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Business process automation vs. business process management: A primer

Kristen Caretta, Associate Editor

What is the difference between business process management (BPM) and business process automation (BPA)? Though often used interchangeably, these terms do in fact differ in scope, uses and technologies they involve.

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To keep IT and business stakeholders speaking the same language and ahead of vendor hype, here we define the two terms and show how BPM and BPA work together to bring maximum benefits to midsized organizations.

What's the difference between BPM and BPA?

Business process management is the methodology used by organizations to improve end-to-end business processes in five stages: design, modeling, execution, monitoring and optimization. Typically, it begins by defining the steps in a process, improving on those that add value and consolidating or eliminating others, then tweaking electronic workflows to match the process maps.

Business process automation, simply put, is the automation of business processes. BPA can be both a standalone strategy as well as part of a larger, overarching business process management strategy. On its own, BPA automates known processes -- often without much initial analysis to determine whether the processes are good, bad or indifferent.

When it's part of a BPM initiative, automation usually follows some level of process analysis or modeling to determine process efficiencies while leaving the door open for continued future improvement.

Who is involved with BPM and BPA?

While anchored in IT, BPM requires heavy input from the business side as both a tactical and strategic approach to continued improvement.

Business process automation began as the basic idea behind many IT systems, using technology components to substitute or supplement the use of manual processes for information management, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Jim Sinur. Process automation included straight-through processing between systems, involving integration and system-to-system communication that essentially removed the "carbon unit" from activity execution processes.

"It's a lot of headless, head-down workflows," Sinur said. "It's effective, fast and snappy."

How do the objectives of BPM and BPA differ?

Business process management aims to improve process agility, operational excellence and cost efficiency by capturing the total picture of all workflows involved in a business process. BPM has also expanded to include workforce optimization, improved customer retention, business growth and regulatory compliance maintenance.

Business process automation is a quick way to automate the low-hanging fruit of less complex processes or singular processes in extensive workflows. While business process automation is not limited to simple or linear processes, these are often the starting point for organizations without the time or budget to embark on a full process modeling or analysis strategy.

I think the real payoff comes from automating processes that have been vetted through the BPM disciplines.

John Vilim, chief technology officer, Waterton Residential

Clay Richardson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said that while much of process automation involves system-to-system automation, a lot of companies are asking about BPA as the first step to business process management. In fact, most customers begin using BPM for the automation aspects.

"Companies across the board are looking to get control of processes and costs, saving money where they can and becoming more efficient," Richardson said. "Automation is where the conversation starts."

According to David A. Kelly, president of Newton, Mass.-based Upside Research Inc., many of today's sophisticated BPM solutions actually started in the area of BPA. "Today, given the economic climate, many organizations are looking for practical, results-orientated solutions for basic process automation and management, with an eye for future growth and expansion," he said.

John Vilim, chief technology officer of Waterton Residential, a Chicago-based residential investment management company, has supported business process automation for a number of years, seeing the benefits of process and workflow automation firsthand. He said that although he doesn't think a big-bang BPM strategy is necessary to use automation tools or realize some benefits, he believes it does require some knowledge of BPM if you plan to build a full strategy.

"It's possible to get some benefit from automation without any of the BPM basics," Vilim said. "However, I think the real payoff comes from automating processes that have been vetted through the BPM disciplines."

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.


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