I've always distrusted the notion of robotic process automation (RPA). While automation is great, you need to be smart about what you automate. To my mind, RPA too often turns into unthinking automation of your existing processes without first taking the opportunity to reimagine them — a new but equally dead-end take on offshoring. The end result may go faster and cost less than what you did before, but all you've done is to speed up existing inefficiencies.
This is why, to refer back to a debate in these pages last week on the state of agile development, I believe that automation initiatives shouid always be approached in a spirit of continuous delivery. The worst possible way to implement RPA would be to do it in a classic waterfall methodology where a massive investment and development effort leaves you trapped in an inflexible outcome. It's robotic, but not in a good way. It won't serve you well for long.
Nevertheless, there are some functions in the enterprise that are in dire need of more automation. Finance is one. For some reason, finance professionals are often reluctant to embrace change, and constantly postpone long-overdue system upgrades. So I was intrigued to discover this week that finance has been the first target for automation at development tools vendor Atlassian. Pranav Shahi, Head of Business Systems, tells me:
A lot of reconciliation processes were being done manually. Right now if I look at use cases in play, they're in taxation, revenue reclamation, T&E, all across the spectrum of finance.
Inventively, Atlassian is using its own ticketing tool Jira to kick off and then close automated process across its NetSuite finance system, Coupa procurement tool and other finance-related systems such as travel booking. Shahi's team are also working on people management and customer-facing processes, he tells me.
Proactively managing the IT landscape
Shahi's role at Atlassian is emblematic of a new class of IT professionals that is emerging to deal with the proliferation of fast-moving, best-of-breed SaaS and cloud-based tools. Shahi was speaking to me ahead of his participation next week in a panel at the Business Systems Magic conference in San Francisco, where he will be speaking on a panel about the use of automation, AI/ML, and bots. I'll be attending the event as a guest of Workato, the workflow automation vendor that is hosting the conference and has funded my travel to be there.
Shahi says his role at Atlassian has come into being as a response to the emergence of multiple best-of-breed cloud applications and platforms. Proactively managing this new landscape makes it possible to reduce time-to-market for new functionality, while delivering improved security and compliance. The SaaS and cloud environment has also encouraged organizations to move away from waterfall methodologies and adopts more of a continuous delivery mindset, he adds:
It's not only the ease of upgrade, but also a mindset shift within IT organizations — we really think from a product ownership perspective, get into sprint planning, look at not only what the vendors are providing but also what requirements our people have.
Looking beyond RPA
Rather than focusing solely on RPA, next week's panel will also be discussing machine learning, AI, bots and business process management tools. RPA tools are often limited in their scope and it's possible to achieve a more iterative process development with a generic workflow automation or API integration tool, says Shahi:
RPA is all about task automation. Most of the initial capabilities around a particular user are automated so the user can [spend more time] interacting a bit more.
Where we actually start getting into more around the BPM part of it, we're trying to figure out what needs to be automated and the need for continuous process automation and revamping — discovering, finetuning and getting to that next level of maturity.
Much of the driving force for these new approaches stem from a new focus on customer and employee experience, he says.
It's all about the experience now — customer and partner experience, internally the employee experience, and in back-end systems, the operational experience.
How do we enable getting to the foundational aspect of our work, getting to the right information. How do we get access to that?
Enterprises want to deliver a better experience and do that with a continuously evolving mindset. That requires a new take on RPA and BPM that harnesses more flexible automation tools along with a continuous delivery approach to IT. I look forward to learning more about these emerging trends at next week's event.