On the Radar: Blue Prism

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Blue Prism, founded in 2001, is arguably responsible for creating the fast-growing Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology market. It focuses very deliberately on the needs of organisations making strategic investments in robotic automation, and the features of its platform and professional services are designed accordingly.

Who?

UK-based Blue Prism (www.blueprism.com), founded in 2001, is one of the most well-known specialist Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software tools vendors. As well as its UK base, the company has offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and Miami in the USA, as well as Sydney, Australia

What does it do?

Blue Prism’s platform, like a number of other RPA offerings – is designed to automate data entry, data gathering and other repetitive, routine, rules based tasks usually carried out as part of high-volume, repetitive service fulfilment work in call centres, shared-service centres, and back-office processing environments.

As with other RPA technologies, the core technology at the heart of the Blue Prism platform is an automated software component that can be configured to drive applications and retrieve and update application data by ‘spoofing’ a human user interacting through existing application user interfaces. However unlike many other RPA offerings, the Blue Prism platform has no desktop recording capability – it’s completely focused on providing tools that automate tasks in a ‘headless’ way, completely replacing human task work rather than augmenting it or assisting it through partial automation.

Blue Prism’s software robots are instances of a single, generic .NET–based program. Each robot takes its cues from an XML-based configuration file. At design time, though, you don’t specify these configuration files by coding: you use graphical modelling tools to do this, and Blue Prism’s approach encourages a clear separation between the different aspects of these models – application models, data models and process models – to promote design clarity and reuse. At runtime, just like a human task worker in a service centre might do, each robot works as part of a team, claiming tasks from a team queue and following its configuration.

The Blue Prism platform is currently at version 5.0, and includes the following principal components:

  • Studio. This Windows-based graphical tool is where you specify the models that will drive robots’ behaviour:
    • Create reusable structural models of applications’ user interfaces, by graphically highlighting features of interest (form fields, buttons, message areas, and so on) and assigning names to them (for example ‘Customer ID’).
    • Define atomic actions on applications (such as logging in, searching for a customer record, performing a rebate calculation) as reusable logic components.
    • Define flows by dragging / dropping and linking predefined actions onto a Microsoft Visio-like canvas. You can specify that in between attempting to execute actions, a robot should wait; you don’t define a specific time period, but rather configure a ‘wait step’ to wait for one or more events to happen (such as a dialog box appearing, for example). You can define and reuse subflows, nesting flows within flows: this makes intricate tasks easier for designers and other stakeholders to understand.

Your team’s work in Studio creates XML-based configuration files that your robots use to drive their operations.

  • Release Manager. This Windows-based tool provides change management and impact analysis functionality to administrators and designers, so it’s easy to understand which components are used within which processes (and so to understand whether a change in a particular component will impact the operation of particular processes or robots).
  • Control Room. This Windows-based graphical monitoring and operational administration tool enables administrators to bring new robots online and assign them to particular processes, shut them down, and so on. Administrators can choose to run groups of robots to a ‘batch processing’ schedule, if that’s appropriate in the broader operational context. It also presents a dashboard that enables administrators to understand the health and performance of their organisation’s platform at three levels:
    • At the virtual workforce level – showing the utilisation of an overall population of robots over time.
    • At the departmental level – showing response times in relation to SLAs, exception rates, queue volumes and exception patterns.
    • At the process level – showing the performance of automated work from a business perspective (for example, the total value of invoices processed) over time. You can explore the patterns of process work in aggregate: for example, you can see ‘heat maps’ of the paths that robots take through process flows most often; and which rules fire most often.

The figure below is a screenshot of Studio, showing a simple ‘login’ process flow.

object-studio-with-data-item

The primary method that Blue Prism robots use to drive application behaviour, retrieve and update application data is to directly drive the Windows user interface layer through low-level libraries. This technique works across Windows native applications, Java applications running on Windows, web applications presented by Windows-based browsers, Windows-based terminal emulation software (for mainframe and midrange character- and block-oriented terminal systems) or Windows’ own virtual desktop infrastructure. If you need to have robots drive applications whose interfaces are streamed to a Windows client (for example Citrix-delivered applications) Blue Prism also implements a scheme it calls ‘surface integration’ – using a combination of visual character recognition and specifying the relative positioning of user interface elements.

As they execute processes, each robot generates events that are written to a shared audit log, and it’s easy to use this log to drive reporting and analysis in a third-party BI/analytics tool. Robots can also be configured to send alerts to common systems management tools (using the standard SNMP protocol, for example) when they encounter problems.

As well as the Blue Prism platform, the company offers a range of advisory and consulting services that help clients create centres of excellence, and implement architecture and governance best practices; as well as support and training services.

Who is it for?

Blue Prism positions its technology as providing a ‘true enterprise platform’ that’s particularly suitable for large organisations looking to deploy RPA technology at scale, across multiple automation scenarios – and as a corollary to that, not particularly suitable for organisations looking to make relatively constrained changes to operations on a relatively small scale.

So far it’s made particularly strong inroads into the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector and the financial services industry, but it’s now seeing demand radiate to encompass other sectors with captive back-office service operations (such as telecoms, energy / utilities, insurance, logistics, healthcare, and so on). In their FY2016 Blue Prism added 96 new enterprise accounts, 30 of which were banks, 20 insurers and healthcare, and the rest across a wide range of industries from brewers to construction companies.

