Historically, there have been two basic ways for knowledge workers to complete digital tasks: packaged productivity tools (e.g. Microsoft Office) and purpose-built business applications (e.g. Salesforce, SAP, or custom business applications).

Generally speaking, productivity apps have been the domain of business users while business applications have been managed by IT.

With due respect to some uber sophisticated spreadsheets we’ve come across, the maturity of a business roughly tracks with the ratio that productivity apps, such as Excel, are used to drive core business processes. The higher the ratio, the less sophisticated – and, likely, less efficient – the company.

Correspondingly, companies who have outperformed during the last decade are those who have systematically identified activities that can be migrated from Excel and other less-refined solutions to applications and workflow tools more suited for the purpose.

If this is true, why have productivity apps persevered?  A simple answer is because they can be created directly by business operators.  Attesting to productivity apps’ staying power, Microsoft still generates $30b per year selling productivity software, much of that being MS Office.

Enter RPA

One reason RPA software is so enticing is that it has the potential to blend aspects of both productivity apps and business software.

Similar to productivity apps, RPA tools place the ability to develop solutions directly in the hands of business users (i.e. no code required).  This provides a speed of adoption that business software simply can’t match, and of equal importance, does not require the business to call IT to build a bot.

From the world of business software, RPA tools provide the ability to perform cross-platform activities that execute business logic.

A good historical corollary might be an Access or Excel macro on steroids that can effectively interact with lots of different packaged applications and can nimbly execute business logic.

As RPA has matured, two general classes of bots have emerged: attended and unattended.  Attended bots are “chaperoned” by humans who periodically intervene to introduce human inputs.  Unattended bots are the equivalent of planes that fly the entire route on autopilot, typically taking off at a scheduled time and handling all aspects of their job without human intervention.

As with any well-hyped technology, the supply of RPA tools has rapidly become crowded.  Three players, however, have managed to emerge from the noise: Blue Prism, UI Path and Automation Anywhere.  All three privately held businesses have valuations north of $1b and are poised to compete for supremacy in this promising space.

Looking to the future, rapid analysis of one-off data sets will still be performed via Excel.  And any highly sophisticated algorithms will still be coded in business apps or micro-services.  But there is a large center of the Venn diagram where RPA is relevant, and that will drive companies to adopt these tools in growing numbers.