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What is process automation?

What’s keeping today’s business leaders up at night? For one thing, it’s the fact that competition is fiercer than ever. Another worry is the lightning speed at which customer and market demands are shifting and evolving. To compete and thrive, businesses need to seize upon every possible edge to not only become more competitive and profitable, but to increase their resilience and agility. That's where process automation comes in. 

 

Increasingly, businesses are turning to process automation as a powerful tool in their fight to drive their competitiveness and profitability. In fact, according to a recent Gartner survey of global industry leaders, 80% of respondents cited automation as one of their core business priorities and tactics for success. 

Business process automation (BPA) and digital transformation

Business Process Automation was initially a single aspect of the greater overarching area of business process management (BPM). BPA was focused on improving back-end productivity by taking over time-consuming and repetitive tasks. Today, however, BPA is no longer simply a component of BPM, it has become the driving force behind it and a central cornerstone of any digital transformation journey. Digital transformation – powered by technologies such as AI and machine learning – means that the scope and scalability of modern business process automation is almost boundless. Modern BPA solutions can now be integrated into both back-end and front-end applications, streamlining processes from supply chains to HR, finance, customer service, and beyond.  

Diagram depicting the stages of business process automation (BPA)

The stages of business process automation

Business process automation examples

Ad-hoc or one-time activities or tasks are not the ideal candidates for process automation. This technology is more suitable for repetitive tasks with formalized steps, sequences, and rules. Automation ensures the business process is done right every time – involving the right people, in the right order, considering the right information, and within a specified timeframe. A planned and modeled business process is the first step to improving efficiency by reducing redundant tasks and activities. While process automation priorities will vary from business to business, below are some areas that often benefit from process automation.  

 

  • Recruitment. Process automation tools can help streamline various recruitment activities including the ability to upload résumés and references quickly and efficiently, and to rapidly process assessments, rejections, or follow-ups so you can find and scoop up the best talent. 
  • Employee onboarding and training. From records processing to compliance and training, process automation can help simplify recruitment and onboarding tasks. This leads to quicker development of an engaged and productive employee.  
  • Payment and payroll processes. The past few years have seen a big rise in the number of gig workers and remote employees working in multiple regions. Automated processes can help businesses streamline both regular payroll activities, as well as payment of contractors and external vendors.  
  • Workforce scheduling. It is a struggle to manage employee scheduling – especially across multiple locations and departments. The ability to sync time off requests and business trips across departments means that absences get covered, and HR and payroll teams can better automate admin tasks.  
  • Simpler and more consistent invoicing. While invoice generation should ideally be the remit of accounting departments, this is not always the case. Automated invoicing processes can help to alleviate errors, accounting mix-ups, and even legal risk. 
  • Customer experience. In a competitive climate, it’s easier than ever for your customers to bounce away if they experience hassles and delays. Process automation helps to create a more personalized customer experience and move customers quickly and accurately through process flows. 
  • Compliance and regulatory tasks. It is essential that a variety of business processes adhere to compliance and regulatory requirements. Process automation solutions log files and leave a visible data trail, making it easier to monitor and review these activities in real time. For example, before maintenance crews are given access to power plant workings, managers can confirm that all potentially dangerous systems have successfully completed and logged the necessary shut-down safety protocols 

Core business process automation technologies

Robotic process automation and workflow automation solutions are at the center of any digital automation transformation. 

 

Robotic process automation (RPA)

RPA doesn’t refer to physical robots like you might see on an assembly line. Rather, RPA tools and bots are integrated into business systems for the purpose of automating and simplifying various tasks and interactions. RPA is a primary component of BPA. It describes software and bots that are programmed to emulate and copy human actions to complete repetitive business tasks. RPA software robots can navigate systems, read and enter data, and perform a wide range of rule-based tasks. 

 

Workflow automation

Workflow automation is often used interchangeably with RPA but that is not accurate. Workflow automation can be defined as making the flow of tasks, documents, and information across work-related activities perform independently in accordance with defined business rules and refers to specific tasks within an entire workflow.  

