Live Wires #5: Good robots and bad robots
Who are Blue Prism? The company isn’t yet a household name, but in automation circles it is something of a trailblazer. They actually coined the term “robotic process automation” back in 2012, and the early evangelists of RPA (such as HfS and Ovum) rapidly seized on Blue Prism case studies as the first signs of something new stirring in the world of automation. Live Wires caught up with Pat Geary, CMO at Blue Prism, to understand who they are and where they are heading.
Pat has been with the firm since 2008, in which time he has witnessed a revolution in the company’s approach and profile. Founders Alastair Bathgate and David Moss set up the company in 2001, providing bespoke software for financial service operations in areas such as debt recovery and settlement. These early days taught the company some key insights, in particular that a lot of automation doesn’t happen because it is too expensive. “Traditional” IT projects were laborious, complex, and slow. As a result, for many businesses most automation opportunities never saw the light of day; IT spend remained focused on critical processes (typically around ERP or BPM systems), leaving a “long tail” of labour-intensive tasks that in theory could have been automated, but in practice weren’t.
Rather than developing new software for each client project, Blue Prism started to focus on developing a reusable product, which could be quickly configured to tackle this long tail. The target was the simple processing, validation, checking and data manipulation that is the bread and butter of back, middle and front office administration. Blue Prism had an idea: “What if we can develop a platform that can simply replicate what people are doing without a massive integration or development programme? What if the business owned the configuration of the platform?” The emerging toolset was centred on individual software agents or robots, which accessed and orchestrated client systems just like a human operator. The “robotic” label stuck and has come to define a whole new type of automation software: RPA.
From the early days the list of Blue Prism use cases has grown steadily, now with 100 clients such as nPower, ShopDirect, O2 and a leading UK bank. So far financial services, telecoms and utilities have provided the most fertile opportunities – high-volume, labour-intensive, transactional work. For example Pat says that Blue Prism now handles work previously delivered by 600 bank workers. But other industries are also adopting the technology – such as 40 NHS trusts which use the software extensively in patient administration. Today Blue Prism software runs millions of transactions a month for several clients.
Pat notes that it hasn’t been an easy journey, there have been teething challenges, such as understanding specifically which parts of a process a robot can handle best. In addition, Blue Prism has learnt a lot about the organisational and change issues that rapid automation needs to address. Far from being a simple “flick of a switch”, RPA requires meticulous attention to people and processes – for example what are the policy, compliance, risk implications of a robot in anti-money laundering or insurance admin?
But Pat points out that Blue Prism have been ploughing this furrow longer than their competitors, and therefore have a deeper understanding of the potential and the issues of RPA: “One of our differentiators is that we have the scars of this iterative development – how to make robotics actually work in an enterprise context, without introducing new operational issues.”
Blue Prism suggests this has resulted in a tough, mature offering. It promises to provide automation that is based on a centralised, enterprise-strength platform onto which a range of technologies can be bolted. “We see ourselves as a robotic operating system for our own robots and other best of breed systems such as voice recognition or AI technologies like Celaton.”
In Pat’s view these differentiators are extremely significant: “Not all robots are the same. There are good robots and bad robots.” He believes that other RPA software is under-engineered, relying too heavily on the uncoordinated use of scripting and recording of tasks. This means that whilst other robots may work well on a micro scale, at an enterprise level they don’t work well in parallel and end up forming an inefficient and unstable virtual workforce. “Other software companies have adopted the RPA name but are making the mistakes we made six years ago. Many buyers of robotic automation are heading toward Scriptageddon.”
No doubt there will be plenty of debate on these and other points as competitors push into the nascent robotic process automation market. But Blue Prism is investing in the future. Their software is being continuously updated. Its team, based in London and the North West of England, is growing briskly. They are developing an ecosystem of partners, including systems integrators, outsourcers and consultants, to spread the word of Blue Prism and help build its robot army. Although still small compared to the giants of enterprise software, in recent weeks the company took a major step forward, with its IPO on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market.
Where is all this heading? Pat shares his vision: “This will be a complete transformation of the way we work. Every business will have a virtual workforce.”
Paul Morrison is a Partner at Aecus, the specialist outsourcing, shared service and automation consultancy. Follow him on Twitter at @MorrisonPaul1 and at www.aecus.com.