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When to Automate a Process: 4 Signs and Strategic Tips

Laurie McLaughlin, Appian
May 3, 2023

How do you know when a process needs help? Is it slow, bloated, or, worst of all, truly broken? It’s a crucial question for all leaders and teams pursuing speed and growth, to meet digital transformation goals like faster customer onboarding or faster time to market. Often, even seemingly simple business processes are more complex than we realize. Teams and individuals may develop clever workarounds to get past large and small process problems. But those solutions don’t scale, and eventually your processes and organizational speed both stall.

When should you automate a process? Let’s examine some signs that process automation is in order and explore advice for applying it as part of a broad automation strategy.

[ Learn how to successfully implement process automation strategies. Get the Process Automation Guide. ]

When and why to automate a process.

End-to-end process automation, also known as hyperautomation, can cut through the obstacles that create bottlenecks and slow down your team’s workflows.

In everyday life, most of us already see many examples of processes that benefit from automation, such as employee onboarding and customer service request routing. But process automation also helps companies streamline the most complex, highly regulated processes, such as the automated underwriting process in the insurance industry.

In the automated underwriting insurance example, the overall answer to “why automate?” is clear: leaders must balance speed and compliance at the same time. The speed created by automation is a competitive necessity. But there are plenty of other reasons to automate—and it’s critical to know the signs that automation is in order.  

How to decide to automate: 4 signs and 5 root reasons.

Maybe you’ve experienced an accounting (or HR, IT, or sales) process that involves many “swivel the chair” moments, where a team member needs another person to fill in information in order to advance the work. Think about your own organization’s workflows and processes and whether any of these four signs of trouble sound familiar:

  1. A long completion time for one step in the process.
  2. Lengthy wait times between steps in the process.
  3. Frequent re-working of steps.
  4. Significant variability in process completion times.

These warning signs signal the need for leaders and their teams to locate the root causes of issues so they can create long-term improvements. Consider these five common root causes:

  1. Lack of data access: Are your people waiting too long to access key data or struggling to access supporting data? These delays stop processes in their tracks and frustrate teams.
  2.  Lack of standardization: Remember the clever workarounds we mentioned earlier? They don’t scale. They can be hard to track, creating compliance issues. Updating the process becomes more difficult.
  3. Lack of specialization: Some specialized problems require specialized processes, for example to ensure speed in a highly regulated environment.
  4. Lack of automation: Manual processes not only waste peoples’ time, but also can introduce errors. When people cut and paste from spreadsheets, for example, errors will happen. Using automation tools like intelligent document processing (IDP) can change that.
  5.  Improperly applied automation: Sometimes you apply the wrong automation tool to the problem and the process doesn’t improve as hoped. Or, maybe you see improvements in a department, but you fail when you try to scale it across the organization.

[ How does RPA fit properly into a process automation strategy? Get the Gartner® Beyond RPA: Build Your Hyperautomation Technology Portfolio report. ]

When it’s time for process automation: 4 takeaways.

If you’re struggling with any of those signs or root problems, implementing process automation makes sense. A modern process automation platform optimizes complex processes, such as customer onboarding processes in banking, from end to end. That’s much different than simply automating a discrete task inside a workflow. A process like the customer onboarding banking example cuts across business functions, multiple software solutions, and on-premises and cloud systems. An automation point solution on its own won’t be enough.

To get the job done, choose a process automation platform that unifies an array of automation technologies, including robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent document processing (IDP), workflow orchestration, and artificial intelligence (AI).

Consider this advice for process automation success:

  • Seek out a solution that has a workflow orchestration layer. Workflow orchestration allows you to pass information between humans and digital workers like bots or AI. Not all platforms include this orchestration layer.
  • You’ll need a strong data architecture. Seek out a process 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 automation.
  • Plan for room to grow. A process automation platform also offers flexibility to add and orchestrate future automation tools and gain new AI capabilities.
  • Process automation doesn’t end. At the most innovative companies, process automation plays an important role in continuous improvement.

Learn how to successfully implement process automation strategy and tools. Get the Process Automation Guide eBook.