BPM vs RPA: why the confusion?

BPM vs RPA: why the confusion?

August 11, 2021

RPA Business Analyst

We may describe the relationship between high tech and business as a fruitful partnership yet the one built on a myriad of rather confusing acronyms. RPA, IPA, BPA, and BPM are just some of the many abbreviations used by thousands of companies all around the world when speaking about digital transformation and ways to improve business performance.

One of the most confusing couplings is probably business process management (BPM) and robotic process automation (RPA). Can these concepts really be compared? Let's shed some light on their true essence, underlining what makes them different and what may turn them into ideal partners.

Distinguishing between BPM and RPA

Comparing and contrasting BPM vs RPA is not an easy task, as these two notions are completely different in nature. Indeed, BPM is a management discipline regarding enterprise processes while RPA is a set of technologies focused on process automation.

Specifically, RPA is a form of business process automation (BPA) and represents an ensemble of automation technologies aimed at assisting human employees in carrying out repetitive and time-consuming business tasks.

This result can be achieved by deploying software robots programmed to mimic the actions usually performed by real workers when dealing with a variety of routine duties, such as moving data between different applications, compiling invoices or reports, entering information into databases, and so on.

RPA's main goal is to turn human-driven business tasks, typically performed manually, into software-driven tasks carried out by machines. This means that RPA follows primarily a task-focused approach.

Such automation allows companies to delegate some of the more tedious and monotonous procedures to software robots, reducing the effort spent on mundane operations and thus cutting costs. This also implies that employees can engage in much more motivating activities requiring typically human qualities and skills, such as problem-solving, creativity, public relations, and so on.

BPM, on the other hand, is a holistic management modus operandi aimed at streamlining business processes as a whole and achieving higher efficiency by spotting and addressing corporate weaknesses or bottlenecks. BPM typically involves a long and multifaceted analysis and optimization of the aforementioned processes, consisting of five main phases:

  • Design: Business process design focuses on identifying existing processes actually requiring rework or worth automating.
  • Modeling: This is the part where you set up a plan to remodel the selected processes, visualizing potential improvements and taking into account how these hypothetical updated processes would fit in future scenarios.
  • Execution: Here you test the reworked "champion" processes by executing them either manually or automatically via BPA software, or with a combination of both.
  • Monitoring: An essential step to collect information regarding the processes' performance and to assess if the previous issues have been solved.
  • Optimization: The final stage in which you fine-tune the processes according to the insights collected in the previous phase.
BPM life cycle

The purpose and scope of the BPM discipline are far broader than that of RPA, as it aims to optimize the entire business workflow and enhance the overall corporate performance through a holistic reengineering of complex processes enterprise-wide.

In other words, BPM is not a task-focused but process-focused end-to-end modus operandi followed to boost data-driven decision making, address business risks or inefficiencies, and improve collaboration and communication between multiple corporate functions, systems, and departments of an organization.

What's the tech stack?

Again, we need to be careful about the terms we use, especially when it comes to the technologies involved. As we’ve already mentioned, RPA is a group of automation technologies powering software bots to perform certain business tasks, and it also represents a sub-branch of BPA.

Compared to BPA, its tech stack is more limited because while RPA deals with automating corporate processes, at least in theory, BPA is a wider ensemble of technological tools (including RPA) that take care of automating, optimizing, and harmonizing different processes altogether.

If you think that this description of BPA's role sounds pretty similar to that of BPM, well, you're right. Actually, we may say that BPA is the closest thing to a technological incarnation of the BPM discipline, embodying its holistic approach in the field. That's why, when we want to compare BPM vs RPA in technological terms, the most proper and logical way is to consider BPM's tech manifestation, namely BPA, more than BPM itself (which is not a technology but a discipline or a modus operandi).

Technologies and platforms

After this inevitable clarification, let's talk in more detail about the technologies involved. As we said before, the scope of RPA is technically limited to the automation of business processes. Therefore, its tech stack is smaller than that of BPA. However, minimizing the role of RPA by saying that it’s just a matter of deploying rule-based bots to fulfill trivial tasks would be misleading.

As we discussed in our previous article regarding IPA vs RPA, a popular trend until a few years ago was to clearly differentiate between traditional RPA based on "simple" software robots and IPA, a broader combination of RPA tools, machine learning, computer vision, and natural language processing.

But things have changed and today these two terms almost overlap, as most modern RPA solutions rely on a pretty wide range of AI-related technologies to enhance bots with additional capabilities. Among such capabilities, we can mention a better understanding of the scenario in which they operate, a greater ability to handle exceptions, and the possibility to improve through experience.

Not to mention the fact that current RPA solutions and platforms increasingly tend to enter the broader BPA field, integrating analytical capabilities essential for process discovery and design. This implies that the boundary between RPA and BPA platforms is thinning more and more.

