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RPA as “The Poor Man’s WFM/BPM solution”

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Robotic Process Automation has lowered the threshold for process automation. Repetitive tasks done by people are handed over to software robots. For RPA, there is no need to change or replace the preexisting information systems. Instead, software robots replace users by interacting directly with the user interfaces normally operated by humans. RPA can be seen as “the poor man’s workflow management solution” because it is cheaper than traditional automation.

In the 1970s, people like Skip Ellis and Michael Zisman already worked on so-called office information systems, which were driven by explicit process models. Systems such as Officetalk and SCOOP can be seen as early Workflow Management (WFM) systems. However, it took another 15 years until WFM technology was ready to be applied on a large scale.

In the mid-nineties, many commercial WFM systems were available and there was the expectation that WFM systems would be an integral part of any information system. Many people, expected that WFM systems would be as common as database management systems. However, this did not happen. WFM systems were succeeded by Business Process Management (BPM) systems that were broader in scope but were also never widely adopted. Examples of BPM systems include the software products from Pegasystems, Appian, IBM, Bizagi, Oracle, Software AG, TIBCO Software, Bonitasoft, Kofax, and Signavio. However, despite the availability of WFM/BPM systems, process management was never subcontracted to such systems at a scale comparable to database management systems. Actually, a few years ago, many considered the area of Business Process Management (BPM) to be dead. Organizations associated BPM with making process models rather than diagnosing and improving processes. There were three main reasons for this skepticism:

Applying WFM/BPM technology was rather expensive. Processes are hardcoded in application software or not supported at all. Many processes also involve software from different vendors, making integration difficult and time-consuming.
• Although the “M” in WFM and BPM refers to “Management”, the focus is on modeling and automation rather than management. Traditional WFM/BPM systems fail to learn from the event data they collect.
• Real-life processes are more complex than people like to believe. The well-known 80-20 rule applies to processes, i.e., 80% of all cases are rather simple, but explain only 20% of the complexity of the process. The remaining 20% of cases tend to be neglected by software and management but consume 80% of the resources of an organization.

These obstacles explain why organizations embraced Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Process Mining (PM). RPA and PM revived the interest in Business Process Management (BPM). RPA can be used to automate routine work that would normally not be cost-effective. Process mining plays a key role in deciding what to automate and how. Therefore, RPA is closely related to process mining.


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