How do Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Business Process Management (BPM) fit together?

Business Process Management is the veteran; Robotic Process Automation is the new darling. Put BPM and RPA together in your automation strategy, and you can solve multiple problems
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The obvious clue that BPM and RPA have something in common: The letter “P” stands for “process” in both acronyms. Business process management (BPM) has been around longer than Robotic Process Automation (RPA). But at their core, they both exist for the same reason - to improve how businesses operate, though in somewhat different ways.

[ For a deeper dive on both terms, check out How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English and How to explain Business Process Management (BPM) in plain English. ]

And they increasingly work together. From a technology standpoint, some tools even integrate BPM software and RPA software. This can lead to some confusion among colleagues about how these two technologies can and can’t work together.

BPM vs. RPA: What's the difference?

BPM is something you do - like DevOps - rather than any particular tool or application.

Let’s draw a distinction between the two terms and what they represent: Most BPM practitioners would typically agree that BPM is something you do, rather than any particular tool or application. (Think of DevOps: It’s a way of working, not a tool. ) BPM is a continuous effort to document, analyze, measure, and improve processes in the larger context of your organization’s operations. BPM software tools are a product of that people-focused practice, not vice versa.

RPA, on the other hand, is literally software. “Robotic” should not conjure up Isaac Asimov or other science fiction writers. Rather, RPA refers to software bots that automate certain computer-based tasks, such as data extraction or data transfer. (For example, think of a bot that automatically copies data from preset fields in incoming invoices and pastes that data into another system, such as an accounts payable application.) People need to create and manage those bots for RPA to achieve its intended goals, but RPA is ultimately just software.

Businesses of all kinds have long been concerned with improving processes; these days, they’re very much concerned with automating processes as well. As a result, BPM and RPA have a blossoming relationship.

“We see RPA and BPM as symbiotic technologies broadly speaking, and especially across several key use cases such as HR onboarding, insurance claims handling, order processing, [and others],” says Rizwan Husain, senior director of product management at Automation Anywhere.

How RPA can enhance BPM

That’s a theme: RPA is a tool that can extend and enhance BPM’s essential purpose.

“While RPA and BPM are distinct terms, they are complementary to each other and can contribute to digital transformation when deployed together,” says Karl Chan, president at Laserfiche.

BPM is ultimately about improving processes, but on its own doesn't automate those processes.

Here’s a fundamental way to think about that complementary relationship: BPM is ultimately about improving processes, but on its own doesn’t automate those processes (even if that’s the optimal outcome.) RPA, on the other hand, exists to automate certain kinds of processes – but on its own won’t improve or optimize those processes. (Automating an inefficient or broken process doesn’t fix it; it just enables it to run faster and more frequently.)

“Organizations use BPM to create dependable workflows digitally connecting siloed systems, data, and people,” says Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax. “RPA works within these workflows to execute specific rules-based automation tasks.”

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

4 ways BPM and RPA make sense together

Here are some more ways to think about the relationship between BPM and RPA:

1. BPM can help identify strong candidates for optimization

The foundation of BPM is to better understand and document the wide-ranging processes that comprise an organization’s day-to-day operations. As Jim Tyrrell, senior principal solutions architect on Red Hat’s public sector team, shared with us recently: “BPM is the management of business processes that are typically buried in people’s heads, [as well as in] manuals, rules, laws, and worksheets. [These] inevitably get created and exist in any business, generally without enough governance around their long-term maintenance.”

"Trying to automate processes you don’t understand is a path to failure."

That makes BPM a great basis for an RPA program, because success requires well-understood, clearly documented processes and the same mindset of continuous improvement. As Antony Edwards, COO at Eggplanttold us: “Trying to automate processes you don’t understand is a path to failure.”

[ Related read: How to identify Robotic Process Automation (RPA) opportunities ]

BPM can also help suss out areas in an organization’s workflows and processes where automation would be beneficial and/or optimal, but where there’s not another solution already within reach.

“RPA is a user-friendly and cost-effective way to fill automation gaps when organizations have legacy platforms, web applications, or in-house systems that lack enterprise integration functionality,” Chan says.

2. BPM and RPA can help connect legacy and modern systems

Take a step back and think about why BPM exists and how companies use it.

“Business Process Management has long been used by organizations to transform end-to-end business processes, and to connect these business processes to people in an organization and the underlying systems to deliver optimized and efficient operations,” Husain says.

One example: Banks have deployed robust mobile apps that must connect to core legacy systems.

That all sounds good, right? In fact, it sounds similar to how business and IT leaders discuss digital transformation. (We noted recently that digital transformation can be thought of as a descendant of BPM.) But this doesn’t mean you suddenly dump those legacy systems overnight, or enter some collaborative paradise where people and teams always work seamlessly together or where integration and automation happen with the wave of a magic wand. Dare to dream, but that’s not the reality in most organizations.

“BPM still relies on complex and often legacy-burdened underlying systems that carry out critical business functions, and these functions often require human intervention and operation,” Husain says. “RPA plays a pivotal role by seamlessly integrating with these complex systems and automating repetitive and manual tasks – particularly around data extraction, transfer, and processing.”

This can save significant time and effort, according to Husain, while reducing errors and improving data quality.

“BPM and RPA have been used together to rapidly modernize legacy IT and business operations across many industries,” Huff says.

He points to the banking and financial services sector and in particular, how these companies have deployed robust mobile apps to give customers the ability to do things like make mobile deposits, transfer funds, or apply for a mortgage from their smartphone.

“To make this happen, those companies needed to find a way to connect core legacy systems with modern mobile applications,” Huff says. “BPM is used to create the digital connections between modern mobile applications and legacy IT systems, while triggering RPA, based on a rule-set, to execute specific data movement actions such as taking data out of one system and inputting it into another.”

Let’s look at two more ways BPM and RPA make sense together:

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.