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Finding the right fit for business process automation

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When business process automation benefits the whole company

Here's what you need to know about BPA tooling, from how it works, how it helps and how to consider potential providers.

Every area of the modern enterprise relies on processes. Purchasing, accounting, HR, IT, sales, marketing, production, shipping and other business functions all depend on clearly defined processes and workflows to keep the business running.

Process brings repeatability and consistency to the business -- every task is handled the same way by every employee, every time. That's why business process automation benefits an organization from a whole range of perspectives, from efficiency right through to modern business governance and regulatory compliance.

Business processes permeate a company. And they can be complex, time-consuming and redundant. As the pace of business accelerates, traditional checklists and manual guidelines become difficult to manage, potentially impeding an organization's ability to compete. These old practices could even jeopardize security and compliance.

Organizations that deploy business process automation (BPA) tools can codify and orchestrate complex and repetitive processes. Still, it's important to understand what BPA tools are and how they are used.

Basic business process automation benefits

Think about a common business process. An organization's HR staff, for example, is responsible for assimilating new employees. This process will typically involve a series of steps that can include delivery of a welcome letter and benefits package; addition of employee information in a business database; completion of employment documentation, such as non-disclosure agreements and tax forms; programming that worker's key; preparation of tablets, laptops, smartphones or any other work equipment; and scheduling training sessions.

Not only will these actions need to be documented, but several steps in the process may involve other departments or lead into other workflows. Tax documents, for instance, will be sent along to the payroll administrator. Missing a step, such as forgetting to complete a W2 form, can have serious consequences.

Printed guides or checklists are the traditional approach to business process streamlining, helping the business at least keep track of completed tasks. But such manual checklists are still error-prone and do nothing to help accelerate task completion. Business process automation benefits the business by providing capabilities that make processes more cost-efficient, error-proof and auditable.

First, BPA tools often rely on flowcharts and other visualizations to compose and arrange the relationships between various process tasks. This can help business leaders better understand the process being implemented. Plus, the ability to view broader process relationships can help to pinpoint any unanticipated effects of a change in the process and reveal superfluous steps or bottlenecks.

In addition, traditional manual processes are rarely documented with details such as how to complete each step, what tools (if any) are needed for completion and the individuals involved or responsible for each step. Also, processes change over time, but the documentation that outlines those processes typically does not. BPA tools allow documentation to be attached to each task and easily updated over time. Business leaders can use that documentation to make more informed assessments of current processes for efficiency and adherence to changing governance or compliance requirements.

BPA tools can also track activity and provide analytics surrounding the workflows. Records generated from process activity can be audited to ensure that sensitive processes were indeed conducted in accordance with business requirements. Analytics are part of how business process automation benefits an organization. This data can help business leaders identify and understand the underlying cause-and-effect relationships of process failures.

Suppose that an automated business process intended to take several hours is routinely taking several days. A review of the analytics might reveal that a step that requires a manager's manual approval is the reason for the delay -- perhaps the manager is batching approvals to do at week's end. By understanding this, business leaders get the chance to adjust.

Potential drawbacks to BPA

While BPA tools can improve efficiency, reduce errors and help safeguard the business, there are some potential disadvantages to consider.

Automation for its own sake is rarely a benefit. It may not be necessary (or appropriate) for every business task. Automation is best applied to routine, well-understood processes that are conducted frequently by numerous users. Attempting to automate every task -- especially occasional or one-off tasks for individual employees -- may not be worthwhile.

In addition, automation is not a one-time effort. Organizations must periodically reassess workflows and consider how changes to governance, security postures or regulatory compliance requirements over time should manifest in process reviews and updates. For example, a new law may require a business to update certain processes. If those processes are automated, then the automation will need to be adjusted to comply with the law.

And finally, the BPA tool itself can pose an issue. While there are real business process automation benefits to be realized from its use, the tool is one more one more thing that the business must buy and maintain. There's a certain risk of vendor lock-in and constraint from the BPA provider's product roadmap. This makes tool evaluation and selection particularly important.

