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What CIOs need to know about RPA in IT operations

We have yet to see a big investment in RPA for IT operations, but that could change as experts identify it as an area that can yield significant benefits for CIOs and their departments.

The past year saw a bump in robotic process automation adoption, but figures also revealed that RPA's use isn't equally distributed across the enterprise.

A 2020 survey conducted by Forrester on behalf of RPA vendor UiPath showed that companies were using RPA and intelligent automation technologies at an increasing rate in response to pandemic-induced business pressures. Just under half of respondents said they plan to up their automation investments in the coming year as a way to increase agility, resilience and efficiency.

But according to researchers and management advisors, most RPA investments are made in less strategic IT operation areas.

"IT operations constitute a very small portion -- about 4% -- of the RPA market, and major use cases are primarily in the IT service desk," said Amardeep Modi, a practice director with the management consulting and research firm Everest Group.

That being said, CIOs shouldn't discount the value of RPA in IT operations, particularly as a way to eliminate inefficient, time-consuming tasks related to legacy systems such as ERP that don't have the embedded automation and intelligent capabilities found in more modern applications.

"RPA is a perfect way to address issues if you're not at the point where you can sunset certain legacy systems confidently or on a reasonable timeline," said Kevin Martelon, a process consultant and automation partnership manager at Saggezza, a global IT consultancy.

Martelon pointed to a recent RPA deployment he helped a modular storage company deploy. In this case, the field workers are using tablets to evaluate returned rental units but with the data collected being sent and stored in a legacy application. That data is then extracted, coded and sent to a financial system -- a task that IT handled manually until it deployed bots to do the extraction and recoding.

The company will eventually need to modernize the legacy system but in the meantime, RPA is providing the bridge to a future state and is saving hundreds of hours of manual work, Martelon explained, which proves the value of RPA in IT operations.

Maturity matters

CIOs have varying levels of opportunities to use RPA in their own department operations based on where they are in their digital transformation journey, said Cathy Tornbohm, an analyst at Gartner.

While some may already be using automation technologies included in modern applications to support help desk operations, those with older help desk systems have more places to use a dedicated RPA tool.

Benefits of automation in IT operations
Benefits of automation in IT operations

That's the case throughout IT operations, Tornbohm said, adding that CIOs are most likely to deploy RPA only where legacy systems are still in use and, thus, where embedded automation or APIs aren't available.

A fair number of CIOs are in that situation, according to IT advisors, whether it's because they're still in the early or middle stages of digital transformation or they work in established companies with legacy systems that are harder to replace due to the size and complexity of operations.

Karthik Ranganathan, chief enterprise architect at NTT DATA Services, an IT service management company, listed a range of areas where CIOs could benefit from automation, including:

  • password resets
  • user onboarding and offboarding, notifications, changes and similar user-focused activities
  • software installation
  • software entitlement validation
  • self-provisioning, decommissioning and changes
  • UX monitoring
  • backup and patch management

RPA technology provides the same list of benefits when deployed in IT operations that is typically found when automating manual, repetitive tasks on the business side. Protiviti's 2019 Global RPA Survey found that organizations across various industries reported increased productivity, better quality, greater speed, improved compliance, fewer errors and lower costs among the typical benefits seen in RPA deployments.

"For an IT organization with matured processes, RPA can yield time and costs benefits immediately," said Salil Godika, chief operating officer at Synoptek, an IT consulting and managed service provider.

Challenges of RPA in IT operations

As it goes, there are some hurdles to cross when implementing RPA in IT operations. According to Martelon, CIOs often face the same challenges to RPA adoption within their own departments that they see when deploying automation technology on the business operations side.

For example, tech workers -- like their business-side colleagues -- may not want to quickly identify or adopt RPA because they fear that automation may threaten their jobs. Or CIOs may be having a hard time acquiring funding because other C-suite executives within the organization still see IT as a cost center and therefore don't consider automation investments as a spending priority, Martelon said.

There's also the potential roadblocks of implementing RPA technology and optimizing its benefits.

"Once companies overcome the initial challenges of choosing the right processes to automate and [overcome] employee resistance, it is possible to consider nuanced challenges, such as lack of process standardization, shortage of internal talent to drive the project, security concerns raised by IT, existing IT infrastructure challenges and scalability of the project," Godika said.

Include RPA in overarching automation strategy

Advisors suggest business leaders include RPA in IT operations as part of a larger automation strategy. "It's a necessary component of an automation journey," Martelon said.

He and others said that RPA is a useful technology, but CIOs should evaluate whether automating a function with RPA is the right course or if modernizing systems and moving toward intelligent automation and hyperautomation -- now considered the trends of the future -- are a better option.

For example, Tornbohm said CIOs looking to use RPA to automate tasks across the multiple password reset tools still used within their IT operations may find that upgrading to one modern platform that includes automation and intelligence capabilities yields better results.

However, she acknowledged that CIOs may not be ready to modernize some systems as quickly as they'd like, which makes RPA the current option for bringing some benefits to IT operations until they're able to upgrade to a more modern setup in the future.

"If you need something that's going to be ready very quickly, that needs to work across many applications and is rules-based, then RPA could be the right tool for that problem," she said.

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