Service Automation and Robotic Process Automation

Understanding the differences and similarities between Service Automation (SAF) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA)


The interest in automation keeps growing and growing. A recent report from Forrester shows that recent global developments are increasing the pace with which automation is adopted. According to the Forrester Research report, “As we emerge from the crisis, firms will look to automation as a way to mitigate the risks that future crises pose to the supply and productivity of human workers.”[1] But since automation is such a broad concept, what should be the focus of these firms? In this article, we will explore the differences and similarities between service automation and robotic process automation, two of the most popular approaches that enterprises take.

What is Service Automation?

Service Automation focuses on the end-to-end delivery of services towards end users. With an automated service delivery model, customers interact with a service provider through self-service interfaces, frequently in the form of a portal or app. The basic concept is depicted in figure 1:

Objective of Service Automation | Service Automation and RPA

Figure 1: Objectives of Service Automation

Although the design and development sounds easy (and from a technology point of view it is), there are many challenges in practice. Organizations need to become extremely ‘user-focused,’ and design processes to keep interacting with their users. Because automated services bring one inherent risk: if the customer does not appreciate the (digital) service, they will quickly stop using it. Changing this way of thinking is – for most organizations – frequently the most important obstacle.

In order to overcome these obstacles, most organizations gradually move towards automated service delivery. They start with a single process (for example a booking process), and slowly automate the other aspects of the service experience. In a previous article, we explained how the Service Automation Framework can assist in this journey.

What is Robotic Process Automation?

Robotic Process Automation, commonly abbreviated as RPA, is a form of Business Process Automation that uses metaphorical bots (called robots) to automate tasks. RPA is mostly based on screen-capturing technology, smart workflow design and orchestration. It has quickly gained popularity in the automation of back-office processes. The core capabilities of RPA technologies are depicted in figure 2.

Critical Capabilities of RPA | Service Automation and RPA

Figure 2: Critical Capabilities of RPA

RPA creates operational efficiencies and significantly reduces errors that are frequently made in manual, repetitive work. A study by the McKinsey Research Institute found a reduction of 50-70% of tasks with the help of RPA resulted in an efficiency gain of 20-35%.[1] These results are the dream of any shared service center, no matter whether they are providing IT, HR or financial services.

Service Automation and RPA – The Differences

Whereas both Service Automation and RPA are successful approaches in their own right, we frequently notice different technology vendors for each of the domains. Whereas Service Automation vendors (think ServiceNow, SummitAI, Cherwell) who provide self-service solutions, frequently originate from the IT services or facilities domain, RPA vendors (think Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere, UiPath), typically have a background in screen-capturing and orchestration technologies.

A second key difference lies into the scope of the domains. We noted that Service Automation is heavily focused on the end User of services. As a result, we see that service automation is frequently aimed at customer-facing or external services. In other words, the service providers that provide direct services to their clients. Think about organizations like, Geico or Spotify.

RPA, on the other hand, tends to scope towards Backoffice functions or internal customers. RPA is most prevalent in organizations who aim to optimize their Backoffice operations. Examples includes Shared Service Centers, HR Functions or Facility Management. Because these departments process repetitive (administrative) processes, they are traditionally the main focus of RPA solutions. 

Service Automation and RPA – The Similarities

If we take a closer look at the similarities between Service Automation and RPA, we can see that the number of similarities greatly outnumbers the number of differences. The key reason is that much of the underlying technology works exactly the same:

  • Both forms of automation rely heavily on workflow technologies and the automation of scripts. Most solution providers – whether in the service automation or RPA domain – already offer drag-and-drop process design.
  • Service Orchestration and Management of process execution and workflows uses exactly the same technology.
  • Monitoring functions and metrics are the same for service automation and RPA. Both domains focus on availability, reliability and security.
  • Both forms automation focus on generating an optimal user experience of the process or service.

The list above is by no means complete, and we could continue for a while to list the technical similarities. The main point is that, besides scope, focus and marketing, service automation and RPA have more in common than apart.

Next Steps – Convergence

In this article, we have summarized the most important differences and similarities between service automation and RPA. In the last section, we saw that these technologies have more in common than apart. So, what is next? Based on similar technological backbones, we expect that the worlds of service automation and RPA will start to converge. Don’t be surprised if the next major acquisition of an RPA vendor will be a company that provides self-service portals, or vice versa.

[1] Berruti, F., Nixon, G., Taglioni, G. and Whiteman, R., 2017. Intelligent process automation: The engine at the core of the next-generation operating model. Digital McKinsey, March.

[1] Frey, C. B. (2020). Covid-19 will only increase automation anxiety. Financial Times.