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BPM vs. BPA: The differences in strategy and tooling

The differences between BPM and BPA come down to process complexity, an organization's proficiency with software code and how quickly the business must see ROI.

While business process management and business process automation represent complimentary concepts, they are not interchangeable terms. It's critical to know the distinctions between the two, as well as their overlapping characteristics, particularly since more C-level executives are actively pressuring IT departments to examine and improve their business process management and automation capabilities.

The pressure to streamline operations by eliminating inefficiencies and optimizing business processes continues to fuel the market for reliable and innovative BPM and BPA tools. Figures on market demand in both areas verify this trend:

  • The 2020 State of Business Process Management report from BPTrends found that some 75% of respondents believe that BPM technologies helped their organizations accomplish their goals, with 73% saying their organization's level of interest in BPM has grown modestly or rapidly in the past two years.
  • Meanwhile, the June 2020 survey, Accelerating Automation: How Businesses are Adapting to a Post-COVID World, from process automation provider K2 (since acquired by Nintex) found that 92% of responding businesses see process automation as a key component for success in the digital era. Respondents, however, acknowledged that they have a lot of work ahead of them, as they indicated that only 51% of their business processes are automated, but plan to significantly increase that figure over the upcoming year.

While there is large enterprise interest in business process improvements, analysts and management advisors said CIOs and other business leaders should be clear on the benefits that BPM and BPA bring, along with the limits that each brings to the organization.  

BPM vs. BPA

BPM software standardizes and digitizes tasks within a workflow process, assigning responsibilities to functions and tasks. BPM maps processes and can handle structured, complex enterprise-wide processes.

"You're identifying all the moving parts, and designing the most efficient process," said Martin Liberal, director of global strategy consulting for IT service management firm Synoptek. "There are lots of elements there, both human elements and technology elements."

BPM software then captures those elements, digitizes the design and allows organizations to monitor the performance of the process over time so that enterprise leaders can identify ways to further improve and optimize the process.

On the other hand, BPA software is more of a point solution, deployed tactically to automate repetitive tasks within a longer business process. Because it is automated, it is faster than manual tasks and reduces human error.

"BPA is automating pieces of a process," Liberal said. "For example, employee onboarding … maybe once you key in the employee username, it can then be dispersed through all your systems."

Essential elements

BPM is not essential to process improvement. Enterprise leaders can make improvements to their processes without implementing BPM software, but their ROI on such work will be limited. Additionally, BPM does not always include automation.

"Automation can be done as part of the BPM process, but it's not a core complement," said Amardeep Modi, practice director and member of the Service Optimization Technologies team at Everest Group. "BPM may or may not involve automating parts of the process; it involves modeling and defining the process and identifying the sources involved, such as databases and systems that are touched."

If you're using BPA on a poor process, you're just automating a broken process.
Michael LarnerPrincipal analyst, ABI Research

On the other hand, automation is a nonnegotiable element in BPA. Moreover, enterprises leaders can automate tasks using BPA software, but experts stress that BPA software will only return full value if IT teams first optimize the underlying process as much as possible before applying automation.

"If you're using BPA on a poor process, you're just automating a broken process," warned Michael Larner, principal analyst at ABI Research.

BPM software delivers value because it is more hands-off and reduces bottlenecks. With its use from a process's start to end, it tends to deliver a larger return on investment over time. BPA delivers incremental ROIs and derives value from the automation itself in which software performs the automated tasks faster and more accurately than humans do.

Technical requirements

Businesses that deploy and maintain BPM software generally require more IT involvement. For example, IT generally has to focus on accessing, extracting and cleaning the data needed for BPM use, Larner said.

BPM presents a more monolithic approach to process management than BPA, as it requires organizations to think through the managed processes and engage in modeling before deploying the software, Liberal said. BPM software deployments still tend to require more of a traditional waterfall approach and don't lend themselves so much to Agile-like deployments.

Some BPM tools bake both low-code and no-code concepts into their products to create a more lightweight offering. However, Modi cautioned that BPM still involves IT resources heavily and knowledge of coding.  On the other hand, BPA tools generally require less work to implement and often use a low-code or no-code approach because they bring automation technology to specific, discrete tasks. As a result, business users need little or no coding from IT.

BPM and BPA vendors

Although some vendors offer capabilities that span both BPM and BPA functions, experts said enterprise development shops often include tooling from multiple different vendors in their deployment environments. Typically, they'll look for the individual vendors who deliver expertise in the processes they're seeking to manage and the functions they're seeking to automate.

As organizations advance their use of both BPM and BPA software, CIOs and other business leaders should consider which software fits the specific process and task slated for automation, Larner said. There's no single software product in this market that will fit every need within a typical organization, so consider your ability to leverage both BPM and BPA vendor tooling for the different use cases you encounter.

BPA vs. BPM: The size of your company matters

Larger organizations, as well as those with complex or heavily regulated processes, are more likely to deploy and benefit from BPM software, Liberal said. Modeling and implementing this software is often a time-consuming and expensive task. On top of that, there is no guarantee that the software will deliver a worthwhile ROI for smaller organizations looking to automate relatively simple processes.

Small and midsize organizations will likely find it easier to deploy and benefit from BPA vs BPM due to its lightweight, more tactical nature, Liberal said. Similarly, larger organizations that deploy BPA software to processes that haven't been optimized and digitized through the use of BPM software may still reap benefits from such automation efforts -- although the ROI in those instances are usually limited.

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