Among the market-leading BPA platforms with RPA at their core, we may count:

  • Power Automate: Microsoft's answer to modern process automation needs and part of a family of business intelligence products named Microsoft Power Platform.
  • UiPath: As Itransition's primary RPA technology partner and automation leader, this platform is our first choice for a variety of RPA projects, including our recent PoC aimed at automating CV processing:
  • Blue Prism: A code-free intelligent automation platform combining RPA and AI-related cognitive technologies and capable of automating processes in a non-invasive way.

Moving on to primarily BPA platforms, the focus moves to data analytics, machine learning, and any other technology required to scan the corporate performance, detect inefficiencies, integrate different business functions, and achieve an end-to-end harmonization of the corporate workflow.

Regarding such platforms on the market today, it’s worth mentioning:

  • Pega: This major BPA platform is a suite of applications for customer engagement and digital process automation and has been set up to link customer-facing systems with backend process automation. Also features a robust RPA component.
  • Odoo: A platform leveraged to streamline a variety of functions and business domains, including BI and reporting, asset management, marketing, and more.
  • Bonita: A valuable tool to achieve workflow automation across different corporate departments, featuring AI-powered analytics and forecasting.
  • Case.one: An ecosystem of products focused on BPA and case management, capable of streamlining process automation via chatbots, advanced reporting, automated notifications, and so on.

What’s the potential business impact?

As RPA primarily focuses on automating and enhancing specific processes with highly scalable and quick-to-deploy software robots, its related technologies can be a "tactical" choice when aiming for fast returns, while greater results can be expected in the long term.

In this regard, the benefits of RPA are numerous and include improvements in productivity, accuracy, regulatory compliance, customer satisfaction, and more. Increased productivity, in particular, scores first among the major benefits of RPA implementation based on Protiviti's 2019 Global RPA Survey, with a percentage of respondents declaring improvements ranging from 50% in the tech-media-telecommunications industries to 23% in the energy sector.

Shifting to BPA on the whole, the scope becomes way broader, and the potential benefits, as you may expect, grow as well. However, holistic business process review, optimization, and automation deliver results that can be perceived and quantified mainly in the long run, as this involves a far-reaching transformation and streamlining of the entire corporate workflow made up of a myriad of different processes. Hence, we might see it as a more long-term and strategy-oriented approach.

The types of benefits delivered are similar to those ensured by RPA alone, but on a larger scale. These include significant improvements in workforce productivity, greater accuracy, cost savings, and better communication and coordination between different business areas. Not to mention an overall acceleration of business cycles and a huge improvement in the company's agility, flexibility, and decision-making capabilities, as any problem can be addressed more quickly and efficiently.

What about implementation efforts?

The different scope and potential impact of RPA and BPA technologies also imply different adoption efforts. RPA tools can be integrated into legacy platforms with relatively small investments, as bots interface with legacy systems via the frontend.

RPA's low-effort, non-disruptive implementation, along with its well-known ease of use even for non-technical employees, make investing in RPA consulting and adoption an ideal choice to pave the way towards digital transformation. Indeed, according to Pega's 2019 RPA and Digital Transformation report, 63% of the 500 managers surveyed considered RPA as a top component of their company's digitalization.

RPA’s role in digital transformation

That’s not the case with holistic business process automation — a time-consuming, large-scale approach that typically involves an end-to-end overhaul and coordinated reshaping of numerous business processes, as well as the eventual replacement of legacy systems.

However, this transformation is not just a matter of technologies but also of human factors, as it requires a radical rethinking of the corporate culture as well as proper staff training and reskilling. These two points will be essential to leverage the full potential of any BPA solution, but also to secure the consensus of stakeholders.

What to go for?

Assuming that business process automation is becoming crucial to compete in the global market, it is worth knowing which solution is best to invest in depending on the ambitions and goals of each organization.

RPA tools proved to be precious allies for any company still relying on legacy systems and willing to achieve a short-term return. Furthermore, this task-focused approach may represent the primary choice for automating "standalone" processes that don’t require to be interconnected with other corporate functions.

However, this approach is unlikely to solve large-scale process inefficiencies, if that’s your case. After all, automating a fragmented and cumbersome process can make it faster, but doesn't necessarily turn it into an efficient one, especially when this process is just one component of a larger business scenario.

Rather, the automation of a single task might just end up creating new bottlenecks if you leave other sections of the corporate workflow behind. For example, this may happen if you automate and therefore speed up some specific marketing procedures without the delivery and replenishment processes keeping up with the flow of new customers. That’s why, when dealing with wider business contexts, it's worth looking at them from the BPM perspective to harmonize such processes as a whole.

If your business does need a comprehensive reforging of numerous processes from scratch to address relevant and widespread inefficiencies, investing in BPM consulting and the subsequent holistic BPA implementation may be a better bet. This option is also the best choice when it comes to streamlining processes requiring constant human supervision, or to achieving higher coordination and integration with additional automated workflows.