The debate over process and business automation platforms is about to heat up as enterprises look to optimize their technology spending.

This bake-off between best-of-breed process automation offerings and the "suite or platform always wins" will likely become more evident as ServiceNow and SAP both hold their big customer conferences, Knowledge and Sapphire, next week.

Here's a look at some of the recent and upcoming process automation moves:

  • UIPath is broadening its focus from robotic process automation to its business automation platform.
  • SAP launched SAP Datasphere, which collects and federates business data across SAP and non-SAP data sources.
  • SAP has partnered with UIPath to couple the UIPath automation platform with SAP's process automation efforts. SAP has also partnered with Collibra, Confluent, Databricks and DataRobot on the data layer.
  • ServiceNow's Utah release includes process mining, RPA and other new features to fuel enterprise automation efforts. "ServiceNow has AI, process mining, RPA, low-code and many other technologies built natively into a single workflow automation platform," said ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott on the company's first quarter earnings conference call.
  • Appian last week updated its platform to AI tools for process automation and launched a fixed-fee program for process mining.
  • Celonis has its Execution Management System (EMS) with its World Tour conferences coming up. Disclosure: I used to work for Celonis.
  • And Microsoft is fusing its generative AI push with its automation platform plans. "From customer experience and service to finance and supply chain, we continue to take share across all categories we serve as organizations like Asahi, C.H. Robinson, E.ON, Franklin Templeton, choose our AI-powered business applications to automate, simulate and predict every business process and function," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on the company's fiscal third quarter earnings conference call.

Simply put, you're going to hear a lot about process and business automation platforms. Toss in generative AI and it won't be hard to play a tech conference drinking game or two. You can also expect more vendors to enter the process automation mix. Is it much of a reach to see Salesforce taking Mulesoft, which already has connectors to enterprise applications, becoming an automation platform?

The big picture

Anyone who has been in the enterprise tech industry knows that all of these aforementioned vendors see themselves in the middle of the process automation ecosystem and then expanding into new industries and verticals.

Until recently, enterprises were fine with using multiple vendors and platforms for process automation. Today, companies are looking to optimize and be more efficient. Not all vendors are going to win.

As noted in Constellation Research's report on analytics and business intelligence software, there's an argument for using built-in tools for analytics from your strategic vendors. Process automation won't be much different.

What the process automation argument in the US will come down to is whether enterprises think more best of breed or go with the discounts associated with consolidating vendors.

This debate has been bubbling up for months. In January, UIPath CEO Rob Enslin said at an investor conference:

"At certain point, best-of-breed solutions become complex to manage because there's too many pieces to it. So, if you look at our UiPath platform, business platform, you could probably plug in 20, 30 different product vendors into that platform.

And if you go to many of these Global 2000 companies, they've got 10, 15, 20 vendors running on process modeling, process mining, another one for task mining, something else for testing, right, somebody else for document understanding and so on. You can go through the whole process. And then, they have logs going to Splunk to manage the thing. And it's just very complex for them to manage, and it's very complex for them to bring in a systems integrator, because they don't have somebody that has that kind of skill set. They don't have -- they don't want to bring in 10 people, it's just not cost effective."

Enslin's point is that large enterprises will take good enough process mining for the overall automation play.

The scrum ahead

The battle to be the business process automation platform of choice will likely heat up with SAP, ServiceNow and Microsoft making cases at their big conferences in the weeks ahead. Consider:

SAP systems already hold most critical data from operations. Via the acquisition of Signavio, SAP added process modeling and mining tools. Datasphere aims to go beyond SAP data stores. SAP CEO Christian Klein said SAP will outline how AI fits into the mix at its Sapphire conference May 16 and May 17.

"Our AI is built for business, with AI capabilities built in to deliver strong business outcomes for our customers' most critical business functions. And with Datasphere, we laid the strongest data foundation in business. We are in the advanced stages to apply generative AI across our portfolio, and we are working as an early release partner of OpenAI and together with other vendors. We are planning to announce new disruptive AI use cases. Stay tuned for Sapphire."

ServiceNow CEO McDermott is looking at process automation through a workflow lens. ServiceNow is betting its platform can be extended throughout business processes. He said:

"The ServiceNow Utah release was engineered to drive faster business outcomes for our customers. The release includes AI-powered process mining, with robotic process automation capabilities, additional search enhancements, expanded workforce optimization and health and safety incident management. These are all designed to help increase automation, simplify experiences and offer greater organizational agility.

It bears repeating that while customers are aware of market excitement for individual technologies like generative AI, they expect a platform strategy to integrate the various tools. ServiceNow has AI, process mining, RPA, low-code and many other technologies built natively into a single workflow automation platform. Of course, we will have much more to say about all of this at our Knowledge event in Las Vegas on May 16."

Microsoft's Build 2023, which kicks off May 23, is heavy on the generative AI and ChatGPT, but there are multiple sessions on automation. Celonis holds its first World Tour 2023 stop in Munich May 23. 

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