What is Process Automation?

Process automation is the act of replacing humans with machines when executing a sequence of activities. The term is commonly used in a business context to describe business process automation, where software programs execute a set of activities within the modern, digital enterprise.

The scope of process automation can be broad. Many companies start by automating simple support or departmental processes, such as data capture and expense approval. Others automate more complex, cross-functional activities, using advanced technologies to handle event-driven, mission-critical, core business processes.

You can use process automation software, software robots (or bots), as well as software scripts, to automate aspects of your business in various ways. A simple example would be the automatic routing of customer queries to the correct service agent. A more complex example might be using AI to create a short list of candidates for an open vacancy.

The Difference Between Process Automation and Business Process Management

Business process management is the practice of designing, executing, monitoring, and optimizing elements of a business, or business function. BPM takes a very broad view and looks at the behavior of people, information, and systems.

Process automation, on the other hand, has a narrower focus. It’s applied to the automation of elements within that process. A business, or business function, can execute many different processes. Some of those processes may or may not be automated. In many ways, BPM creates the framework for automation strategies and investments. It also ensures that these support agreed business strategies.

Process Automation Examples

Process automation performs best at scale. In other words, the larger, more time-consuming and manually intensive a task is, the greater the opportunity to benefit from its automation. It’s, therefore, unlikely that an enterprise will automate an individual activity or small-scale process.

Here are some process automation use cases that showcase its wide variety:

  • Accounting and finance processes.
  • Appointment scheduling and rescheduling.
  • Contracts and consent forms.
  • Data gathering, analysis and risk assessment.
  • Document management.
  • Email marketing and social media.
  • Event RSVPs.
  • Financial aid and grant applications.
  • HR enrollment and new hire onboarding.
  • Order processing and fulfillment.
  • Patient intakes and referrals.
  • Performance management.
  • Purchase orders and requisitions.
  • Recruitment.
  • Student enrollment and registration.
  • Time off requests.
  • Time or attendance tracking.
  • Travel requests.

Process Automation vs. Robotic Process Automation

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a type of process automation technology that uses software robots to carry out rules-based tasks. These bots mimic human activities, like extracting data from screens or insurance forms. RPA is often cited as a form of artificial intelligence (AI), but this is not the case. RPA uses structured inputs and logic. RPA does what it is told. AI uses unstructured inputs and develops its own logic.

However, RPA is increasingly being paired with AI-based automation tools with cognitive capabilities. This adds skills such as recognizing natural language and ‘reading’ unstructured data. These bots can then learn and carry out tasks with much higher accuracy. By eliminating human factors like tiredness or lack of training, RPA can also greatly reduce errors. RPA software is already popular in sectors such as financial services. Here, it is used to automate heavily paper-based tasks.

RPA does not aim to alter the tasks within an application or business logic. Instead, it seeks to automate at the user interface layer. It is, therefore, often the most rapid way of automating business processes. But this is also one of its weaknesses. If you have a bad process to begin with, RPA doesn’t alter the process or business logic, Instead, it simply gets you to a bad result faster, or with greater efficiency.

Benefits of Process Automation

Process automation is a powerful technique, which can be applied in pieces or holistically. It delivers a raft of positives for any organization that implements it correctly. These include improved productivity, greater agility, improved customer experience, increased compliance, reduced costs, better utilization of staff and fewer errors.

  • Improved productivity: Process automation is a key means of increasing efficiency in organizations. It takes manual, time-consuming tasks away from people. It also integrates multiple processes into a single workflow. This removes bottlenecks and can vastly increase business productivity.
  • Greater agility: Automating data collection, aggregation, and synthesis, particularly for large information sets, can facilitate better informed and faster decision-making.
  • Improved customer experience: With streamlined processes, queries can be organized and answered quickly and at greater scale. Modern approaches to managing the customer experience introduce features such as chatbots at key stages of the process. These allow the customer to get to the next stage faster, without human assistance.
  • Increased compliance: With automation, all processes are carried out with precision and regularity. No corners are cut. No steps in a process are missed or forgotten. Whether it relates to internal policy and standards or external regulation, process automation can help to increase compliance.
  • Reduced costs: Companies can use process automation for digitizing and standardizing processes. This particularly applies to repetitive, human-intensive tasks. According to Forrester, this has the potential to reduce operating costs by up to 90%.
  • Better utilization of staff: Eliminating tedious, repetitive tasks allows employees to redirect their time to activities that add more value to the business. They will have higher rates of satisfaction, while improving business outcomes.
  • Fewer errors: Getting an order wrong or having an incorrect address are problems that can be resolved. However, these all take up valuable time. If those problems start to affect customers, they can negatively impact the entire business. Process automation can minimize the chance of human errors and cut the amount of unnecessary re-work.

Best Practices for Implementing Process Automation

A variety of different methods are recommended for implementing process automation. However, they broadly fall under five main headings.

  1. Goals: Any successful process automation endeavor has to start with clear goals. What are you looking to achieve from your process automation implementation? As described above, cost reductions or improvements in customer satisfaction or productivity are likely to feature prominently.
  2. Opportunities: Identify which areas within your business are most likely to be enhanced by process automation. Typically, the most effortful processes will offer the best chances for improvement. A feasibility study will prove whether these processes are suited for automation.
  3. Tools: Various process automation tools are available, ranging from the simple to the complex. These have very different capabilities. It’s therefore important to research which is the best one for you. You’ll need to take what you’ve learned from the first two steps and make an informed decision. Compare process automation solutions against each other and against what you need from them.
  4. Change management: any change in your business process means a new way of working. Ensure that your teams understand what is happening and why. Deloitte believes that “those that see the greatest benefits from automation will have engaged in entity-wide transformations.” It goes on to say that these should be, “rooted in forward-looking, human-centric strategies”. Involving your employee up front, and careful communication throughout your process automation project may be necessary to ensure it is carried out smoothly.
  5. Monitor and evaluate: Regular assessments of the automation initiative should begin long before its implementation. What metrics do you need to put in place to know that it is working as planned? This will ensure it continues to deliver against your original business goals.

Challenges of Implementing Process Automation

Process automation is not a set-and-forget solution. Businesses must monitor and regularly evaluate the automation’s effectiveness. This will maximize your ROI. BPM monitoring is the ideal way to measure business processes and compare performance across them. It can pick up duplications or repetitive tasks and identifies problems that cause performance issues. Allowing you to take concrete steps to make improvements and track progress.

The possibilities for process automation are virtually endless. But while implementing process automation can have many benefits, it’s better not to automate certain processes - particularly those that require a “human touch”. Very few processes are fully automated. Most will require some human oversight or intervention. For this reason, the tools and interfaces that employees use to manage automated processes must be intuitive and user-friendly.

There are limited gains to be had from automating single department processes. The real benefits come from automating and optimizing cross-functional processes that span departments and silos. However, there is often a trade-off to be made between ease-of-use, sophistication, and affordability. Many process automation tools are cheap and user-friendly, but don’t scale beyond individual departments. And many BPM tools have this broader capability, but are hard to use and expensive.

Looking for the Right Solution To Automate Your Processes?

OutSystems is a state-of-the-art low-code platform. It allows you to deliver brilliant web and mobile workforce apps, employee portals, and operational dashboards. It offers best-in-class user experience and superior integration to third party systems of record. It is therefore a great tool to build custom applications that automate and orchestrate your unique cross-functional workflows.

These allow for greater productivity and operational efficiency. OutSystems’ AI-powered, automated impact and dependency analysis also allows you to take an adaptive and iterative approach toprocess improvement.

To learn more about it, visit our Process Automation page and give OutSystems a try.