Understanding robotic process automation: Connecting legacy apps to modern processes

Don’t let old, crappy apps keep your organization from implementing automation.

Microsoft recently announced a new flow as part of their newly renamed Power Automate workflow app called UI flow. What makes it stand apart from their previous flows is that it uses robotic process automation (RPA).

Now, RPA isn’t a new product to the market by any measure, but we realize not everyone in EUC may understand what it is and what it provides. Additionally, RPA relates to the modernizing legacy apps conversation that we’ve been having at BrianMadden.com for a long time now (pre-dates me for sure).

Breaking down robotic process automation

The most common method to add automation to applications is through APIs, but not many older applications have exposed, documented APIs the way we think of them with modern apps. This is where robotic process automation comes into play. RPA is designed to automate repetitious, high-volume processes where reducing errors is in everyone’s best interest. It can be used to either automate a workflow entirely or speed up one that will also include partial human interaction.

RPA essentially steps in for the person and handles interaction via the user interface of an app, rather than running a process from a backend that more modern apps would do. If the app has an API, another workflow solution would be more appropriate. It interacts with the frontend of these older applications, handling a process you “trained” the RPA bots on by recording your actions. It can be partially built off screen scraping, which involves taking data directly from the UI and extracting it. Given that the process must be done with the application open, it’s easier to use a VM.

When determining whether a particular business process would work well with robotic process automation, consider the following: is the process rule based, does it have a pre-defined trigger and is repeated often, and does it involve specific inputs and outputs? Not every process translates to RPA.

So, let’s look at some of the common use cases where robotic process automation makes sense: call center (speed up conversations and get customers the answers they want quicker by automating part of the process); finance (invoicing); healthcare (patient records management); and sales (processing refunds and nearly anything involving extracting data from one source and moving to another).

We’re seeing robotic process automation come up in conversations around low-code/no-code automation IFTTT tools. While coding for RPA is possible, it’s far more common for it to be created involving low-code options like GUI where you drag/drop the steps into a single workflow, recording the process across different applications, and even “educating” bots from recordings.

One newer aspect of robotic process automation is known as RPA 2.0 or unattended/unassisted RPA. RPA 2.0 doesn’t require human interaction: it would run automatically. An example workflow is that the RPA logs into an application, executes the desired process, and then logs off. It’s a feature of Microsoft’s Power Automate UI flows that is currently in private preview.

Vendors using RPA

What vendors offer robotic process automation features right now?

There are plenty of RPA-focused vendors out there, such as UI Path and Automation Anywhere, which connect to the various services out there, some even partner with larger organizations, e.g., IBM and Automation Anywhere. Microsoft added RPA to Power Automate, but it’s not clear what other EUC vendors specifically offer right now. It’s likely a matter of time before Citrix or VMware add this functionality to their workflow apps (VMware has posted at least one RPA-involved job listing that’s active of the time of this article). VMware did tell me that it’s something they’re considering for the future.

Wrap up

Personally, I find RPA to be an interesting answer on how to move to largely modern processes while still using those legacy applications you can’t abandon just yet (if ever). Plus, you’re recording your actions and having a bot repeat that! With a lot of focus around modernizing (e.g., moving to the cloud, going passwordless, etc.), it’s good to see automation connecting with crappy, old apps unlikely to see improvement and bringing some sense of modernization to them.

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