One of the benefits of speaking at conferences is having the chance to attend other people’s sessions. A recent session at the Shared Services and Outsourcing Network’s SSO Week that we found particularly interesting focused on the terminology used to describe robotics.

Those of us who have been around technology for several years have come to understand that there’s often a gap between what service providers are marketing and what they can deliver. This is usually the result of trying to define a market rather than an intention to deceive the customer. Still, purchasers of technology should be aware that the products they are buying may not always live up to the terminology used to market such products.

An example of this dynamic, in the case of robotics, is the use the abbreviation RPA (robotics process automation) to refer to all things robot. Even conferences dedicated to robotics in business use the abbreviation RPA. Yet, the abbreviation ignores the difference between cognitive (or learning) robots and robots that are essentially scripted. And even in the non-cognitive, scripted robots, there is a distinction between RPA and robotics desktop automation (RDA), with the former running essentially scripted routines autonomously and the latter requiring frequent human intervention.

Fortunately, an influential group of customers and customer advocates is working with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to develop a set of descriptive standards for robotics. After seeing a sample of the work being done and listening to a description of the rationale behind it, we are looking forward to the finished product. Bringing order to a technology that can be somewhat scattershot with marketing-driven terms and uneven capability will be a useful facilitator for comparison when buying such technology. From both an operational and contracting point of view, a standard set of definitions should bring similar benefits to robotics that the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) brought to service delivery.

Until these standards are in place, the best advice we can give on robotics is to be sure to get full product demonstrations and to get relevant stakeholders involved—including IT to evaluate any systems issues and business users to ensure adaption to the business needs.

Other robotics issues were discussed at the conference beyond the scope of this post, but many had the same moral: Know what you are buying and don’t automatically believe the marketing hype.