RPA vs. DPA: The Differences and Similarities Between Digital and Robotic Process Automation

Michael Rahm, Director, Product Marketing
October 11, 2021

Software-based automation is a relatively young concept that’s rapidly gaining popularity—as reflected by the veritable explosion of software as a service (SaaS) offerings in the last decade. Gartner® estimates, “software as a service (SaaS) remains the largest market segment and is forecast to grow to $117.7 billion in 2021, [and] application infrastructure services (PaaS) is anticipated to grow by a higher margin at 26.6%”. Despite the deluge of process automation services out there, it’s not always clear how automation tools work, the differences between tools, and how they can optimize business processes.

Two of the most popular categories of automation are digital process automation (DPA) and robotic process automation (RPA). Discover the key characteristics of RPA vs. DPA, their main differences, and where they are best deployed.

What is DPA/digital process automation?

Digital process automation (DPA) refers to the orchestration of people, bots, data, and systems to automate manual tasks in a workflow. The goal is to automate certain actions as part of a larger process that still requires a human to make higher level cognitive decisions.  

By implementing DPA solutions that utilize both bots and AI, organizations realize tremendous cost and time savings. The most powerful offerings feature a single platform with visual tools that allow employees to essentially sketch out their complex processes.

For example, say a new employee needs to be onboarded. Without DPA, this is a manual, hectic, and disorganized process, especially in an increasingly remote world. Consider this scenario: The new employee arrives at the office—or logs on in a remote setting—without higher-ups being notified. This sparks an onslaught of emails asking questions, requesting forms, and seeking training videos or similar assets, all culminating in a slow, ineffective process. Not an ideal first day.

However, if the onboarding process were automated, the employee’s first login would trigger a message to the team member coordinating training. This person would then greet and welcome the employee—no manual communication necessary. The process could be designed to automatically share training videos and intelligently process the new hire’s paperwork, eliminating the need for a human to process forms manually. Automated business processes like this one save a considerable amount of time and result in smoother processes.

The best hyperautomation tools have easy-to-use interfaces and offer low-code elements, like pre-configured components representing functions that can be simply dragged and dropped into a workflow. These components might include AI-driven intelligent document processing for invoices or purchase orders and notification systems for reaching the right people for approvals. Reusability also plays a large role: DPA with low-code enables IT teams to to easily build new workflows without starting from scratch by porting over previously used components. 

This ability to build, reuse, and tweak workflows based on factors like market changes or new internal processes grants organizations an unparalleled level of agility. A single, streamlined low-code platform lets different departments collaborate on workflow builds. The pre-built components enabled by low-code eliminate the need to start from scratch each time a change or update to a workflow is requested. This approach makes it far easier to quickly automate new workflows and rapidly react to market changes, all without the time constraints of manual business process coding.

What is RPA/robotic process automation?

Robotic process automation (RPA) uses bots to automate simple tasks. It is usually most effective as a component of a larger DPA effort. One study on automation’s transformative impact across a number of fields found that 60% of all occupations consist of at least 30% automatable activities—things like data entry, repetitive emails, or similar day-to-day tasks. Though important, these tasks don’t inherently require human judgement—employing bots to handle them frees up employees to focus on higher level cognitive tasks.

The distinction between DPA and RPA is often where would-be automators get a bit confused. Many people still equate all automation with RPA, assuming that automation simply means running a script, a bot, or a piece of software to take over a task. But once a process or task begins to require more advanced capabilities, such as cognitive decision making, RPA is no longer suitable on its own. Ultimately, RPA is just one component of many in a workflow. Its full potential is best realized when used in concert with other capabilities, such as business process management, intelligent document processing, and AI—all things that work together to make up DPA.

Why use DPA and RPA?

Simply put, automating complex business processes saves time and money and reduces costly errors. With menial tasks handled by RPA and larger business processes automated with DPA, businesses will supercharge their employees’ productivity.

Automation also increases agility, which is vital in the crowded, competitive software market. Intelligent automation makes every stage of a business process more agile, from building an app to monitoring and maintaining it. It also keeps business processes streamlined and running as efficiently as possible—with minimal time and resource waste. This level of agility can only be achieved with intelligent automation.

Deciding between RPA vs. DPA: Which is best for you?

The first step in determining your DPA and RPA needs is ensuring you understand the difference between RPA and DPA.

Digital process automation (DPA): Using technology to automate complex business processes from end to end, involving multiple departments, people, job functions  across the entire organization.  

Robotic process automation (RPA): Using bots to automate simple, repetitive tasks. 

But how do you determine which is best for your organization, or if you need both RPA and DPA? If you are only automating a few small, menial tasks, an RPA solution may be the right choice. If you are looking to transform and streamline more complex processes across the entire business, then a more powerful DPA solution, with RPA capabilities, is a better option. 

However, not all DPA solutions are created equal, and there are a few key considerations for selecting the right one:

  • RPA integration: Many DPA products support integrating RPA tools—but this often requires manual coding and can quickly become clunky. Industry-leading DPA tools have native RPA capabilities, no coding necessary. 
  • Accessibility: Having all functions available in a central platform is critical. Optimization efforts fall flat if they require balancing multiple platforms, and there’s no sense in investing in a solution that simply presents new challenges to replace (or pile onto) the old ones.
  • Ease of use and reusability: The best automation offerings have polished interfaces and visual design tools that any team member will understand. These offerings also have both reusable, low-code components and the option to customize, if needed. Easily adjustable workflows built with low-code allow processes to easily scale or adjust to meet any need, from customer demands to new government regulations.
  • Backwards compatibility: When a DPA platform updates to a new version, the vendor should take the lead in ensuring that applications or automated processes continue to work flawlessly. DPA platforms with low-code segments should be automatically compliant with new regulations and security standards.

The marketplace of DPA-enabled tools is vast, but these key considerations will guide you in the selection process. Given the amount of work at stake and the potential for significant ROI, ensuring that the selected provider offers a powerful DPA solution with RPA capabilities in a single, easy-to-use platform is paramount. With intelligent automation, your workforce will be on its way to new levels of productivity and innovation. 

The Appian low-code platform helps leading organizations orchestrate their automation efforts. Learn more at appian.com/platform.