Skip to main content

How to Pick Process Automation Software

Laurie McLaughlin, Appian
April 17, 2023

The pain points that drive IT and business leaders to implement process automation are clear: broken or slow business processes, automation wins that don’t scale, and data silos. All three create problems that can stop critical digital transformation work from reaching its goals. These problems not only cost time and money but also open companies up to risk and compliance trouble and employee engagement woes.

In short, subpar processes are a weakness enterprises can’t bear, especially during this  period of economic disruption. How to pick the best process automation software for your company may not seem so clear. So, let’s break it down and share some advice you can apply as you compare tools.

What is process automation software?

Process automation software is a set of tools used to automate entire business processes, end to end. We’re talking about business operations such as managing the customer lifecycle in banking, optimizing supply chain operations, or speeding up insurance underwriting. These complex processes involve multiple people, departments, and systems, often including legacy systems that can’t be ripped out and replaced. These tools play a key role in a holistic business process management strategy.

A modern platform for process automation has a wide range of technologies, including robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent document processing (IDP), workflow orchestration, artificial intelligence (AI), system integrations, and business rules. This toolset can also escalate tasks or exceptions to people when needed.

Over the years, analyst firms have used various terms to describe the toolset; the most common right now is process automation or hyperautomation. The older term business process automation (BPA) refers to this same set of tools as well.

You may also come across the term intelligent automation. Intelligent process automation refers to the blending of RPA and artificial intelligence (AI). RPA handles the simple, repetitive tasks and AI handles cognitive tasks based on pre-trained models. For example, invoice processing might use AI-driven intelligent document processing (IDP) to extract data from an invoice, then use an RPA bot to enter the information into a specific software program that lacks an API.

[ Learn how to shape a successful automation journey. Get the Process Automation Guide. ]

A final terminology note: You may still have to explain to others in your organization that process software vs. RPA is not an either/or decision. RPA is part of a process automation toolset. RPA only gets you so far on its own. RPA works well for automating repetitive tasks like data entry but doesn’t scale to automate an entire complex business process. Some common examples of where companies apply RPA are to handle manual tasks like reconciling transactions, billing, and customer service. For a closer look, see our related article: 6 RPA Real-World Examples.

How to choose process automation software: 3 key facts.

When comparing process automation systems, what do you need to know? Keep these essentials in mind.

1. An orchestration layer is essential.

Among business process automation software, look for one that uses an orchestration layer, also known as workflow orchestration technology. This coordinates work between automation tools and seamlessly passes off tasks between people and RPA bots. Not all automation suites have it. An orchestration layer is like the conductor of an orchestra—you can have the best musicians in the world, but without a conductor, the music won’t come together as it should.  Automation tools are no different.

Workflow orchestration technology lets your team lay out automation activities, structure the process execution flow, incorporate humans where they belong, and choose how the work will flow from start to finish. The collaboration tools help business users gain a holistic view of process flow, which is crucial as you work to identify not only repetitive tasks but also areas for improvement, using technologies like process mining.

2. Data architecture matters.

Process automation needs the support of a strong data architecture. For this reason, consider a workflow automation platform with data fabric capabilities. A data fabric connects data sets across disparate software systems, whether they’re on-premises or in the cloud, ending data silo headaches and improving security and compliance as you scale your automations. A data fabric can also improve document management and help you show audit trails on the compliance front, which is important for industries like financial services, insurance, healthcare, and life sciences.

[ Want to learn more about workflow automation software and data fabric? Get the eBook: The Data Fabric Advantage. ]

3. Steer clear of islands of automation.

Your organization may already have experienced this common pain point. You deploy a single automation tool in a department to solve a particular problem, or maybe a DevOps team uses it to gain speed at a particular spot in a process. Down the hall or across the country, a different team deploys a different automation tool. Pretty soon, you’ll have islands of automation that produce isolated wins followed by substantial challenges as you try to scale across your organization. 

IT teams are stuck supporting not just one flavor of workflow automation software but multiple business process automation tools, which often create tech debt and can increase the kinds of IT talent the team needs. Business teams often end up disappointed because the desired level of efficiency or speed across the whole enterprise doesn’t materialize. Even though you’re using newer automation tools instead of older business process management tools, the tools often do not communicate well.

Process automation software takeaways.

These are three compelling reasons to consider a process automation platform that bundles an array of automation tools, unifies work, and cuts through data silos. Look for a process automation platform that provides low- or no-code connectors so you can link disparate systems (like CRM, ERP, and database applications) without building the connections from scratch.

The platform approach also offers resiliency and security benefits as you need to update processes in response to changing business or regulatory demands.

[ Want to know more? Get the Gartner® report: Beyond RPA: Build Your Hyperautomation Portfolio. ]