SAP faces a balancing act in burgeoning RPA market

Robotic process automation has mushroomed since SAP first announced its RPA product a year ago. But big application vendors may find it tough to grow into a shifting market.

With its Intelligent Robotic Process Automation product, SAP's customers would, Chief Innovation Officer Juergen Mueller promised, be able to achieve the high automation level necessary to become an intelligent enterprise. Regardless of how the "intelligent enterprise" is defined, the SAP's plan for RPA, announced in October last year, would have to succeed in a crowded market.

RPA is a field in which designers create software bots to automate tasks which usually require information from more than one application by screen-scraping data - matching an invoice with a purchase order, for example. In the year since SAP announced it was joining the market, the independent RPA vendors have been booming. The market grew 63% in 2018 and is set to reach $1.3 billion in 2019, according to Gartner. Vendors already well established include UiPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism (see box).

But SAP is not new to automation. Sebastian Schroetel, Head of Intelligent RPA, says the applications software giant's first forays began during his time in the machine learning group.

"In 2015, we wanted to achieve business process automation. We provide apps, so the first step is to embed automation inside the applications themselves. When buying a new solution, [ERP software] S4 Hana or [HR application] Success Factors, we don't want people to purchase automation on top of that. We want the applications to run automated by themselves."

Automation in the app

To this end, SAP has been working on reducing the number of clicks to perform tasks, simplification of interfaces, and integrated workflow management: all things that require AI, Schroetel says. "We embed the AI function in application to automate business process."

But SAP is not blind to the problems its customers face. Although it would like them to upgrade to the latest SAP software, in reality, most large organisations exist with a mishmash of old and new applications: it is simply too costly and disruptive to upgrade applications as often as it would like.

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