What is business process automation?
Business process automation (BPA) is the use of advanced technology to complete business processes with minimal human intervention. A business process is an activity, or a set of activities, used to accomplish a specific organizational goal, such as producing a product, assimilating new employees or bringing on new customers.
A business process, which typically spans multiple business departments, often begins with an action. In employee onboarding, for example, the HR system could trigger a set of predefined workflow steps to send out a welcome email, configure security credentials and set up financial details in the compensation system. Automating the workflow steps in the business process typically improves the efficiency and accuracy of each step.
BPA takes advantage of a variety of advanced technology, including automation tools, process intelligence capabilities and cloud platforms. Moreover, BPA capabilities are often used under the covers of popular enterprise apps such as ERP software, human capital management systems and other tools that enforce industry best practices.
Examples of business process automation
Business processes that can be automated show up in many areas of a business, including management, operations, supply chain, HR and marketing. In general, tasks that are high volume, recurring, time-sensitive, involve multiple people, need compliance and require audit trails are good candidates for automation.
Here is a sampling of business processes that benefit from automation.
- Onboarding new employees. Integrating a new employee is an important business process that involves many low-level but meticulous tasks, from filling out employee forms and scheduling training sessions to completing tax documents and setting up bank accounts. Automating the process eliminates much of the paperwork, ensures all steps are completed and keeps relevant managers and employees informed. Read more about the benefits of automating the onboarding process.
- Onboarding new customers. In the financial services industry, banking, insurance and other finance companies need to conduct background checks of new customers and inform the appropriate local and federal governments when they onboard them as part of Know Your Customer Rule 2090 requirements. BPA can help to streamline these processes by using artificial intelligence to automate many manual steps. Faster, more automated processes also improve customer satisfaction.
- IT service desk support. The volume of incoming IT tickets typically outpaces the capacity of IT staff to handle them. Automation software can analyze, classify, and route incoming tickets to the relevant support personnel, provide service updates to customers and alert IT workers to issues that need immediate attention for compliance reasons, among other core tasks. Advanced automated helpdesk tools incorporate AI to predict, manage and resolve common user issues.
- Marketing automation. Marketing automation software allows companies to target customers with automated marketing messages across channels including email, websites, social media, and text messages to generate sales leads. The technology is a segment of customer relationship management, or CRM, and is typically used by marketing departments as a way to remove repetitive tasks from staff workflows and increase overall marketing efficiency. Read more about marketing automation.
Benefits of business process automation
Business process automation drives efficiencies and standardization that, in turn, bring many business benefits, including the following:
- increased productivity
- lower costs
- reduced error rates
- greater employee satisfaction
- higher revenues
- better customer service
- insight into process success and failures
- better auditing and compliance
Taking humans out of repetitive tasks that are better handled by machines saves time and reduces error rates, provided that the steps in the process are well defined, subject to limited interpretation and that exceptions -- instances where human intervention is required -- are communicated to the right people by the process automation system for timely resolution. Workflow automation of menial tasks also frees up employees to focus on higher value work.
By centralizing a business process through automation, organizations also gain transparency into their workflows. There is BPA software that gives companies the ability to see all the process steps on one dashboard, providing visibility into the status of process activities, from task reviews to the approval process. Automation can also ensure that compliance regulations are followed.
BPA has become increasingly important in the quest by today's enterprises to become digital businesses. Digital transformation depends on process automation, which often begins with converting information into computer-readable formats that then become part of enterprise-wide automation.
Challenges. It bears repeating that not every process is a good candidate for automation. BPA is best-suited to tasks that are high volume, recurring, time-sensitive and involve multiple people. Compliance and auditing requirements are typically easier to manage in automated processes. As noted in this article on BPA benefits, automation is also not a one-and-done effort. Enterprises should periodically review how automated processes are affected by changes in governance requirements, regulations, security and other factors.
How does BPA relate to RPA?
The term BPA, as noted, is used to characterize a collection of automation capabilities for streamlining and improving business processes. Robotic process automation (RPA) is a subset of BPA that focuses on automating how humans use software applications at work. It's attractive to businesses because it provides a quick path to automating the way humans interact with and copy data between the applications they use to do their jobs. Using RPA software, workers and developers alike can record the rough draft for a simple automation by clicking and scrolling their way through a business process. These drafts are hardened into final apps by the development team. The various RPA platforms then harden these basic programs against changes in the application layouts or workflows.
Intelligent process automation and digital process automation combine basic RPA capabilities with AI tools to create more sophisticated automations. For example, optical character recognition can read printed text, and natural language processing can map numbers from invoices to fields in business systems. Machine vision algorithms could perform tasks like estimating insurance damages. AI and machine learning algorithms could automate other types of decisions a bot might have to make.
