LEGO Kits and RPA – the Case for Standards


Imagine a bin of LEGOs of all shapes and sizes. All the pieces inside were at one time part of a kit – a pirate ship, say, or a castle or a farm. Over time, each kit has been assembled and taken apart, with all the pieces from each of the three kits ending up in one large bin.

A big bin full of LEGOs presents creative opportunities limited only by the builder’s imagination. But let’s now assume that various pieces of Duplo, Erector Set and Tinker Toy kits have all found their way into the bin. While you may have a great idea on what to create, you now have to figure out which set of pieces is best suited to yield the final product you’ve envisioned, as well as sift through all the individual pieces to find the ones you need.

The LEGO bin as metaphor was discussed at several sessions at the recent IRPA conference on automation innovation in New York City. According to Lee Coulter, CEO of Ascension Health Shared Services, the state of the RPA industry is not unlike a big bin of LEGOs – with Duplo, Erector Set and Tinker Toy pieces mixed in as well. In other words, enterprises see tantalizing potential to be creative and achieve significant results, but are limited by the complexity involved in piecing together the component parts of the final product.

In Coulter’s view, RPA applications that perform specific work functions and business processes are the potential building blocks of an automation solution. As enterprises deploy RPA initiatives, they will need to rebuild the same components tens of thousands of times. This will require a clearly defined common framework and shared nomenclature that enables complementary building blocks that neatly snap together.

Today, this common understanding is significantly lacking. What we have instead is – to use another metaphor – a Tower of Babel of solutions, with each provider, integrator and toolmaker speaking their own unique language. This problem, meanwhile, is deeply rooted in the context of legacy technology, experience and individual background and training. For example, basic terms such as “step,” “action,” “task,” “entry” and “field” might mean one thing to a coder, and quite another to a process expert. These contexts, in turn, significantly influence the characteristics of different RPA offerings.

In this environment, buyers bear the onus of parsing the nuances of how one solution views a “task” compared to another solution, and how an IT task compares to a business process task. To solve this conundrum, Coulter is working with the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society to develop a better set of Open Source standards to ease the process of assembling and integrating the discrete blocks of automation. To date, he has canvassed industry leaders for their perspective on the issue and chartered an IEEE study group. The next step is to charter a working group of industry experts to collaborate with the IEEE’s oversight body on standards. The ultimate goal is to establish a conceptual framework that is ultimately translated into clearly and consistently defined units of process automation.

It’s an ambitious and important project that would create a common understanding of the basic building blocks of RPA. Thus equipped, enterprises could start their RPA journey with a clear vision of where they are headed, rather than staring into a box of disconnected pieces.

About the author

Jeff offers more than 28 years of experience in the sourcing industry, including five years as the CIO for professional service firms and 23 years providing IT outsourcing services to global fortune 500 companies. His main ares of expertise include building and launching commercial markets and high visibility alliances for innovative products and technologies.