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Finding the right fit for business process automation

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Why workflow automation isn't really about cost cutting

BPA can reduce expenses and boost efficiency. Its real value, though, is in how it can drive innovation throughout a company and provide a competitive advantage.

Discussion about business process automation provokes tales of both significant results and high rates of failure. What is really going on? Is BPA worth the investment?

BPA's workflow automation capabilities are heralded for their ability to reduce costs, and that reputation is justified. But BPA is much more. A company that's mainly focused on reducing its operating costs will miss the point of BPA -- and possibly even put the business in serious jeopardy.

Why? Companies that embrace new technology and use it to rethink how both IT and the organization interact with customers, suppliers and workers will win both the customer and efficiency battles. They stand to gain market share, increase margins and become leaders in their markets.

This is the hidden promise of workflow automation -- especially when coupled with the new and emerging technologies. Business process management (BPM) tools and the newer robotic process automation (RPA) tools represent a phenomenal opportunity. Now mix in voice interaction, cognitive computing, 3D printing, holography and advances in robotics, and there is almost no end to the way creative business and IT leaders can innovate.

Investing in BPA

Companies interested in staying relevant have adopted BPM-driven BPA, cloud computing and big data technologies. They may experiment with RPA with AI and cognitive computing. These companies have generally passed through their tech learning curve and succeeded in using these technologies to jump ahead of the competition. These are early adopters, yes, but given the pace of technological change, it's worth asking if the later adopters will ever be able to catch up and regain lost market share.

It's a conundrum related to how companies must continue to operate using older technology and approaches while at the same time creating a strategy to control investment in the newer technologies. It is difficult to know where to draw that line on new investment. Even for those who accept that the company must evolve and transform, timing is problematic. How can you mix support of legacy systems with the need to evolve? How quickly do you need to reinvent the operation and its technology-based capabilities to remain competitive? This is where business strategy and IT strategy collide.

It is helpful to shine a light on company processes and streamline them however possible. Try to reduce complexity. Eliminate causes of errors and waste. These actions, if approached and executed using a business process management suite (BPMS) to improve or redesign the processes, can make a tremendous difference in cost and quality. Workflow automation also improves the basics of customer interaction.

A BPMS platform can serve as an orchestration layer that integrates all the activity and legacy application use with process execution. Old and ineffective applications can be replaced, and new ones can be generated using the low-code capabilities of BPMS tools.

To improve market position, a company needs to innovate and experiment. The use of BPA tools can support both of those goals.

Workflow automation will be seen by some companies as nothing more than cost reduction -- to the virtual exclusion of all else. Others will gamble on innovative ideas.

As with any new technology, there's a learning curve. And this is where a lot of problems occur. A week of vendor training is nice, but it does not produce trained, competent experts with insight into how the tools can be used to innovate or solve problems. A company will want to hire experienced people who will mentor the technical teams as they begin to use the new technology.

A reluctance to move away from what has worked in the past is to be expected. In IT, this can be seen in the continued use of older methods that worked for requirements-based application development but do not work as well for BPA-based process redesign and application generation. For business operations staff, reluctance to change will be even more apparent. Most processes work through an undocumented web of personal interpretations of years' old procedures that have informally changed any number of times. People are good at finding ways to get the job done, and they usually aren't eager to have their methods replaced by new procedures.

For a company to see results with BPA, this resistance to workflow automation and new ways to do things will need to be overcome.

Better interactions = better business

By using BPMS as a central orchestration layer, a business can streamline its processes. This will result in more control and better visibility. Each action will be taken in the sequence defined in the BPMS tool, with the internal BPM and external RPA, AI and other applications accessed automatically. This controls activity and makes certain that appropriate action is taken at the right times, based on workflow and performance information. Over time, this design lets the company switch out any part of the process -- business activity or application support -- to incorporate newer technology and adjust to changing market opportunities.

IT is then in a position to create a strategy that delivers flexible solutions while making change much faster, easier and cost-effective.

Think of this as a new inflection point for the business community. Workflow automation will be seen by some companies as nothing more than cost reduction -- to the virtual exclusion of all else. Others will gamble on innovative ideas. Most organizations will fall somewhere in between.

It's important to remember that the customer has access to technology that is equal to or greater than what companies are working with. Tech-savvy buyers thrive on innovation, and they have little patience for clumsy applications or out-of-date ways to interact with a business. Success today requires companies to provide a type of interaction that is fun as well as effective.

Future BPA applications will be focused on interaction, and could draw on everything from gamification to virtual reality to biometrics to natural-voice interaction. These tools and what they produce can improve how an organization interacts with a customer, a supplier or an employee. The question is not, "Can it be done?" Instead, why not ask, "Do we want to invest and innovate?"

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