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 may also be called digital process automation (DPA) or workflow automation. These all refer to the same set of automation tools and methods. (Gartner prefers the term BPA, while Forrester Research prefers DPA.)
As part of a broader digital transformation strategy, business process automation helps organizations make their workflows more efficient and productive. Business process automation technologies and techniques include workflow automation, robotic process automation, business process management, intelligent document processing, and artificial intelligence, among others.
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Every organization has business processes. Process is how work gets done. At its most basic, a business process is any set of linked tasks or activities with clearly defined inputs that produces an output.
Inputs may include any factor that contributes (either directly or indirectly) to the added value of a service or product. Input factors can be part of management processes, operational processes, or supporting business processes. The output of a business process is often delivering a service or product to a client or accomplishing a goal.
Most modern business 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.
Because complex business processes are constantly changing, leading organizations include process improvement and process design (or redesign) in their broader digital transformation strategies.
In business process improvement, you regularly make incremental improvements to existing processes over the life of that process. This can be done in different ways, for example, with the popular Six Sigma technique.
Alternatively, business process design or redesign involves making major changes to an existing process or creating an entirely new process. This can be a massive undertaking and should be done only when absolutely necessary. And once a new process is designed, it should be maintained with continuous business process improvement.
At the heart of every business are hundreds—often thousands—of processes. If your business processes are outdated or inefficient, your organization will face risks, including lost productivity, frustrated employees, higher costs, and weak competitive positioning.
With business process automation, 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.
You have probably encountered many instances of business process automation, sometimes without even realizing it. For example, say a new employee needs to be onboarded. Without digital process automation, this can be a manual, hectic, and disorganized process, especially in an increasingly remote world.
With automation, though, the HR department can create and manage digital workflows that streamline and simplify new hire onboarding. Start with the very first step: a new employee has accepted an offer and set their start date. When the HR recruiter enters the start date in the onboarding workflow, it triggers several automated steps:
The app creates a unique new hire portal and notifies the new employee via email. The new hire can enter 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’s ready for the employee’s first day.
The facilities manager is notified to assign the new hire a workspace and security credentials. Since the new hire has uploaded their forms in the portal, their photo is already available to add to their employee ID badge.
Automated business processes like this example can save you considerable time and headaches, resulting in smoother workflows and better employee experiences.
Some additional examples of where organizations often apply business process automation include claims management, customer service, regulatory compliance, risk mitigation, and analytics.
[ What can financial services industry leaders achieve with BPA? Watch a State Street case study to learn how this organization used BPA and modernization efforts to improve complex workflows. ]
Business process management (BPM) is a methodology and a set of technologies that helps businesses understand and manage their business processes. When you think of BPM, you may think of software. But BPM is more than that. It is a discipline for discovering, designing, executing, measuring, and optimizing an organization’s processes. BPM plays a vital role in building more efficient processes.
Automation—including business process automation—is part of a strong BPM strategy.
And, to reiterate, business process automation is not just one tool but a set of tools and techniques, including robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent document processing (IDP), and artificial intelligence (AI).
[ Learn more about BPM. Get The BPM Guide: The Key to Workflow Automation. ]
RPA uses bots to automate simple, high-volume, repetitive, and manual tasks. RPA is often used to automate back-office functions, such as data entry. Unattended RPA bots can usually run on enterprise servers with little to no human intervention. These digital workers can work 24/7, 365 days a year based on a predefined schedule or trigger.
And RPA serves a dual purpose in your complete automation effort. Even though the most recognized use case for RPA is automating tasks within workflows, RPA can also connect systems where no application programming interfaces (APIs) are present (often the case with older technologies). More than just bots, RPA is a valuable part of your automation tool set.
[ Automation inspiration: Get more than 200 ideas for how to use RPA and IDP. ]
Business process automation involves orchestrating people, data, and systems to automate manual tasks in a workflow. You could do this with just RPA, but you might also choose to employ more nuanced automation technologies, such as IDP, AI, and business rules.
What’s the difference between BPA and RPA? Well, BPA is much broader and more encompassing. Many people still think only of RPA when they think of automation, but that assumes all automation is done by taking over a task with a script, a bot, or a piece of software. The truth is, many challenges require more advanced capabilities than RPA can provide on its own, such as cognitive decision making. RPA is one component of a broader business process automation approach, and it’s best when used in conjunction with other automation capabilities.
Business process automation frees your team members from wasting time on manual, time-consuming tasks. Processes are streamlined, with fewer errors and improved performance. Empowering employees to focus on higher-level work improves engagement and makes room for innovation.
The benefits of business process automation include:
Speed: Fewer manual steps means faster, more efficient business processes. According to a Forrester analysis of one leading company, automation saved each of their employees 20 days of work or more.
Human innovation: Business process automation allows humans to be more human. It frees people to perform the higher level cognitive tasks they are best equipped for, rather than the tedious work that’s better suited to machines. It leverages and augments their problem-solving and interaction skills, making business users even more valuable.
Revenue: Despite the upfront costs of implementing business process automation, the long-term savings are significant. In a survey of leading financial service organizations, 98% of automation leaders said that automation has led to significant cost savings at their organization.
Accuracy: Machines don’t make nearly as many mistakes as humans. 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.
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 business process automation, including the advantages of BPA for talent strategy and compliance work, read our related article: Business process automation (BPA): 6 key benefits.
Before you decide on business process automation tools or solutions for your business, consider these three guiding principles for success:
When most people think of automation, they think of RPA. But you can’t apply a bot to every manual task and expect it to perform well over time. For more complex task automation, you’ll need to build a more stable, long-term solution.
Consider these top business process automation tools and the ideal use cases for each:
Robotic process automation (RPA): Bots perform repeatable, routine tasks, freeing employees to focus on more important work. RPA can also help connect older systems that don’t have APIs.
Intelligent document process (IDP): IDP delivers AI-based data extraction capabilities to eliminate thousands of hours of manual work associated with data extraction, data validation, and data entry. Most large companies likely manage millions of documents—IDP automates and speeds up the process of managing all this.
Artificial intelligence (AI): AI can independently make simple cognitive decisions, suggest next steps, and ensure that business rules and logic are followed.
Business rules: A business rule is a statement describing a business policy or decision procedure. Some programming languages run business rules together into very complex algorithms. Workflow tools and business process automation depend on business rules to specify how decisions are made.
Many companies start their automation efforts with a small project, apply RPA for a quick win, and then use that success to build a business case for broader automation projects. That’s a good approach in many ways. But it can lead to a disjointed automation tech stack with far too many niche products addressing far too few business issues.
Instead of one-off wins, look at the bigger picture. Be thoughtful and consistent in the ways you apply business process automation software. For example, you might find a data migration task that could benefit from automation. If there’s no existing integration or API, you might decide to start with RPA. But eventually, you should plan to build a more stable, connected system to automate the task long-term. Otherwise, it’s just another stop-gap bot stuck on a single, disconnected problem.
The most important part of successful business process automation is orchestrating your people, processes, and technologies. Just as you should ensure your automation technologies work together, you need to also check that your people and processes are all in sync with any new automation technology you bring in.
One of the best ways to coordinate your automation efforts is with a Center of Excellence. An automation CoE is a dedicated business unit focused on implementing automation across the entire business. It leads areas such as researching and purchasing new automation platforms, establishing best practices and training employees, reviewing automations before they go live, and overseeing all the ongoing maintenance and improvements needed.
[ Read also: 5 Best Practices for an Automation Center of Excellence ]
Every automation 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 across the organization.
[ Which emerging automation trends deserve your attention now? Get the Gartner Hyperautomation 2022 Trends Report. ]