business process automation (BPA)

Business process automation (BPA) is the use of 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 delivering a product to a customer or bringing on a new employee.

business process often begins with an action -- for example, the filing of an employee expense report. The filed report triggers a set of predefined workflow steps that conclude with the employee being reimbursed. The goal of BPA is not only to replace manual labor with automation but also to simplify and improve the workflow steps that make up the process: When a business process is automated, steps in the existing workflow -- emails chains and document transfers, for example -- are eliminated.

Benefits of business process automation

Business process automation drives efficiencies and standardization that, in turn, bring many business benefits, including increased productivity, lower costs, higher revenues and better customer service.

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.

BPA, a subset of 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. Both aim to help businesses better realize their organizational goals by improving business processes, but as their names state, their purviews are different: BPA focuses on how automation can simplify and streamline a business process. BPM, which may or may not include automation, 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 is itself a subset of infrastructure management, which maintains and optimizes an organization's core operational components such as processes, equipment and data.

Business process automation steps: Start here

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, who may fear automation will eliminate their jobs, also 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 understand the business value the BPA technology provides.

Analyze processes that might lend themselves to automation. It's hard to get to where you want to be if you don't know where you're 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. In a 2018 Harvard Business Review, "Before Automating Your Company's Processes, Find Ways to Improve Them," business process innovation expert Thomas Davenport notes that in many cases, process knowledge "is quite low." Moreover, many of the "business rules haven't been examined [in] … years and don't make sense in the current environment," he said. Davenport cites the example of a business rule described as requiring a manager's judgment but in fact hinges on clearly defined criteria and could be turned into an algorithm that delivers more consistent and better results.

Companies typically reap the largest return on BPA projects that automate complex, business-critical processes and case management scenarios. 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.

Identify process steps that can be eliminated, optimized, automated. "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 and 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.

CIO Beth O'Rorke talks about making business process automation a priority at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

What business processes can be automated? Examples of BPA

Business processes that can be automated show up in many areas of the business, from management, operations and supply chain, to human resources and information technology. In general, tasks that are high volume, recurring, time-sensitive, involve multiple people and need compliance and 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.

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 here.

For a list of processes that are well-suited but less obvious candidates for BPA, check out this top 10 roster from Dan Barker, senior product manager at process management and workflow automation vendor Nintex.

Business process automation tools and software

BPA encompasses a broad set of established, as well as rapidly evolving business automation technologies. They include workflow tools geared to business users with limited coding experience; robotic process automation (RPA), which creates software robots that mimic how humans interact with digital systems through the user interface; and the emerging discipline of intelligent automation (IA), which uses machine learning and other AI tools to train automation models which improve over time.

A relatively new term -- digital process automation (DPA) -- has gained traction as companies link their business process automation strategies to 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 Inc. and Appian add RPA, AI and no-code/low-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.

To learn more about how to choose the right BPA tool for the job, check out senior technology editor Stephen Bigelow's story on the benefits of BPA.

This was last updated in December 2019

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