Why an agile approach is essential to scaling RPA

Few technologies have captured the imagination (and the purse strings) of businesses like robotic process automation (RPA) over the past decade. By combining various existing technologies such as screen scraping, workflow automation, OCR and artificial intelligence (AI), the original pioneers of RPA were able to create something new, a product bigger and more significant than the sum of its parts.

Why an agile approach is essential to scaling RPA

Compared to traditional automation, not only was RPA easy to use (thanks to its low code interfaces) and less expensive to implement, the technology was incredibly effective as well, reliably reducing operational costs by 25-50% on average. As a result, the RPA market ballooned to a value of $1.3 billion in 2020 with experts predicting it will continue to grow to $7.6 billion by 2028. 

However, RPA is not without its downsides. Brittle and challenging to scale, a sobering 30% to 50% of robotic process automation projects fail. Though there is no one reason RPA and intelligent automation projects fail, poor process selection, a lack of governance and, ultimately, substandard project management practices are often contributing factors.

Which begs the question, could an agile approach to RPA-related project management and software development help ensure success? 

What is agile?  

Up until the early 2000’s most software development and technology implementations were deployed in a sequential, step-by-step process. However, in 2001, 17 prominent software developers gathered to create a new, “lightweight” and iterative model for software development which they dubbed “Agile.”

Unlike traditional, sequential “waterfall” methods, Agile emphasizes: 

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

As explained by the Agile Alliance, “One thing that separates Agile from other approaches to software development is the focus on the people doing the work and how they work together. Solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams utilizing the appropriate practices for their context.”

Another difference from traditional approaches is that it breaks the project down into small, digestible increments known as “sprints.” Requirements, plans, and outcomes are continuously evaluated throughout the project lifecycle, making change an organic part of the process.  

Why agile for RPA?

If the goal of RPA is to enhance the human work experience by eliminating repetitive, low value tasks, it must be co-implemented with the end-user. Fortunately, an agile approach encourages close collaboration with stakeholders early and often. 

While in the past IT would be solely responsible for implementing new technology, agile methodologies call for the creation of cross-functional teams that break down silos and promote business/IT alignment, a must for RPA success. 

Secondly, as mentioned before, RPA is quite brittle and does not respond well to change. Unlike traditional methods, an agile approach makes room for ongoing, iterative changes and upgrades post-implementation. 

Last but not least, agile provides the governance framework needed to scale RPA and intelligent automation across the enterprise. In these scenarios, organizations can adopt a factory-like approach to implementing RPA consisting of reusable components, workflows, standards & guidelines, tools and reference implementations. Not only is such an approach cost and labor-effective, it also results in higher quality and more secure RPA applications. 

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