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Business process automation: what businesses need to know

Automation means many different things, in the context of business it usually involves streamlining processes in order to reduce costs. Applied across the whole organisation it means restructuring resources and integrating the applications used across the enterprise to save time and money.

Business process automation (BPA) automation is aimed at those tasks that involve a series of processes which follow a predictable pattern with a series of repeated operations. As research specialist Gartner puts it, “It focuses on ‘run the business’ as opposed to ‘count the business’ types of automation efforts and often deals with event-driven, mission-critical, core processes. BPA usually supports an enterprise’s knowledge workers in satisfying the needs of its many constituencies.”

Buisness process automation is normally done in one of three ways. By extension of existing IT systems, by the purchase of a specialist BPA tool, or by implementing a business process management system that includes BPA.

BPA pros and cons

Most IT systems are, by their very nature, about automation in some form, whether it’s making records easier to find or performing complex calculations. Extending these existing systems by creating linkages between them is often seen as being the first step in a move towards BPA. However, if systems weren’t designed to work together in the first place this can prove to be a difficult task, requiring costly technical skills.

It’s often seen as a better approach to switch to tools that are purpose-designed to enable the introduction of BPA. There is therefore an overlap with things like enterprise resource planning systems which are also aimed at streamlining and integrating operations across the organisation.

An understanding of what distinguishes BPA from business process management (BPM) and business process engineering (BPE) is important too. The latter two start from the viewpoint that any process can be automated provided that it’s been analysed and defined, and if necessary re-engineered to fit with the automation system. BPA comes at things from the opposite direction, seeking to automate processes and gain value from doing so before fully defining them. Indeed some BPA advocates argue that the rapid pace of modern business cycles is such that carrying out detailed analysis first will lose you competitive advantage.

What can be automated?

With industrial processes like manufacturing, it’s easy to see automation in action as it involves things like robot assembly. With business processes it’s a bit less obvious, so what kinds of areas can benefit from business process automation?

One of the things that’s most often automated is the processing of accounts payable. The traditional way of handling invoices – dealing with paper copies and getting them signed off by managers for payment – is labour intensive and can lead to delays for suppliers receiving payment. By automating the process invoices in an approved format can be emailed directly to the accounts system and notifications sent automatically to the people who need to approve them. This streamlines the whole process and ensures that there’s less opportunity for invoices to get lost or delayed.

Staff management can benefit from BPA too. The HR department in the past has always involved paper trails of application forms, CVs and letters making tracking applications a daunting task. Automation can enable accurate tracking, with recruiters notified automatically as applications come in. Whilst paper applications still need to be dealt with these can simply be scanned into a document management system on arrival. Once the information is in the HR system it can form the basis of an employee record when someone is recruited. Applying BPA to recruitment also ensures that sensitive data isn’t held longer than needed and can be automatically deleted when it’s no longer required.

Contracts are another area of business that have, historically, been paper intensive. Applying BPA here means that they can be dealt with entirely electronically. This means that they can be routed to the right people with no need for admin staff time to be expended in copying and tracking.

There are many other areas like billing, supplier management and order processing that can benefit from automation, so BPA isn’t something that’s restricted to particular sectors. It has the potential to be used across all kinds of enterprise, though it works best with document-based processes and it’s therefore likely that larger organisations will stand to benefit most. 

The marketplace

The business process automation market is, as you might expect, largely dominated by the big players like HP, Xerox and IBM. IBM’s Business Process Manager for example has been around for a number of years and is well established as a scalable platform that allows business users a high degree of input into how their work is automated.

There are solutions from smaller suppliers too, often aimed at specific sectors. It’s therefore important to look at the areas of your business that would most benefit from automation, then search for appropriate solutions.

 Starting automation 

Of course not every process can, or should be, automated. There are some areas that are completely unsuitable for automation and others where specific parts of the task can’t be automated. 

When considering BPA therefore you need to look at each task and decide whether automation is possible. Consulting the people who actually do the job is key here, they will be able to tell you how much time they spend on repetitive tasks. These are the areas where automation can cut the workload and free up staff time to carry out functions where their skill and experience are put to better use.

As you begin automating a process you need to take the staff along with you. Training them to use the system effectively will ensure a smooth transition and help them understand that you’re not taking away part of their job but rather allowing them to work more effectively.

Of course there’s a cost involved in implementing BPA, so monitoring is essential too. You need to have defined goals in terms of the performance and productivity improvements you want to see, you can then measure the results of automation to make sure it’s delivering a positive return on investment.

All business evolve and their processes will change over time too. Similarly process automation doesn’t stand still, after implementation it needs to be constantly reviewed to ensure it’s still giving you the right results.

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