BPA implementation

While traditional software tools can be deployed locally, it is common to find BPA tools available as SaaS platforms. SaaS eliminates the software deployment and maintenance overhead associated with traditional deployments. Common SaaS examples include Laserfiche Business Process Automation, Tallyfy, Kissflow and others.

SaaS platforms also dramatically simplify your system requirements. Instead of considering server, storage, networking, licensing, integration with other local tools (such as databases), and other requirements, business users can employ the SaaS tool from any suitable web browser simply by signing into the established SaaS provider account. Consequently, much of the effort involved in the implementation of a BPA tool is not the actual installation, but rather the BPA platform's setup and configuration.

Real-time reporting in a BPA platform should ideally allow each employee involved in a process to view the current status of each in-progress workflow.

SaaS providers typically offer several service levels to meet an organization's needs and budget. As an example, Tallyfy currently offers a basic plan at $12.50 per user per month, and a pro plan at $25 per user per month. The pro plan delivers more automation, customization, reporting and analytics.

The heart of any BPA platform is the creation and management of workflows. BPA tools usually provide a library of pre-built workflow templates that can be adopted and modified for specific business uses. These templates can substantially accelerate the implementation of common workflows, but custom workflows can also be created from scratch to meet an organization's requirements.

Each step can usually be highlighted with instructions, given a time constraint, associated with specific actions, approvals, or documentation -- such as uploading a scan of a receipt or contract -- and assigned to a particular employee. A step may also include an acknowledgement, such as an employee approval, that leads to the subsequent step.

The biggest challenge with BPA platforms is the effort needed to translate business insight into actionable processes. It takes a comprehensive understanding of the business to clearly identify the goals of an automated process and to break that process into well-defined steps that map to specific individuals or roles. The best return on a BPA investment is in task volume, so business process automation benefits should be most apparent in areas that focus on high-volume, business-critical tasks.

Employee training on the BPA platform can also help to speed employee adoption and productive use of automated workflows.

The BPA selection process

BPA platforms typically provide comprehensive reporting such as dynamic dashboards. Such real-time reporting should ideally allow each employee involved in a process to view the current status of each in-progress workflow and highlight any points of concern, such as missing documents, expiring time constraints and so on.

In spite of these common traits, BPA tools are not created equal. Some BPA tools are tailored to specific business areas or departments. For example, Kissflow offers SaaS alternatives for HR, procurement and finance/operations, as well as a general-purpose digital workplace. Such purpose-built BPA tools will usually support a wider range of related tasks or processes out of the box. For example, a BPA tool for HR can be expected to handle common HR tasks: applicant tracking, employee attendance, leave and sick time tracking, employee performance management, and employee onboarding and offboarding.

Next, consider the importance of integrations. BPA tools require an array of integrations for messaging, collaboration and reporting. In addition to integrations with Outlook, Slack, Gmail, Microsoft's Power Automate (formerly named Flow) and so on, an increasing number of tools support custom application integrations. This enables software developers to create tools that use the BPA platform through RESTful APIs, real-time web hooks or an application connector such as Zapier.

Also, BPA tools usually include some form of analytics. Organizations with business intelligence tools such as Power BI or Tableau may get additional reporting value by integrating with BPA tools.

Business process automation benefits and challenges

Beyond features and capabilities, there are three other guidelines for successful BPA selection. First, BPA platforms (particularly SaaS-based products) can be used on a trial basis for testing and evaluation purposes. Testing can eliminate a lot of wasted time and money, so take full advantage of the trial period to experiment with some of the organization's more challenging workflows and see how well the BPA platform fits.

Second, BPA will impact the organization's governance and compliance posture, so senior business management should be involved in the evaluation and selection process.

Finally, consider how your organization would handle potential disruptions. The BPA provider might go out of business or be acquired. It might stop development on the BPA tool. Consider the BPA product roadmap and weigh the potential effect of a BPA tool disruption on the business, and determine whether data can be backed up and migrated to other BPA tools.

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