Automation is all about simplification, right? Yet the terminology around automation has multiplied and morphed its way into confusion. Let’s get to the bottom of what business process automation (BPA) means, why and how enterprises use it, what some examples are, and how it relates to automation technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA).
What is business process automation, exactly? Here’s a definition in plain terms: Business process automation (BPA) refers to the use of computer systems and software to automate business processes or tasks. You can either automate a complete business process from end to end, eliminating the need for any manual work or human intervention, or you can automate individual tasks in a larger workflow that still requires a human to make higher-level cognitive decisions or handle exceptions
“Business process automation (BPA) refers to the use of computer systems and software to automate business processes or tasks. You can either automate a complete business process from end to end, eliminating the need for any manual work or human intervention, or you can automate individual tasks in a larger workflow that still requires a human to make higher-level cognitive decisions or handle exceptions.”
BPA is not a single software tool but a holistic approach to automation strategy that includes multiple tools and techniques, such as robotic process automation (RPA), business process management (BPM), BP-XML languages, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and artificial intelligence. Automation strategy is often part of an organization’s broader BPM strategy or framework.
When explaining BPA, emphasizing the importance of a tool that can perform cognitive decision making is critical. When you need the kind of input and judgment that comes from real people, software bots that only automate repetitive tasks (such as RPA bots) won’t be enough—on their own. That’s where BPA comes in, helping you automate both discrete tasks and complex end-to-end business processes or workflows.
"In a way, BPA describes a problem when businesses largely used enterprise systems, and for the most part, they were not talking to each other,” says Isaac Sacolick, President of StarCIO and author of Digital Trailblazer. "Work became tribal, and people only knew what to do in their steps of a workflow. At a certain point, the business wants to innovate, improve quality, or scale the operation, and you find nobody fully understands the end-to-end process. Where there are process or integration gaps, people compensate with emails, meetings, manual processes, spreadsheets, or swivel chairing between screens. Today, businesses work with hundreds of SaaS tools, not just a handful of enterprise systems. That is the problem that leads you to seek BPA and ways to streamline workflows," says Sacolick.
Importantly, BPA involves not only adopting tools but also changing the way your teams work. Just like how you can’t buy Agile or DevOps in a box, because it’s people who make collaboration happen. Organizations combine both tools and new ways of working to reap the benefits of BPA, which range from time and cost savings to increased employee engagement and team agility—a top goal of most digital transformation efforts.
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A business process can be defined as a collection of linked tasks in an organization that culminate to deliver a product or service or achieve a business goal. These business processes, sometimes called workflows, have multiple inputs, or factors. Factors may include management processes, operational processes (core business processes), and supporting business processes (such as human resources and accounting.)
Every organization deals with some processes that are short term (like processing a product refund) and others that are ongoing (like regulatory compliance.)
How does BPA fit into the landscape of automation? While researching automation, you may encounter a similar term to BPA: Digital process automation (DPA). What’s the difference between BPA and DPA? Nothing, really—the difference is in name only: both terms refer to the same body of automation tools and methods. (Gartner prefers the term BPA, while Forrester Research prefers DPA.)
Like DevOps, business process automation doesn’t come in a box. As noted previously, this set of technologies and techniques often includes workflow automation, robotic process automation (RPA), business process management (BPM), and artificial intelligence.
Among those automation technologies, RPA tools have generated a great deal of buzz for their ability to apply software bots to automate simple, repetitive tasks, such as data entry. But RPA is just a piece of a successful business automation strategy, not a replacement for or competitor to it. Because the moment you need a human to weigh in with a cognitive decision, RPA on its own no longer suffices.
“Ultimately, RPA is just one component of many in a workflow. Its full potential is best realized when used in concert with other capabilities, such as business process management, intelligent document processing, and AI—all things that work together,” as Appian Product Marketing Director Michael Rahm recently wrote. (For more details, read RPA vs. DPA: The Differences and Similarities Between Digital and Robotic Process Automation.)
How do organizations use BPA? A classic example of a process that benefits from BPA is onboarding new employees. This process traditionally involved a lot of paperwork, phone calls, and follow-up questions via email. With BPA, an organization can automate many of an employee’s first interactions with a company—for example, processing badges, setting up payroll, and handling video training. That saves time and hassle for both the new employee and the HR team, and gets employee engagement off to a good start.
