RPA vs API – rivals or best buddies?

September 17, 2021

Global Mediator’s view on choosing automation technologies for business processes

Automation of business processes picked up the pace quite a long time ago. The pandemic mainstreamed this dynamic. No wonder every aspect of digital transformation is now aimed at freeing humans from mind-numbing processes to concentrate on more value-adding tasks, maximising productivity, cutting costs, and eventually, boosting business efficiency. That is when the API and RPA, the most common automation technologies, come into play. At Global Mediator, we manage both – traditional, time-proven API development and integration (.NET and Python), as well as transformational and promising RPA solutions (UI-based) – to deliver cost optimisation and improve business efficiency.

Before embarking on the automation journey

Though sharing a common purpose – reducing or eliminating human intervention from exchanging information in the business processes – the technologies achieve their goal differently. And each of them has both supporters and enemies. Since the RPA had come into the spotlight about two decades ago, it has been treated as a rival to the API or even its terminator. But is that so? Are they indeed competitive approaches and enemies, or are they simply stereotyped? Let us weigh both technologies with an open mind to set the record straight.

The shared objective makes the approaches look like non-identical twins: quite similar on the surface, but their cores are different. RPA, a non-invasive, low-code, and cost-effective technology for business process automation, emulates the sequence of operations made by humans when interacting with an application UI. Thus, the robots explicitly carry out daily repetitive tasks that require neither insight nor judgement.

Being a back-end process, API is a connecting tissue, a software intermediary between the applications, enabling their communication. While the RPA is (allegedly) a “low code to no code technology”, the implicit, back-end interaction between the application and the databases, mediated by the APIs, requires software development.

 

Organisations may benefit from using RPA and API in tandem

 

Choosing the winning strategy

In the automation-first world, the market is filled with tons of automation solutions. It is crucial to clearly define the tasks you want to automate, your business goals and potentials before selecting the automation technology. At Global Mediator, we suggest you consider the traditional scenarios when each of the technologies applies best to help you make the decision.

RPA – a platform-agnostic, cost-efficient, and less IT professional-reliant option – applies best when:

  • API is unavailable. API or source code of the application is vital for traditional IT-regulated integration. RPA, on the other hand, works faultlessly with any platforms, applications, and packaged solutions – regardless of the API availability.
  • Enterprise applications may use legacy systems that lack any integration layers, software support, and proper documentation. Developing APIs for such systems is either impossible or extremely costly and time-consuming. In such cases, RPA sidesteps any complex integrations and seamlessly interacts with legacy systems by mimicking human users’ interaction with the system’s UI.
  • A predictable, rules-based, repetitive sequence of actions requires automation for one specific process owner. These usually include step-by-step processes like calculations and queries, filling out forms, creating and updating records and reports, as well as other high-volume transactional tasks (which involve moving information between and within the applications).
  • Deadlines are critical. Compared to the time-consuming API integrations, RPA robots are developed significantly faster (a few weeks instead of months for API). Thus, your routine business processes are managed 24/7, error-free, fatigue-free, and almost in the blink of an eye. Still, consider investing some additional time in training end users: positioned as a low-code technology, RPA is still a software solution. It does not require deep technical expertise to be developed, but it takes some effort to get familiar with it.

API – although more demanding, less cost-efficient, and entirely based on the software engineering – is a viable alternative when:

  • Everything the business process needs is a medium that allows two applications to communicate and exchange the data: send the requests and get back with the necessary information.
  • A long-term solution is preferred. RPA is often treated as a quick fix while API integrations are seen as structured and long-term solutions.
  • A flexible solution is necessary. Organisations may easily fine-tune the API solutions as the processes evolve and change, keeping the product operation and experience consistent. RPA is more challenging to maintain if applied to the systems prone to frequent logic changes.
  • A reusable solution is what your organisation needs. A professionally designed and developed API can become a multi-functional product that many departments and organisational units can reuse for different purposes.

Is there a silver bullet?

Can it be as simple as that? It looks pretty straightforward – the areas of the technologies’ application are easily categorised and labelled. In fact, when it comes to selecting the approach to invest in, the choice between the API and RPA becomes quite confusing. Fortunately, knowing your primary goals is half the battle. Drawing a parallel between the purpose of your process automation and something very familiar helps – transport, for instance. Imagine a jet aircraft – it reaches the destination in an instant, but it does not give much of a chance for intermediate landings along the way. That is the peculiarity of APIs – connecting the two dots on the map. RPA, on the other hand, might be compared to a highway network – less speedy, but so many possibilities for sightseeing during the trip – like making the necessary number of mouse clicks to complete the journey.

 

“One of Global Mediator’s best practices is talking to the customers directly. That’s what we do while helping our customers find a worthwhile process automation strategy – we delve into their processes to specify their needs, learn their preferences to suggest the best possible scenarios.”
Nicolai Krarup, COO at Global Mediator

That is how the automation-first mindset works – using API if the aim is the direct connection between two applications. However, it does not have to be that strict – rather than hesitating which technology is better, organisations may benefit from using them in tandem.

Friends, not foes?

Although each of them works fine on its own (when properly chosen), API and RPA are in fact complementary technologies. Working as a team, they bring even more sustainable results. Global Mediator has long ago discarded a single-minded vision of the technologies being rivals – the APIs and RPA might and should be used together, especially if an API is already available. A higher degree of end-to-end automation is achievable if both technologies are used for integration: RPA automates a series of mundane, repetitive flows, filling various gaps, while the API is responsible for accessing data, either from on-premises or web-based applications. Maybe it’s about time we end the war between the technologies and see RPA AND API, instead of the RPA VS API? Why limit the solution to one option if several are available – when one complements the other?

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