Business will be fundamentally changed by the implementation of better process automation tools.

While robotic process automation players like Blue Prism and UiPath started companies on the automation journey, businesses need to think more strategically to capture value from broader digital transformation. 


The rise of robotic process automation (RPA) saw companies automate individual tasks previously undertaken by humans, utilising software provided by companies including Blue Prism and UiPath.

At one point valued at more than £1bn and $35bn respectively, these venture capital darlings flew high on the promise of turning an entire workforce into ‘citizen developers’, who could effortlessly develop applications to solve individual problems.

This software was sold to Chief Financial Officers as a tool to drive enormous productivity gains and cost savings by automating repetitive ‘swivel chair’ work.

But that promise has been largely disproven.

By putting RPA in the hands of staff, apps were fragile and fragmented. Processes were more complex than expected, which led to lower returns on investment than anticipated. Blue Prism and UiPath subsequently saw valuations fall off after exhausting their growth runways.

Does that mean process automation was overplayed? We believe not. Rather, the boom and bust of RPA has opened the door to much more compelling opportunities, where innovators are powering full, business-wide digital transformation.

Businesses globally are under increasing pressure to automate more widely, amid rising labour costs, pandemic-heightened consumer expectations, and the escalating threat of cyber-attacks – which will require better audited and less manual processes as a defensive strategy.

There is also growing understanding at the CEO level that automation requires companies to redesign their entire processes – not just plaster over pieces that are creaking.


Stitching it all together

One of the greatest challenges companies face in achieving digital transformation is ensuring processes work seamlessly from end to end, and that data moves effectively between different systems.

We recently invested in Patchworks, an integration platform provider helping e-commerce businesses tackle this very problem.


Its software connects key systems, including shopfront, finance, stock, customer relationship management and warehouse management systems, intelligently routing data between them.

This allows retailers to simplify the integration of their technology stack, scale more rapidly, embrace new technology without worrying about integration difficulties, and generate analytical insights that can steer business strategy.

For example, Patchworks’ software enabled British fitness apparel brand Gymshark to deliver a seamless shopping experience on the most challenging day for e-commerce: Black Friday.

Facing a torrent of hundreds of thousands of orders a day, Gymshark’s systems were able to share data coherently, which prevented customers from being misinformed on stock availability or wrongly charged.


Integrating man and machine

It is also critical tech-enabled processes integrate effectively with humans.

Many businesses have overlooked the vital human element to systems automation, and this is giving rise to a new type of automation specialist.

Clarilis is a legal technology business that automates the production of first drafts of complex legal documents, which junior lawyers traditionally spend hours writing.

The platform distinguishes itself through the complexity and breadth of the documents it can work with.

The technology and data model underpinning this is complex, and so the business provides assistance with implementing it.

Clarilis has also thought carefully about how it interacts with the lawyers who are using the automation software, which ensures they remain focused on the highest value-add areas of their work.

Consultancies are also crucial in delivering this synergy, and collaboration with senior leadership teams is key to understanding where automation can truly add strategic value while integrating with employees.

In 2017, we invested in digital transformation consultancy Symphony Ventures – now Sykes Digital Services – which analyses a company’s required digital transformation journey and creates bespoke strategic automation solutions.

The company carries out technical training for staff post-implementation and provides a fully managed service on request. We believe there are exciting opportunities to develop the next wave of systems integrators like these, which will help clients realise value from automation.


Experts will outperform

A number of innovators are also emerging that offer a single ‘vertical’ automation solution spanning multiple key systems.

These businesses are experts in the sectors in which they operate, and as a result, their software ensures everyone in an organisation is capturing the right data and following a ‘best practice’ process.

For example, we invested in eConsult, the market leader in online consultation and digital triage services for GP surgeries in the UK.

Developed by clinicians, the automated platform captures data from patients quickly and thoroughly without requiring them to visit their local surgery. This then allows their doctor to review that data and provide them with the most effective form of treatment.

This results in the remote closure of 70% of cases – improving the patient experience and allowing GPs to use their face-to-face appointments on those who will benefit most.

eConsult’s focused healthcare platform has accordingly seen enormous uptake in recent years, with the company now serving more than 3,300 GP surgeries.

It also provides products for secondary care providers and emergency departments or urgent treatment centres, giving them visibility into who is in the waiting room, so the most urgent cases can be prioritised.

Compelling growth stories such as this will increasingly emerge across each sector as businesses far and wide seek greater digital transformation.

Expect the innovators with unrivalled sector expertise and the system integrators to excel as intelligent automation takes hold.