced some of their daily tasks being automated in the last 12 months. Indeed, over one-third of knowledge workers (34 percent) don’t believe their businesses can remain competitive in the next five years with a purely human workforce.
Meanwhile, most business decision makers believe that RPA (88%) and intelligent automation (83%) are solutions to the global productivity problem, with even more believing that both technologies are critical to driving digital transformation. According to Blue Prism, 92% of those decision-makers plan to extend the use of automation across their businesses.
While you might expect a provider-endorsed survey to find such things, the numbers are impressive and statistically valid. Moss says:
People now realise that Digital Workers remove the drudgery of work, not the excitement. As we have seen from our research, people are embracing the opportunities that the technology is bringing.
We are seeing exactly the same approach from our customers too. The extra capacity that the digital workforce delivers will always be a positive for organisations and the growth of the entire industry in recent years is a clear indicator of that. I think approaches such as connected-RPA are giving opportunities to knowledge workers to succeed and grow.
The problem is that a number of recent reports have observed that a majority of organisations are rushing into AI and automation tactically to cut costs, rather than strategically to make their businesses smarter. But the vendor community is not to blame for that – unless the sales teams of companies like IBM, Microsoft, and others who shout the message ‘augment, not replace’ from the conference dais are zeroing in on different metrics to their CEOs, of course.
Either way – as the World Economic Forum observed last year with its report on the global employment impacts of Industry 4.0 – skills will be the real battleground of the future, as not only routine, low-skilled tasks, but also safe middle-class careers (such as accountancy, legal services, banking customer services, and auditing) are swept aside, in favour of data analysts and innovation consultants.
Millions more people droning on about Uber and Amazon... well, there had to be a downside. In the meantime, Blue Prism is a real British success story, and a Northern Powerhouse one at that. Thumbs up – via my softbot, of course.