Blue Prism’s licensing model is designed to align with its Virtual Workforce marketing concept and help make business cases straightforward, while aligning client spend with returns received. It prices its platform on a per robot runtime, per year basis. The current list price is £8,000 per robot runtime instance per year for a minimum 3 year term, but Blue Prism also provides evaluation licenses for those wishing to pilot the technology.

Interest in the Blue Prism platform is primarily driven by operational teams and leaders, rather than IT departments – very often instigated through conversations with Blue Prism’s strategic partners.

Why is it interesting?

Blue Prism, and its platform, are interesting for three main reasons.

Firstly, the company has been the chief force behind developing and promoting Robotic Process Automation, as a technology category and as a concept. It works hard to evangelise the value of a ‘virtualised workforce’ and very carefully crafts its propositions and communications so that non-technical audiences can make informed decisions about investing in the technology. Just one example: it doesn’t talk about business analysts ‘configuring’ its software or ‘designing workflows’; it talks about ‘training robots’. It also prices its technology so it’s easy to compare the cost and productivity of a ‘virtualised workforce’ to the cost and productivity of a human workforce.

Secondly, the Blue Prism platform is designed and built to specifically address the requirements associated with strategic investments in RPA – that is, investments that support many distinct business processes through multiple implementation projects, and which may employ hundreds of independently-working software robot instances. These requirements are not just about the operational reliability, scalability and stability of the platform so it can manage hundreds of robots; but also they are about supporting the scalability of design work – through features to support design reuse and localisation (so robots can successfully be deployed across multi-locale environments), for example.

Thirdly, Blue Prism embraces the needs of strategic investments not only in the features it builds into its platform; but it also delivers a very well thought-out set of best-practice knowledge through a clear implementation methodology and a set of prescriptive professional services.

How established is it?

Blue Prism was founded in 2001 by executives from Lynx Financial Systems, a UK-based financial services focused software development company. The Blue Prism technology was born from a project that the founders were working on at Barclays Bank; it started to be further developed and packaged as an independent software product offering in 2008.

Blue Prism debuted on the UK’s AIM stock market in 2016, and currently has more than 150 enterprise clients and 86 employees. In the first half of its 2016 financial year – the first trading period since listing its stock publicly – contracted revenue rose 124% year-on-year to £14.8m. The board expects to report trading for the year end 31 October 2016 comfortably ahead of expectations, resulting from strong new business wins and upsells in Q4 2016. Blue Prism runs a customer community called the Operational Agility Forum (see www.operationalagility.com).

How open is it?

Blue Prism’s platform is based on .NET and requires Microsoft’s SQL Server. However (as you would expect, given its nature as an integration and automation platform) Blue Prism is very open in terms of the technologies it can use to drive behaviour in, and gather data from, external applications.

The Blue Prism platform works by intercepting and creating events generated within the Windows operating system user interface layer. Application client portions can be native to Windows, or use the Java runtime (JRE) on Windows; applications can be web-based and delivered through a web browser on Windows; or they can be mainframe-based (accessed via a Windows-based terminal emulation package) or delivered through remote / virtual desktop infrastructure.

From a reporting and dashboarding perspective, there’s also some openness. Blue Prism provides a predefined set of dashboards and tiles, but customers can create their own tiles that reference external data sources. There’s also the option of using third-party BI tools against Blue Prism’s reporting database, via the use of technologies like SQL Server Always On Availability Groups (AAG) .

Who does it partner with?

Partners are highly important to Blue Prism, and becoming more so – from both sales and implementation perspectives. Currently, around 90% of new Blue Prism sales are now at least partially attributable to partners.

Blue Prism’s global strategic sales and implementation partner is Accenture; in addition, it has a number of select regional partners – including Accenture, Alsbridge, Burnie Group, Cognizant, Deloitte, Digital Workforce Nordea, GENFOUR, HCL, HPE, Hexaware, IBM, ID Mgmt, IEG4, Martin Jenkins, NEOOPS, Numero, REVEAL Group, RPAi, Solai and Cameron Technologies, Sopra Steria, Symphony Ventures, Thoughononmy, VANAD Enovation and Virtual Operations.

Are there areas for improvement?

Blue Prism is arguably largely responsible for the creation of the RPA market as it exists today. As the RPA market matures, as a wider variety of organisations become interested in the potential of RPA and as more vendors enter this space to compete with Blue Prism, though, we expect that the company will need to do more to reach ‘down-market’, packaging one or more versions of its technology to suit more modest needs (that may grow over time).

From a business perspective, as is the case with other RPA vendors too, we’d expect Blue Prism to look at building partnerships with vendors of complementary technologies – particularly BPM technology platform providers, text analytics and mining vendors, and customer communication platform vendors – to enable it to tell a broader process automation story.

What’s next?

Blue Prism has a number of enhancements planned, many of which are driven by the experiences of its partner community. It plans to continue focusing on the core platform, broadening the range of technologies and applications it can work with out of the box; and it’s also working to develop a range of solutions atop the platform. One key area of continuing focus is the strengthening of change management and governance features, to make it easier for businesses to manage the risks that can arise with large-scale robotic deployments; another is on introducing what Blue Prism calls ‘direct access technologies’ that enable its clients’ customers to self-serve and complete complex transactions themselves.

Should I consider it?

If you are looking at the potential returns from automating aspects of your organisation’s routine administrative service work, and particularly if you feel that there’s a case to be made for an automation strategy that spans multiple business processes and operating contexts, Blue Prism’s capabilities are likely to be a strong fit.

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