IPA - too early to tell?

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Ian Hawkins

We’re not in the prediction business. And we never will be. But while the industry is looking at RPA, and considering the possibilities for Artificial Intelligence, the next big thing in Process Excellence is sitting in the wings – maybe.

Predictive powers like that are the reasons casinos exist, but there may be something in the growing interest in Intelligent Process Automation (IPA). It certainly feels like the next step along the road of digital transformation.

Where have we come from? We pick up the evolution journey from BPM, which is where most businesses start: getting the human processes right remains a full time task. But increasingly, with the cost of crunching data coming down and the digital literacy of entrepreneurs going up, start ups and small businesses are increasingly building themselves around RPA. Many of them don’t even realise they are doing it, which is a sure sign that it’s stopped being something for the few, and started being something we take for granted. The entrepreneur, for example, who listened to my description of RPA and denied ever using it, was quite happily showing me shortly afterwards that she had an app for scanning and logging her expenses receipts. Clearly, my description of RPA was at fault – or maybe it’s already such a part of the scenery, we have stopped noticing it.

If someone with a side gig is using such an app to do their taxes, bigger businesses would be very foolish indeed not to consider the possibilities of apps to help their admin, whether off the shelf or bespoke. And those of us who are immersed a little more deeply in the RPA world know that apps are just the start.

RPA is good for big businesses, and fantastic for small ones as it has the advantage of giving companies the ability to scale - and once an enterprise gets big, it’s suddenly able to outdo more traditional, businesses that are still doing things in the old way. Successful businesses in many sectors from retail to engineering are finding that their easiest wins are delivered by data, and dealing with data is fueling a disruptive boom. When we hear of high profile businesses toppling, they aren’t failing so much as being outdone by competitors.

A bad workman quarrels with his tools, but AI is a tool that’s capable of quarrelling back – and winning the argument.

So now we come to Intelligent Process Automation. IPA is another tool and how it is used is going to depend on a lot of factors beyond ‘does it work?’ How easy is it to get on board? Will businesses be willing to embrace the new ideas so soon after buying in to RPA? Is IPA something a startup can handle? I suspect we will see a few early adopters with money to spend, until the cost comes down enough to work for entrepreneurs and start ups. Then the people in the middle who were slow to change will feel the squeeze.

IPA is going to incorporate lots more of the tech that’s coming our way: RPA is the tip of the iceberg, with robots replacing humans at many tasks, powered in their interactions by Natural Language Generation. Machine Learning will mean less programming, talk to customers more effectively via Cognitive Agents and the whole interaction will be overseen by Smart Workflow.

I question whether ‘evolution’ is quite the right word: process is something we all do, whether it’s changing an accounting system or finding a shortcut home from work. Each solution – RPA, IPA or whatever comes next after that – will solve the problems they are built to solve. But we shouldn’t expect them to be good solutions to the problems that are outside their capabilities. There is no panacea, but there are an increasing number of tools to find efficiencies we previously didn’t know could be made.

The big factor in this is the customer. If IPA makes customers happier more efficiently, it’s going to pay for itself. Customer loyalty isn’t dead, it’s just getting very, very fuzzy.