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What if we told you there was a way to optimize business processes, lower operational costs, reduce security risks, and eliminate the risk of human error, all at the same time?
Though it might sound too good to be true, you aren’t being sold a false bill of goods. Since its invention in the 1940s, automation has evolved from an emerging to an established technology, becoming increasingly sophisticated over time. Business process automation, in particular, presents exciting opportunities for businesses the world over in terms of efficiency, cost-savings, and, of course, digital transformation.
In this article, we’ll dive deep into business process automation, exploring the benefits, challenges, and opportunities it presents.
What is Business Process Automation?
Business process automation (BPA) is fairly self-explanatory, in that it refers to the use of technology to automate otherwise manual business processes. In this case, a “business process” describes any set of actions designed to achieve a goal, particularly those that are highly repeatable and that involve multiple IT systems. Organizations can leverage BPA to automate entire processes or even individual stages within a larger process — whatever best serves the business’ needs.
By eliminating — or greatly reducing — the need for manual intervention, business process automation enables organizations to streamline and standardize workflows, driving efficiency gains and cost savings. For this reason, BPA is also commonly referred to ask workflow automation.
Important note: Business process automation is not to be confused with business process management (BPM). Business process management is an organizational discipline by which a company analyzes and evaluates its existing processes in order to:
- Identify opportunities for improvement,
- Develop a strategy to implement those enhancements, and
- Execute upon that strategy.
Depending on the organization, BPA can play an important role in BPM; however, it is not the sum total of BPM and the terms should not be used interchangeably.
What is Robotic Process Automation?
These days, it’s almost impossible to talk about BPA without bringing up robotic process automation (RPA). RPA is a subset of business process automation, one that relies on advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and bots to automate business processes.
Much like BPA, organizations can use RPA to automate low-level processes, such as processing invoices or sending emails; however, given the sophisticated nature of AI and machine learning, RPA can also be used to automate higher-level cognitive tasks, such as responding to customer service inquiries or managing software audits. In addition to the underlying technology itself, another key distinction between these two forms of automation is that business process automation is meant to supplement human labor, while robotic process automation is often meant to replace it.
12 Reasons to Automate Your Business Processes
There are many compelling reasons for investing in business process automation, including (but certainly not limited to):
- Optimized Workflows: As noted earlier, organizations can use BPA to automate entire processes or even individual stages within a process. In either case, BPA has the ability to apply business rules and logic to both structured and unstructured data sets in order to identify the most efficient way to run a workflow and execute it accordingly.
- Increased Productivity: Many organizations leverage BPA to automate highly repetitive, menial tasks, as these tasks are typically low-level in nature and consume employees’ valuable time. By freeing up employees to focus on higher-value tasks and removing bottlenecks from existing workflows, business process automation boosts overall productivity — and accelerates business growth.
- Lower Operating Costs: Given that it improves operational efficiency, enhances workplace productivity, and reduces the need for manual intervention, it’s easy to see how implementing business process automation can lower costs. In fact, according to a report from Deloitte, robotic process automation, in particular, can help organizations decrease costs by 59%, while improving quality and accuracy by 90%.
- Effective Resource Allocation: By enhancing productivity and streamlining workflows, business process automation enables organizations to utilize both human and digital resources more efficiently. Additionally, by lowering operating costs, BPA frees up capital that organizations can then invest in other areas of the business, including growth initiatives.
- Streamlined Document Management: Businesses can use BPA to automatically capture important documents and data and create digital archives. These archives serve as a single source of truth, which allows for greater transparency. They also make it easier for individuals at all levels of the organization to access the information they need and share materials in real time, supporting cross-team collaboration and productivity.
- Reduced Paperwork: Business process automation is designed to centralize and streamline processes, allowing for greater transparency while eliminating the need for tedious paperwork.
- Engaged Employees: According to a survey of working adults in the U.S., employees spend an average of 520 hours per year — more than a full day’s work each week — on repetitive tasks that could easily be automated. This has damaging effects not only on workplace productivity, but also on employee satisfaction and team morale, as it can lead workers to feel disengaged from their jobs. Using BPA to automate menial tasks gives employees the opportunity to focus on more exciting creative or strategic work, which makes them more vested in business outcomes and the overall success of the organization.
- Less Risk of Human Error: Every employee is bound to make mistakes, despite their best intentions. Though certain mistakes are minor and fairly inconsequential, others can pose a serious threat to the entire business. Business process automation removes the human element from the equation, thereby eliminating the risk of human error, so you can trust that workflows are being executed accurately and consistently.
- Greater Consistency: Speaking of consistency, part of the appeal of BPA is that it standardizes processes and eliminates potential variance. By establishing reliable, repeatable workflows, business process automation delivers organizations significant value in terms of quality assurance.
- Enhanced Compliance: Business process automation is invaluable for organizations that operate within heavily regulated industries, such as the financial services and healthcare sectors, because it enables them to automate components of their compliance program. Automating workflows such as third-party onboarding and complaints analysis eliminates the risk of human error, which could jeopardize compliance, and empowers compliance officers to dedicate their time and attention to more pressing issues that impact the business.
- Expedited Auditing: Organizations can utilize BPA to automate various auditing tasks, such as reconciliations, internal control testing, and detail testing, thereby enabling auditors to prioritize more complex tasks. By reducing demands on auditors’ time, businesses can streamline the overall audit process and even enhance audit quality.
- More Satisfied Customers: For customers, increased efficiency gains on a business’ back end translate to a better overall experience, as organizations are able to dedicate more time to one-on-one interactions, accelerate turnaround times on requests, better ensure quality, and more.
