There are a number of reasons why artificial intelligence has become such a hot topic lately. Just a few of these include increases in processing power, access to affordable data storage, and the development of sophisticated analytics. Plus, we can tie these benefits together through the cloud and its ability to create networks built from all of the components mentioned here.
These developments give us a new chance to create software functions that work smarter, perform better, and (in some cases) start to develop a level of learning that allows them to get smarter over time.
In the most basic of terms, this is software engineering that can do more for us in an automated way, without having to always be told what action to take next. The IT industry likes to call this Robotic Process Automation, or RPA for short.
Recognizable and Virtual Robots
Robotic Process Automation isn’t related to robots like the humanoid assistants at your local bank or the whirring kind that will mow your lawn for you. But it is all about the software robots (often just called bots) that can execute tasks inside systems run by any device.
When intelligently architected into enterprise IT stacks, RPA can start to automate many of the identifiable and quantifiable processes that a business must execute every day. These could be tasks such as invoice matching, employee vacation time logging, or scheduling regular meetings. It could also take care of procurement for office facilities right down to measuring how much paper is in the copier then automatically placing a re-order or identifying when the air conditioning needs servicing by noting an unusual rise in the temperature. These hidden or “virtual” bots could be an incredibly powerful way to bring efficiency to a business.
Bringing in Robotic Muscle
SAP has been working to engineer a significant amount of RPA muscle into the SAP Leonardo machine learning portfolio ever since its inception. In addition to exposing SAP Leonardo to SAP’s own algorithmic intelligence (which SAP HANA analytics is part of), the company has been keen to develop this obviously valuable adjunct to its own offerings.
The latest addition to the SAP RPA stack is its acquisition of Contextor SAS, a French RPA design and integration company with headquarters in Paris. “Ooh la la,” you might say. “Why would business users want to perform repetitive tasks across their application portfolio when they could be sipping fine wines on the Champs-Élysées while watching the world go by?” Now SAP has an answer for its customers. It has zeroed in on Contextor to gain its enviable track record in software bot development.
100,000 Bots Strong
How enviable? To date, Contextor’s customers have deployed more than 100,000 bots automating business processes. SAP insists that Contextor’s approach to RPA will help simplify user interface interactions across both SAP and non-SAP applications.
Contextor’s RPA technology will now combine with SAP Cloud Platform, conversational AI technology, and document processing capabilities provided by SAP Leonardo machine learning to deliver what SAP calls Intelligent RPA, or IRPA.
“With intelligent RPA accelerated by Contextor, businesses will be able to achieve the high automation level necessary to become intelligent enterprises,” said Markus Noga, head of machine learning at SAP. “The acquisition is a big step toward orchestrating process automation and will help SAP inject RPA capabilities into our applications, first and foremost into SAP S/4HANA.”
Tune Up Now for Orchestration
Noga’s key word was “orchestrating.” The way to benefit from RPA is to start using it to orchestrate (and then stand back from) business processes that make sense to drive automatically. These may be processes that are tedious for human workers to complete, that require a high level of resources, or that are prone to human error.
The harder part (and reason why the Contextor acquisition makes sense) is that you need something to feed those processes into to orchestrate them. Now that engine will be SAP Leonardo and its machine learning capabilities.
To be clear, Contextor bots worked effectively on their own (100,000 bot customers can’t be wrong). But now this technology offers what both firms are hoping is an easier route to consumption.
What’s Next for Contextor?
The integration of intelligent RPA into SAP S/4HANA is expected in the first half of 2019. Other SAP applications will follow soon thereafter. With Contextor’s RPA technology, SAP plans to automate half of the business processes supported by its SAP ERP software over the next three years. So, fear not: The bots are coming. It’s time to figure out what you can do with them.