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Automation is a top priority for most organizations, with the C-suite pushing to automate business processes to gain both efficiencies and competitive advantages.
Consider the findings from a 2019 survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit, which found that 91% of the 502 responding executives said their companies make moderate or extensive use of automation technologies such as business process automation software and robotic process automation tools.
Moreover, the survey found that automation deployments cut across industries and that the use of BPA software and similar tools isn't just for the largest enterprises. Half of the respondents work in businesses with an annual revenue between $250 million and $1 billion, and the other half work at billion-dollar-plus companies.
To experts, those survey results aren't a surprise. The cost and complexity of automation technology has dropped in recent years, which enables organizations of all sizes to seize on it.
"The technology barriers to these different solutions are falling, the cost is falling, and now there are low-code vendors that are really good at automating complex tasks. That means there are opportunities for smaller companies to embrace these technologies and automate business processes," said Rob Koplowitz, a Forrester Research analyst.
Small organizations, however, can't -- or at least shouldn't -- automate a task and then consider the job done. To get the most value from business process automation software, businesses need to invest in the people and processes that maintain the automation systems and manage the related changes.
Can BPA work for a small business?
Business process automation (BPA) presents several challenges for small organizations, experts said.
First, many small companies have complex business processes that require lengthy analysis to automate. They also face the possibility of automating problematic or inefficient processes, as do large companies, if they're not diligent about assessing the processes before they implement BPA software.
And they also face the potential of having unauthorized and undermanaged automation projects.
Best practices with BPA software
Unless it is large, a company typically is not able to support a center of excellence. Forrester's Koplowitz suggested that small and midsize organizations take a disciplined approach to process automation. These are the key steps according to him:
- identify tasks for automation;
- assess whether and when they should be re-engineered as part of the automation initiative;
- train IT staff or business unit workers how to use the automation technology;
- manage the changes wrought by automation; and
- coordinate the development, deployment, integration, maintenance and security needs of the business process automation software.
"Smaller organizations still need tech support," Koplowitz said. They need someone to handle integration, identify risks and determine permissions, he continued. "Someone has to own it."
Small businesses, though, have an advantage over larger counterparts when it comes to adoption of business process automation software, Koplowitz said, in that they're often better able to identify tasks prime for automation.
"If you ask a very large organization that delivers a complex product how they get from start to finish, they usually don't know," he said. "But in a small company, they know. They don't have problems around sprawl. It's easy for them to identify their pain points. For the most part, they understand where automation can be applied."
Be sure to get the strategy right
David H. Friedman, director of the automation center of excellence at Ryder, has overseen numerous automation deployments within the transportation company as well as in previous jobs. Automation projects can quickly proliferate within companies, he said, particularly as tech-savvy business units deploy products to automate simple tasks that save workers' time.
"[Is] there value to those small projects? Absolutely," he said, noting that automating a small task can indeed reduce costs. But, he said, that type of initiative can introduce risk.
For example, automation projects can mask inefficiencies in business processes and create too many disparate systems that don't integrate or even interact. They also can divert attention and resources from larger automation projects that could yield bigger returns.
Additionally, they can introduce dozens, if not hundreds, of programs into the organization -- often without IT involvement, if business units choose to implement their own tools. That leaves IT -- and the enterprise as a whole -- with little to no visibility into the code itself and the automated processes, with no way to audit or verify that the processes produce efficient and correct results over time.
To avoid such scenarios, organizations need to take a strategic approach to the use of business process automation software, Friedman said. Doing so lets them maximize the value of their automation efforts and minimize the risks.
That's what Friedman said he is working on at Ryder. He standardized the technology, opting for Kofax as its primary provider of automation technology. He cited the Kofax technology's ease of use, its ability to audit and how it is capable of handling both simple and complex tasks.