Other common business process automation use case examples include:
Vertical industries, such as financial services and insurance, make use of BPA to automate the types of business processes that once involved costly, time-consuming manual handoffs and paperwork. In financial services, picture the series of business processes that are triggered when someone opens a new account. In insurance, think about the claims management process
Across all industries, teams doing change management and digital transformation projects must address and deal with complex, often long-standing business processes. Consider, even, the critical set of processes related to customer experience at your own organization.
A complex process involves a long list of dependencies. Those can add up to excessive documentation, room for error, and technical debt. That’s where business process automation comes into play, allowing teams to move with more speed and accuracy.
As evidenced by these examples, business process automation can deliver quantitative results in terms of time and cost. But it also delivers a range of other benefits, including retaining top talent by preventing burnout and improving employee experience.
BPA can also be a game-changer for companies dealing with high-stakes compliance issues. BPA can not only automate compliance tasks but also offer an auditable record of compliance work to meet stringent industry and governmental standards.
More broadly, BPA makes space for real change: a leader who can automate more of a workflow is able to point their people toward more innovative work and more cross-functional collaboration that spurs breakthroughs. These teams gain agility, the value of which is hard to overstate right now.
As the pandemic showed many organizations, the ability to adapt quickly may prove to be the most powerful competitive differentiator. That’s one reason many organizations fast-tracked their digital transformation initiatives during the pandemic.
For a more detailed look at additional benefits of business process automation, read our related article: Business process automation (BPA): 6 key benefits.
As you explore and discuss BPA’s role and potential benefits for your organization, you will need to articulate what it is and is not to a variety of people. We asked automation experts for some plain-terms definitions that should help.
“Imagine a world where in order to get a specific task done, like ordering a new computer server, you have to fill out a paper form or even something like a PDF file or a Microsoft Word document. Someone has to then take a look at that document and make a decision about whether to approve it or not, then pass it on to someone else to actually acquire it. Then the person doing the acquisition needs to call someone or put an order in through a website to get the computer. Finally, the acquirer needs to deliver it to the original customer and let them know it's ready to go. With BPA, it's possible to almost fully automate that process, with only minimal human intervention.” —Richard Yhip, Solutions Architect, Appian
“Business process automation, or digital process automation, is a set of technologies that streamline execution of business processes. Such business processes could span from requesting an account name change or a new uniform to accepting and processing thousands of shipping orders daily. These technologies, like low-code and high-code custom apps, API service layers, robotic processes, and federated authentication mechanisms, transition data seamlessly between different states with as little intervention from the user as possible. People will always be the decision makers but BPA/DPA technologies make it simple for them to view the necessary data, make a decision, and move the process forward in a transparent way.”—Mike Cichy, Area VP, Architecture, Appian
It bears repeating: BPA is not one product but a set of technologies and techniques, including workflow automation, robotic process automation (RPA), business process management (BPM), BP-XML languages, ERP, and artificial intelligence tools.
A low-code automation platform is one example of a business process automation solution that takes advantage of both bots and AI. Low-code platforms deliver visual tools that let you essentially sketch out simple or complex processes, then drag and drop reusable components into a visual interface to build better workflows. These workflows can then be shared, reused, and iterated on across teams and between business functions. Look for a low-code platform that offers pre-built automation components you can easily add to your workflow designs.
If you are an organization tackling ambitious customer experience goals, that kind of agility matters a great deal.
What are some of the top considerations for choosing a BPA solution? Here’s a checklist of questions to ask:
RPA integration: Are there native RPA capabilities, or will you end up doing clunky, manual coding when you integrate tools?
Accessibility: Can you offer the functions you need from a single unified platform rather than asking teams to deal with multiple, decentralized platforms?
Ease of use and reusability: Are the interfaces and visual design tools understandable for any team member, with the option to reuse and customize low-code components as business needs evolve?
Backwards compatibility: Will the platform keep up as new regulations and security standards emerge, while ensuring existing apps and workflows keep running?
[ Learn more about BPM. Get The BPM Guide: The Key to Workflow Automation. ]