Skip to main content

What is process automation?

Learn how process automation works and how it relates to other automation technologies such as RPA—plus, explore common benefits and implementation strategies.

Process automation definition

Process automation refers to the use of technology to automate repetitive and manual tasks within a business process. It includes technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) or intelligent document processing (IDP), workflow orchestration, artificial intelligence (AI), system integrations, and business rules. The goal of process automation is to reduce the need for human intervention in time-consuming, routine tasks for more efficient and effective processes.

Automation makes your enterprise more efficient, but it also gives you a competitive edge for the future. Download our guide to successfully implement end-to-end process automation strategies.

How does process automation work?

Process automation works by breaking down a business process into smaller, more manageable components, and then automating those components. These components can be simple, like sending automated emails, or they can be more complex, like automating the routing and approval of documents.

Once the components are automated, they can be integrated into a workflow that orchestrates a larger business process. This workflow can be customized to meet the specific needs of an organization, allowing for greater flexibility and adaptability.

A good process automation strategy incorporates continuous improvement, which should include three main efforts:

  • Design: Design processes and process updates with low-code development so that business users and IT teams can easily collaborate on process improvement.
  • Automate: Automate your process where needed with a unified platform for process automation that provides the best-fit technology or worker for the challenge.
  • Optimize: Optimize business efficiency with process mining. Leverage the insights necessary to identify the value of your digital solutions and where to apply your efforts for maximum benefit.

You’ve probably encountered many examples of process automation, maybe without even realizing it.

Let’s say a new employee needs to be onboarded. In this process automation example, we start with a new hire: a candidate has accepted an offer and set their start date. When the HR recruiter enters the start date in the new hire onboarding application, built on their process automation platform, it triggers several automated steps:

  • The app creates a unique new hire portal and notifies the new employee via automated email. The new hire enters all the necessary information and upload forms on the portal page.
  • Business rules based on role and department help inform what type of IT devices and access the new employee will need. IT uses this information to configure a laptop and make sure it will be ready for the employee’s first day.
  • The facilities manager receives a notification of the new hire via an automated email triggered by the application. She assigns the employee a workspace. RPA passes this information on to IT and logs it into the employee’s portal page so he knows where to go on day one.
  • AI-powered IDP extracts the tax and bank data from the employee’s forms and an application programming interface (API) integration delivers it to the company’s payroll and T&E systems.

You can apply automation to processes across an organization, like supply chain management, acquisition management, or customer onboarding. Automated processes can save you considerable time and headaches, resulting in smoother workflows and better experiences for customers and employees.

Robotic process automation (RPA) vs. process automation.

After reading the example above, you might be wondering how process automation is different from RPA.

RPA and process automation should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather, complementary. RPA complements process automation by automating tasks within a process in a way that emulates human interaction with an application user interface. It’s still a common misconception to think only of RPA when thinking of process automation, but the truth is, many challenges require more advanced capabilities than RPA can provide on its own, such as content extraction or email classification. RPA is one component of a broader process automation approach where you employ multiple automation technologies, such as IDP, AI, API integrations, and business rules.

RPA serves two important functions in your process automation journey:

  • Task automation. RPA uses software robots to emulate human-to-computer interactions that automate repetitive tasks across applications. Unattended RPA bots can usually run on host machines with little to no human intervention. These digital workers can work 24/7, 365 days a year based on a predefined schedule or trigger.
  • Connecting systems. RPA can also connect legacy systems where no APIs exist.
Discover which hyperautomation technologies are driving immediate and future business impact in the Gartner® Emerging Tech Impact Radar: Hyperautomation report.

Why is process automation important?

At the heart of every organization are hundreds—often thousands—of processes. Most enterprise processes interact with a variety of people, data, and systems, and they are constantly changing and developing. Processes cross-cut each other, and to be effective, they need to flow through different systems, across organizations, and between both internal and external parties.

If your business processes are inefficient, broken, or non-compliant, your organization will face risks, including poor customer experience, fines, lost productivity, frustrated employees, higher costs, and weak competitive positioning.

With process automation, a key part of digital transformation, your technology and your people all work together to accomplish workflows in the most efficient way possible. By integrating digital workers into your standard processes for human-based tasks, your operations will be more resilient and you’ll see a marked improvement in outcomes.

Next, read about the broad benefits of process automation.

Benefits of process automation.

Automation unleashes innovation by freeing your organization’s human capital from repetitive work, enabling them to do what they do best. When you adopt process automation, you will:

  • Increase the effectiveness of your business processes to drive value.
  • Empower operations to adjust to change, whether those changes are due to regulations, economic conditions, or supply chain issues.