Low-code development platforms are another type of BPA automation tool. Low-code development tools tend to provide better performance than traditional RPA programs by taking advantage of application program interface (API) access rather than emulating human progress through the UI. And some of the low-code platforms, such as Microsoft's Power Automate, are starting to combine the ease of RPA programming techniques with the speed of cloud API execution.
How does BPA relate to BPM?
BPA can be a standalone initiative or part of a larger, overarching business process management (BPM) strategy. The terms BPA and BPM are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same.
Both BPA and BPM aim to help businesses better realize their organizational goals by improving business processes, but their purviews are different. BPA focuses on how automation can simplify and streamline a business process. BPM may or may not include automation and employs a variety of methods to discover, model, analyze, change and optimize end-to-end business processes.
In BPM, business processes are managed collectively to not only reduce error rates and improve workflow efficiency but also, for example, to clarify job roles and responsibilities and increase the organization's capacity to adapt to changing business goals.
BPM projects often use diagramming tools such as BPMN to diagram complex business processes. These diagrams are used to improve understanding of existing business process. They may also serve as templates for implementing automation through various BPA technologies.
How does BPA relate to business process analysis?
Business process automation and business process analysis are complementary technologies, which confusingly use the same acronym. Business process analysis, as its name denotes, is concerned with analyzing business processes. A subset of BPA, it uses various manual and automated approaches to map and understand existing processes.
In the manual approach, process experts typically interview subject matter experts and business users to construct a process map. The automated approach uses various technologies that include process mining, process capture and process intelligence to do the same.
Process mining analyzes enterprise system logs to map out business processes and variations in how they execute. Process capture (sometimes called task mining) uses machine vision to watch over an employee's screen to generate a map of processes that span multiple applications. Process intelligence is a newer term to describe the use of both technologies combined with BI and analytics capabilities for greater automation and insight.
Recently, Gartner has begun to use the term enterprise business process analysis (EPBA) to characterize these more automated approaches for automatically mapping and analyzing processes.
How to automate business processes
Before beginning a BPA project, it is critical to understand how the existing process works, why it is a good candidate for automation and how it should be changed. Here are some necessary first steps.
- Analyze the enterprise's appetite for business automation. Business process automation changes how work gets done, so it requires buy-in from key stakeholders. The scope of the automation will determine the level of executive commitment needed for a BPA effort. Employees will need to be kept in the loop: Whether the BPA project is as straightforward as converting a paper form into electronic format and routing it the appropriate people, or a transformative automation effort designed to support a new business model, employees impacted by the automation need to be trained on the new workflow and should understand the business value the BPA technology provides. It's also important to communicate how the new automation could positively affect their jobs.
- Understand your "as-is" processes and identify potential candidates for automation. It is hard to get to where you want to be if you do not know where you are starting from. Before deploying an automation tool, it is critical to know what the existing process involves. Understanding existing business processes and the business rules that govern them, however, will not be easy for many organizations.
- Scope your project based on automation maturity. Companies typically reap the largest return on BPA projects that automate complex, business-critical processes and case management Most experts, however, advise companies with limited experience in automation to start small, homing in on recurring, rules-based tasks, such as purchase orders, where the steps (including exceptions) are unambiguous and well understood. Various process intelligence capabilities such as process mining and process capture can help automate this work.
- Get input from key stakeholders on process steps to eliminate, optimize and automate. "Don't pave the cow path" is another common saying in the process automation world. The idea is that automating an existing process without first examining where it can be improved or how it should change simply speeds up existing flaws. There is some debate about the wisdom of this warning, especially for companies looking for quick wins from automation, but in general BPA experts believe an existing process shouldn't be automated without analyzing how it could be more effective or without input from key stakeholders. According to software engineer James Highsmith III, a prolific writer on software development and one of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto, successful automation projects have input from multiple sources, including business analysts, development teams and IT.
Business process automation tools and software
BPA encompasses a broad set of established, as well as rapidly evolving business automation technologies, including the following:
- workflow tools geared to business users with limited coding experience;
- RPA, which creates software robots that mimic how humans interact with digital systems through the user interface;
- intelligent automation, which uses machine learning and other AI tools to train automation models which improve over time; and
- digital process automation (DPA), a term reflecting the linkage between BPA strategies and the larger undertaking of digital transformation.
In addition, business process management software (BPMS) is evolving, as leading BPM vendors in this space such as Pegasystems, Appian and others add RPA, AI and low-code/no-code capabilities.
Forrester Research has replaced the term BPM with DPA-deep and DPA-wide to reflect the evolution of BPM software. The upshot of this fast-moving technology space is that companies need to establish what Forrester calls an automation framework that delineates between the various automation tools, filters out the market hype and understands how they can be used separately and in tandem to achieve business process automation.
Editor's note: Christina Torode also contributed to this article.