Many modern companies develop applications to manage and streamline their business processes. These applications need to communicate with existing line of business systems in order to access the data and functionality required to execute each process step.
The conventional approach to facilitating connectivity between process applications and backend systems is to implement application programming interface (API) integrations. APIs allow applications to access the features and data of enterprise systems such as SAP, Salesforce, SharePoint Online, Kronos, Workday and more.
API-integration allows for the integration of many different IT assets, to break through data silos, enhance the flow of information through the enterprise and increase operational efficiency. This approach also enables the automation of manually driven tasks that involve line of business data.
Nevertheless, setting up API integrations can be time-consuming and costly, especially when you consider the number of systems that are typically involved in common business workflows such as processing accounts payable or on-boarding new employees. The time and cost challenges are due to the fact that API integrations involve coding; and therefore rely heavily on specialist IT skills for implementation and maintenance.
One way to reduce the cost and complexity of integration efforts is to take an alternative approach – and use robotic process automation (RPA) to automate tasks and processes across multiple systems.
RPA bots are automating business processes globally; and the market for robotic process automation continues to grow at speed – forecast to reach $2.4 billion by 2024. This approach to automation has entered the mainstream because it gives companies the tools to swiftly transform routine, easily repeatable manual processes into efficient, automated workloads.
Where RPA really comes into its own, however, is within enterprises that rely on various disconnected legacy systems to manage their mission-critical processes. Due to the way that RPA interacts with existing software, companies can use it to introduce a level of automation without having to make changes to these underlying systems.
RPA software robots communicate with applications and systems in the same way that humans would – interacting with data and software features at the presentation layer. This means that RPA can connect multiple systems to run a seamless process without the need for costly and time-consuming API integration.
RPA: a faster, easier alternative to API integration
Let’s look at the benefits of using RPA in more detail.
Organisations can use RPA software robots to:
Integrate legacy systems:
In some industries, such as banking, insurance and telecommunications, enterprises rely on a wide range of older, well-established legacy systems that simply do not offer API integration layers. Here, RPA software robots can act as the brokers between these systems, circumnavigating the need for costly, complex and disruptive integration projects.
Lighten the load on IT teams:
A company that grows via mergers and acquisitions, for example, will potentially have thousands of legacy IT assets that need to be synchronised to ensure process efficiency. Relying on IT to set up API integrations for all these systems, which involves testing and maintaining the integration code, would represent a significant cost to the company – not to mention a substantial burden on the IT department due to the need for ongoing maintenance. In this type of situation, it often makes more sense to connect these systems using RPA, as there is no need to write code. Using RPA as opposed to API integration can therefore free the IT team to focus on other projects, which helps to alleviate IT backlogs across the enterprise.
Shorter implementation times:
In business, flexibility is often critical. Because RPA doesn’t rely on time-consuming API integrations to connect systems, it can be configured to automate a process quickly, providing teams with the solutions they need to respond to new opportunities or challenges. This accelerated time to market is a major benefit for organisations in fast-moving industries, where constantly evolving customer or market demands require process agility.
API integration vs. RPA: some examples
When choosing between API integration and RPA, it’s important to make sure that you understand the types of tasks and processes that are best suited to robotic process automation.
RPA is ideally suited to processes that are:
One example is the set of processes involved in a typical quote-to-cash workflow. In this case, RPA bots can be leveraged to connect legacy systems and automate tasks such as the configuration of purchase orders and the creation of quotes.
Here’s how it would work without RPA:
A company could develop a standard digital process application to manage the purchase order or quote creation process. The IT team would need to develop API integration points that allow the application to process data in and out of systems such as SAP, Salesforce, Kronos and Workday – to populate the quote with financial planning and general ledger data as well as information on skill sets and rates. This involves a hefty amount of IT time and effort.
Here’s how it would work with RPA:
On the other hand, if the organisation used an RPA software robot to automate the purchase order or quote creation process, these systems could be rapidly connected without the need for multiple API integrations. In this case, the user would engage SAP; and SAP would call a robot to engage all the relevant systems at the presentation layer to access the required data, in the same way that a human employee would. This approach is much faster, simpler and less reliant on IT involvement.
Of course, RPA is not always a holistic process management solution and companies will often use this technology in tandem with other approaches, such as low-code digital process automation. Because RPA works seamlessly with any system, you can easily combine the API-free integration capabilities of RPA with the functionality of other platforms.