In addition, process automation leads to:

  1. Efficiency: Fewer manual steps means faster, more efficient business processes. According to a Forrester study, companies can see 95% faster operational processes. You can free up valuable resources and allocate them to more strategic areas of your business.
  2. Innovation: Process automation frees human workers to perform high-value cognitive tasks, rather than the tedious work that’s better suited to machines. It also gives your organization the agility you need to change with the environment around you.
  3. Cost savings: Despite the upfront costs of implementing process automation, the long-term savings are significant.
  4. Accuracy: By automating repetitive tasks that used to be subject to human error, you can improve accuracy, saving valuable time that would otherwise be spent finding and fixing inevitable mistakes.
  5. Competitive advantage: Automating critical processes helps improve customer satisfaction, customer service, and the ability to respond to changes in the competitive market.

For more details on the benefits of process automation, including the advantages for talent strategy and compliance work, read: Business process automation (BPA): 6 key benefits.

How to implement process automation.

To get started with process automation, consider the following steps:

1. Use the right automation tool for the right use case.

RPA can’t fix every process challenge. For a successful program, you’ll need a process automation solution that offers a wide range of automation technology.

Consider these top process automation capabilities and the ideal use cases for each:

  • Workflow orchestration: Often left out of an automation suite, orchestration is a critical framework for organizing processes from beginning to end. Process or workflow orchestration technology enables designers to lay out automation activities, structure the execution flow, incorporate humans with automations, and decide how these will flow from one to another. The business can capture a holistic view of process flow, identify areas of improvement, and easily understand total process journeys.
  • System automation: This includes APIs and RPA. APIs provide a well-defined specification on how systems can interact with each other. A good process automation platform should provide low- or no-code connectors so you don’t have to build them from scratch. When system interactions are not supported by APIs, you can rely on RPA software robots to automate these by emulating human-to-computer interactions.
  • AI: Artificial intelligence, or AI, provides cognitive decision capabilities to augment and accelerate human decision-making and process routing. In the enterprise, AI has been best applied when processing unstructured or semi-structured content, such as emails and documents. AI can be employed to automatically read and understand the nature of content to accelerate process automation. This application of AI is commonly known as IDP.
  • IDP: IDP automates content classification and data extraction. Through applying AI-based IDP, your employees don’t have to spend time reviewing and processing content.
  • Business rules: Business rules instruct workflow technologies to carry out tasks or deliver information in a certain way, depending on varying sets of conditions or criteria. An enterprise business rule framework enables business rules to be created in a modular way. Organizations can then reuse them and manage them with the proper governance, and gain the ability to enforce consistency.

2. Take a platform approach to process automation.

Using standalone systems for different automation tasks is part of what’s led to such difficult management for IT teams and stunted growth for business leaders. Even if you have multiple process automation technologies, if they don’t work well together, you’ll run into substantial challenges when trying to scale your automation initiative. A process automation platform that unifies these technologies enables you to use the best-fit technology that works well with your data, and enable automation-native operations.

3. Establish an automation center of excellence.

One of the best ways to coordinate your efforts is with an automation center of excellence (CoE). This CoE is a dedicated business unit focused on implementing automation across the entire business. It leads areas such as researching and purchasing a new process automation platform, establishing best practices and training employees, reviewing processes before they go live, and overseeing all the ongoing maintenance and improvements needed.

Every CoE will look different depending on organization size, automation goals, and internal team structures. But regardless of how it’s set up, having one team to lead all your automation efforts helps evangelize projects and set standards for business process management across the organization.

Key process automation takeaways.

You came here for essential information on process automation. Take away these key lessons:

  1. Process automation uses a variety of technologies to automate repetitive and manual tasks within a business process. Process automation reduces the need for human intervention in time-consuming, routine tasks, speeds up complex business processes, and improves resiliency and accuracy.
  2. RPA and process automation are not mutually exclusive, but rather, complementary. Many challenges require more advanced capabilities than RPA can provide on its own, such as content extraction or email classification. RPA is often one component of a broader process automation effort.
  3. Using multiple process automation technologies that don’t work well together will create substantial challenges as you try to scale your automation initiative. A process automation platform can solve that problem, unifying work and cutting through data silos.
  4. With the proper strategy, process automation can create the operational excellence and effectiveness that’s key to gaining competitive advantage and fueling innovation.
Want to learn more about platforms for process automation that help you streamline operations? Download the Everest Group Process Orchestration PEAK Matrix® Assessment.