Given the rapid growth that robotic process automation leader UiPath Inc. has shown over the last few years, it’s no wonder that the small robotics process automation pond isn’t enough for the company to swim in. Instead, it wants to be the big fish in the expanding enterprise automation lake.
I covered last year’s Forward IV conference, where UiPath cemented its leadership position in RPA, while looking to expand into the platform-centric enterprise automation space. At that time, its vision was ahead of its product execution in a clear example of growing pains for the recently public company.
In spite of UiPath’s slowing growth (a common phenomenon as companies mature), this year’s Forward 5 conference doubled in size from last year’s pandemic-constrained Forward IV – and the increased excitement among customers, partners and UiPath employees was palpable.
Continued growth for UiPath requires it to expand past its RPA roots. In spite of RPA’s limitations – bots can be brittle and add to an organization’s technical debt – RPA remains immensely popular for its cost savings, efficiency and productivity benefits.
By moving into the more strategic enterprise automation marketplace, however, we might wonder whether UiPath is somehow leaving behind its RPA roots.
The Forward 5 crowd quickly dispelled this notion. UiPath isn’t moving away from RPA. It is building a platform-based automation strategy with RPA at the center.
UiPath’s strategic roadmap
UiPath describes the value propositions of its new business automation platform as discover, automate and operate.
Discover leverages its task and process mining capabilities to identify opportunities for automation.
Such automation, in turn, becomes a new way of operating an enterprise – not simply operating its technology, but rethinking how the entire organization runs. This journey UiPath wants to take its customers on goes from RPA to enterprise automation to digital transformation.
RPA focuses on cost savings via efficiency and productivity improvements. RPA’s value proposition is thus largely tactical: Replace human activities with automated tasks.
Enterprise automation extends that value proposition with process transformation benefits. It leverages process mining, artificial intelligence and other technologies to change the way organizations do business.
Digital transformation, in turn, leverages automation to better align organizations with customer needs. Such transformation requires enterprises to rethink how they meet changing customer needs over time by adopting change as a core competency across the organization.
As a result, the role of automation shifts dramatically from the static, brittle bots of RPA to a dynamic vision for automation that supports ongoing change. Such change is the root of innovation, making the digital transformation goal a solidly strategic value proposition for UiPath.
Building the right kind of applications
UiPath Chief Marketing Officer Bobby Patrick asked me whether building an application should lead either to more or perhaps to less work for people.
It’s a provocative question. Most applications, in fact, add to the corporate workload. By giving organizations more functionality, people in those organizations must build, operate and maintain those applications – all time-consuming activities.
UiPath’s vision for automation-driven applications reverses this equation. New applications should reduce the amount of work people have to do, because automation more than makes up for any additional human work necessary to create, deploy and operate the new application.
RPA alone cannot achieve this vision. Traditional approaches to automation can’t either, as they don’t typically add new application functionality.
The combination of RPA and low-code/no-code capabilities, however, gives UiPath a recipe for achieving this vision. This combination gives organizations a powerful application construction capability that goes beyond what people can build with RPA, traditional process automation or low-code tools separately.
Low-code/no code also gives UiPath and expanded citizen developer story. Citizen developers are subject matter experts or other business users who can use UiPath’s studio tool to create personal bots that automate tasks these users would otherwise have to execute manually.
UiPath’s low-code/no-code capabilities extend beyond such attended bot automations, as these capabilities are also important for the professional developer audience who is more focused on enterprise automation and bot maintenance.
UiPath is thus leveraging low-code/no-code to clarify the distinction between personal RPA and enterprise RPA. Personal bots are the company’s heritage, but now it is expanding into enterprise automation.
As a result, unattended enterprise bots are becoming increasingly important to UiPath’s strategy. They are also giving it an important differentiation with Microsoft Corp.’s Power Automate, which remains focused on personal bot automation.
Customer adoption remains mostly tactical
The messages from the keynote stage centered on UiPath’s strategic direction, focusing more on enterprise automation and supporting innovation than RPA.
The customers I spoke to, however, are primarily leveraging UiPath for its bots. Customers such as telco Orange Spain have rolled out dozens of bots across the enterprise, focusing on both back-office tasks as well as the more transformative, customer-facing processes.
Orange Spain is achieving dramatic cost savings and improved productivity, but its automation efforts remain centered on RPA. Digital transformation efforts to rework the customer-facing teams’ ability to support multiple products are still a work in progress.
Cox Enterprises is taking a bottom-up approach to rolling out RPA, initially targeting basic back-office tasks. The automation team has since expanded its efforts by supporting citizen developer initiatives in various business divisions.
This bottom-up approach is showing success at Cox. “The business functions get one bot,” explains Debra Donovan, director of intelligent automation at Cox Enterprises. “Then they get it, and the lightbulb goes off.”
The Cox team described themselves in the “walk” phase of a “crawl, walk, run” approach to enterprise automation. Process transformation is under consideration but remains a future goal for the organization.
How UiPath can achieve its strategic vision
Supporting innovation is a strategic goal for UiPath, as it aligns with the dynamic nature of digital transformation. However, taken separately, RPA addresses tactical problems with tactical solutions.
UiPath needs to change this equation – but the company is facing substantial headwinds. In Dave Vellante’s pre-Forward analysis in SiliconANGLE, he points out that the UiPath is “out over its skis on critical execution items” and that “ML/AI and RPA appear to be more discretionary than certain sectors, including cloud.”
I agree with Vellante that machine learning and AI may be largely discretionary today, but that conclusion is painting the technology with too wide a brush. The better question would be: How can a company such as UiPath leverage AI to make enterprise integration more strategic?
AI has been central to UiPath’s offering all along, from machine vision to document processing and now communications support with recent Re:infer Ltd. acquisition. That acquisition, in fact, provides a good indication of how UiPath expects to achieve its strategic vision.
Re:infer leverages AI – natural language processing in particular – to automatically extract the specific intents, entities, themes and emotions from conversations to support automations that can transform the customer experience across communication channels.
Technologies such as Re:infer’s help organizations move from rules-based to experience-based workflows by leveraging AI. As a result, such workflows are data-driven and inherently dynamic – thus rethinking traditional rules-based process automation by providing automations that are well-suited to support digital transformation initiatives.
UiPath’s business automation platform is also cloud-native. Moving to a cloud native automation platform addresses the need for dynamic automation of applications that consist of modular, standards-based and ephemeral components. In the cloud-native world, integration and automation work at a layer of abstraction that allows for and even encourages dynamic application behavior coupled with dynamic business needs.
Combine cloud-native infrastructure with the power and inherent flexibility of AI, and the result is a well-differentiated approach to enterprise automation that gives UiPath a good shot at achieving its strategic vision.
Jason Bloomberg is founder and president of Intellyx, which advises business leaders and technology vendors on their digital transformation strategies. He wrote this article for SiliconANGLE. Disclosure: Microsoft is a former Intellyx customer. None of the other organizations mentioned in this article is an Intellyx customer. UiPath covered Bloomberg’s expenses at Forward 5, a standard industry practice.