Some techniques and terms used in process automation

Process automation can be simple and include only a few core tasks, or it can be part of a greater IPA and hyperautomation journey. Below are some of the techniques and technologies that go into the best process automation outcomes:  

 

  • Hyperautomation
    Hyperautomation is not a technology itself but rather a strategic initiative that the organization undertakes to identify, vet, and automate as many business and IT processes as possible, as quickly as possible. To do this, hyperautomation relies on the integration and orchestration of multiple technologies, tools, and platforms, including AI/machine learning, RPA, modern ERP systems, and low-code/no-code development tools.  
  • Intelligent process automation (IPA)
    McKinsey defines IPA as “an emerging set of new technologies that combines fundamental process redesign with robotic process automation and machine learning”. It augments business processes with AI and next-generation tools that help to automate and simplify repetitive, replicable, and routine tasks. This means that not only can IPA mimic human activities and tasks – it can actually learn to do them. AI and cognitive technologies allow decision-making capabilities to be incorporated into rules-based automation, leading to improved performance of human workers, increased speed, reduced risk, and enhanced customer journeys. 
  • Low-code/no-code automation
    Low-code/no-code (LCNC) refers to application and integration tools that are equipped with drag-and-drop functionality, visual tooling, and lots of pre-built content. LCNC tools make it possible for someone with little or no programming or coding skills to automate processes based on their extensive relevant subject-matter expertise. However, LCNC automation technologies are also fitted with sturdy guardrails to ensure that IT teams can have overarching governance and make sure that any new automated processes or applications integrate well within the system – meeting the most strident security and compliance standards. 
  • Big Data
    Data is not categorized as “Big” simply because of its volume. Big Data is defined by a set of criteria related, yes, to its volume but also to its complexity and speed. Structured data is linear in format – like what you’d see on a spreadsheet. Everything fits into a column or a row. Unstructured data, on the other hand, can consist of less quantifiable information such as customer feedback, emails, videos, or images. Big Data can be integrated and directly used in business process automation, based on defined business rules, or by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities. This integrated data can then be used to guide decision-making, speeding up the processes and providing relief from repetitive tasks and assessments. 
  • Artificial intelligence
    RPA technologies are built to best work with structured data but a lot of your most valuable insights and intel are held within semi-structured and unstructured data (in scanned images, webpages, PDF documents, and much more). AI technologies are able to process and convert that data into a structured format that the RPA will be able to understand and use. 
  • Natural language processing (NLP)
    The best NLP-powered chatbots learn from the informational content of human speech but they also learn to interpret context, and tone. In process automation, NLP tools can help to better guide interactions, and answer standard inquiries both internally and from customers. 
  • Machine learning
    Big Data provides the large data volumes that machine learning technologies depend upon, to help them make decisions. When machine learning (and the algorithms that power it) is integrated with RPA, AI, and other tools like NLP, it brings the ability to spot trends and patterns, plus learn from both data and human users. This makes process automation even more accurate and useful. 
  • Intelligent ERP systems 
    For years, businesses have relied upon ERP systems to manage and coordinate their day-to-day and financial tasks. But today’s ERPs have grown in capacity (with AI and machine learning technologies) to bring intelligence and support to almost every area of the business and its operations. Many automation functions are already part of modern ERP systems.  

Benefits of business process automation

The biggest drivers for process automation have to do with the obvious benefits that come from increased speed and efficiency, and greater opportunity for agility and innovation.  Those benefits include:

 

  • More agile and resilient business structures overall  
  • More efficient operations including faster cycle times and first-time-right rates 
  • Improved compliance through more visible data trails and monitoring 
  • Reduced burden of slow, manual processes, creating greater freedom to innovate and grow 
  • Real-time collaboration across an organization, building teamwork, and employee success/satisfaction
  • Improved customer service quality and response times 

Process automation: Next steps on your journey toward digital transformation

Achieving end-to-end process automation is an essential pillar in any successful digital transformation journey. McKinsey recently conducted a survey of industry leaders who had successfully met their business process automation goals. They found that in basically every case, those successes had three strategic components in common:  

 

  1. Automation must be adopted as a strategic priority across the entire organization, not just tackled in silos as a way to address a few isolated processes 
  2. Process automation should center on making the technology work for people, not the other way around 
  3. The market is particularly unpredictable at the moment so a focus on scalability is essential to sustained process automation success 

 

Like all business transformation journeys, it doesn’t have to happen all at once. The most essential first step is to be prepared to manage change and to communicate clearly defined goals and milestones across your entire workforce.  

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