RPA Is the Icing on the "Cupcake Cake"

Said differently: RPA is that which holds it all together

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Lee Coulter

what is RPA

How do you explain 'RPA'?

Recently, I was asked to talk to a fairly large management consulting company and their clients about automation, specifically RPA. The title of the session was “What is RPA?”

I tried at least 10 different approaches to answering this question, but as I looked at what I had written, all of them required at least some level of technology understanding. I thought this was going to be a lay-up; an easy answer. I spent far more time than I thought I would thinking about how to truly answer this question in a way that was accessible to anyone.

As with most disruptive technologies, people think this stuff sprang out of nowhere in the last five years, but in fact, the RPA unicorns all have a story to tell that goes much further back than most people realize; back to the early 2000s.

In all of its forms, it arose from clever people trying to solve operational business problems without the use of “heavy” IT. Heavy IT is the traditional enterprise application type of IT project that takes years to implement and costs millions. All large companies today run on hundreds of these applications.

The challenge businesses face today is how to get work done when individual work processes require accessing a dozen or more disparate systems. So much time and effort has been, and still is being, consumed doing low-value-add work due to this application complexity we now live in.

To fix this without creating enterprise application interfaces among all of these applications, creative folks started to develop a new kind of platform; one that could access and transact in all of these different systems the same way a human operator does, but doing so in a highly secure, structured and managed way.

In the past, the only connection point between all of these applications, was the human operator. What if there were a way to use technology to mimic the way that the people act as these connections?

Suddenly and unexpectedly, this new breed of technology arrives on the scene. It enables enterprise grade operation of pre-configured business logic that makes processes run automatically in a seamless fashion as they would if being operated by people.


You mean we no longer need to worry about the fact that there are dozens or hundreds of applications or website or shared drives involved that are not interfaced?

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There I sat, thinking about what possible analogy I could come up with that illustrates the way that this new technology operates and the impact it can have on operations. I couldn’t even describe the challenge let along the solution, without getting technical.

A bulb went off. I recalled something I saw at a child’s birthday party.
Enter the the "Cupcake Cake”.

If you haven’t seen this culinary wonder, you may be saying what is that?! Well, take a dozen cupcakes, put them close together, and spread icing on them as a group. When it’s done, and you look at it, it looks like a cake, but in fact it’s still really a dozen cupcakes.

To put it simply, RPA is the icing on the cupcake cake that turns a dozen cupcakes into one cake.

Each of the cupcakes is an enterprise application or legacy system of record. What we’d really all like to have is a cake that contains all of the functionality (the cupcakes) we need to get our jobs done. But to turn a dozen already existing applications (or cupcakes), into a single cake is nearly impossible.

The analogy to our technology world would be to build enterprise interfaces between each and every one the applications (cupcakes).

Can it be done? Maybe. For tens of millions of dollars and years of interface work. By the time it was done, there would be more and new cupcakes (applications) and new ways of working.

So let’s give thanks to the creative folks who saw this conundrum and said, “Wait! We can make these applications act like they are all connected!”

They created some technological icing that makes it look like your applications are connected. Just chose your cupcakes and spread the RPA icing on top.

Voila! You can have your cake and eat it too!

And that, my friends, is the answer to the question: What is RPA?

It’s the icing on the Cupcake Cake! 

[Editor's note: you can get recipes for Cupcake Cakes here, and for RPA – here!]

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