How to Decide Which Business Processes to Automate
Recognizing the potential value of business process automation is easy; deciding which processes to actually automate is a bit more challenging.
According to research from McKinsey, nearly half of all business activities can be automated. If a workflow falls into one or more of the following categories, it could be a good candidate for automation:
- It’s simple and repetitive
- It’s primarily paper-based
- It’s heavily research-based
- It involves multiple people
- It’s performed on a frequent basis
- It’s time-sensitive
- It’s typically error-prone
- It requires an audit trail
- It’s high impact
- It delivers significant value to the business
Examples of business processes that fit into these categories include Calendar Management, Document Management, Invoice Processing, Purchase Order Processing, Payroll Processing, Refund Processing, Talent Recruitment, Employee Onboarding, Time-off Request Approval, Travel Authorization, Expense Claims, Budget Approvals, Data Collection and Extraction, Work Order Placement, Price Quotes, Sales Contracting, Customer Service, and Customer Feedback Solicitation.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg — there are hundreds of (if not more) potential processes organizations can automate.
For a real-world example of BPA in action, look no further than this one Hitachi Solutions client in the mortgage lending business: At the end of every week, the company’s loan officers were required to go to a website without an API in order to download data about current mortgage rates. Officers would then have to manually enter that data into an Excel spreadsheet and perform a mail merge for email marketing purposes. The entire process was manually intensive and typically took each officer an hour to complete — time that would’ve been better spent following up with prospective borrowers or networking with referral partners. By partnering with Hitachi Solutions and implementing business process automation, the client was able to completely automate the process, saving loan officers valuable time and making better use of the business’ resources.
An important note: Just because you can automate a business process doesn’t necessarily mean you should. There are certain workflows that require a human touch, such as those that involve high-level strategic decision-making or face-to-face interaction. That said, even if you can’t automate an entire process from start to finish, you may still be able to automate parts of it — for example, you might use a chatbot to field initial customer service requests and then escalate cases to a live agent as needed. In situations such as these, finding ways to leverage BPA may take a little imagination, but it’s certainly possible.
Best Practices for Using Business Process Automation
Beyond selecting the right processes to automate, there are a few additional steps you can take to ensure the success of BPA in your organization:
- Set clear goals and expectations. This serves three key purposes: First, it establishes a business case for BPA, thereby justifying your investment in BPA technology. Second, it acts as an endpoint from which you can work backwards to build a strategic roadmap for your business process automation initiative. Third, it enables you to gauge the performance and ROI of your BPA initiative — which takes us to our next best practice.
- Measure your results. When establishing a goal (or goals) for your BPA initiative, be sure to also define which metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) you intend to use to monitor its progress. For example, if you are trying to reduce the cost or shorten the time for a business process, you should monitor the results of the automation to identify if the automation is giving you the expected value.
- Understand your organization’s compliance requirements. Even if you aren’t automating a process (or processes) within your compliance program, it’s still important to be aware of potential requirements, limitations, and restrictions when designing a business process automation strategy.
- Document everything. From what changes are being made to the existing workflow to how you intend to roll out those changes, make sure that every aspect of your business process automation strategy is painstakingly documented, and that the documentation is accessible to all relevant personnel. Creating this single source of truth will help clear up any confusion and ensure that the new process is consistently followed.
- Invest in employee training. Training materials should not only cover how the new process will run and what employees’ updated roles and responsibilities are — it should also establish a rationale for the change. Helping employees understand the “why” for business process automation is an important part of change enablement, one that increases the likelihood of user adoption and the overall success of any BPA initiative.
- Start small and scale up. Rather than try to automate everything at once, it’s better to identify three to five processes that would benefit from automation and go from there. Based on the goals you’ve set and KPIs you’ve defined, it’ll soon become clear whether business process automation delivered the outcomes you were hoping to achieve. If your BPA initiative is a success, you can expand it to include additional processes; if not, you can use the data you’ve collected to identify potential points of failure and opportunities for improvement.
- Look for an integration-friendly BPA solution. Since business process automation is intended to streamline operations rather than disrupt them, the ideal solution should slot seamlessly into your existing software ecosystem and require minimal — if any — rearchitecting in order to connect with other programs.
- Partner with a consultant with solid BPA experience. Although it’s certainly possible to implement business process automation on your own, it’s far better to work with a partner that has a proven track record of successful BPA implementations. Such a partner can leverage their expertise to help you determine which of your existing workflows are primed for automation, define goals, establish metrics, proactively identify potential points of failure, and more. Should your BPA initiative fail, for any reason, an established partner will be able to call upon their years of experience to diagnose the issue and plot a path forward.
Hitachi Solutions: Your BPA Implementation Partner
As a nationally managed Tier 1 partner with over 40 Microsoft Partner of the Year Awards to our name, Hitachi Solutions is uniquely qualified to help your organization harness the power of business process automation using the Microsoft Power Platform.
Our approach is simple:
- Combining our relevant industry expertise and BPA implementation experience with the RPA function within Power Automate, we analyze your existing workflows and identify your biggest opportunities for automation.
- Once we’ve identified three to five potential workflows to automate, we break them down into their constituent parts and start building an implementation roadmap for each based on the best approach for automation.
- We work closely with you to build automation processes within Power Apps, leveraging the system’s simple user interface and visual front end to design integrated workflows, all within a single platform.
Over time, you’ll become more comfortable building and automating new processes on your own and can operate independently or with Hitachi Solutions’ support — the choice is entirely yours.
For professional guidance on how to leverage the Microsoft Power Platform and modernize your organization through automation, consider signing up for our immersive automation and RPA envisioning workshop. And for additional insights on how to better support your workforce, check out our Organizational Productivity track — part of Digital Compass — or contact us directly.
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