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Business Process Automation, Explained

Get to the bottom of what business process automation is, why and how enterprises use it, and how it relates to other automation technologies.

What is business process automation, exactly? Here’s a definition in plain terms: Business process automation refers to the use of computer systems and software to automate business processes and the tasks within them. You can automate individual tasks or multiple steps in a process, leaving humans to work on higher-level decisions and handle exceptions. 

BPA is not a single software tool but a holistic automation approach that includes multiple tools and techniques, such as AI, robotic process automation (RPA), business process management (BPM), and data management tools like data fabric. Modern business process automation doesn’t just mean plugging machines into formerly manual processes—instead, it brings together the strengths of people, bots, and artificial intelligence. Automation strategy is often part of an organization’s broader BPM strategy or framework.

Discover how to achieve process excellence from end-to-end
in the Process Automation Guide.
“Business process automation, or digital process automation, is a set of technologies that streamline execution of business processes . . . 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

What are some common technologies used in business process automation?

BPA isn’t one product—it’s a set of technologies and techniques that includes things like workflow automation, RPA, BPM, data management, and AI. You’ll typically need capabilities in four major areas to help you redesign your processes:

  • Process development. This includes tools to aid your development, like low-code, AI, and UI and UX capabilities that create a strong total experience across devices. 

  • Process automation. You’ll need task management automation tools like RPA and AI-powered content processing abilities, but you’ll need more than just the automation tools themselves. You’ll also want ways to orchestrate and govern your automations, like process modeling, business rules and rules management, and case management. 

  • Process optimization. Look for process mining and health check capabilities. 

  • Process orchestration. Search for enterprise data management tools like data fabric, codeless system integrations, and governance capabilities.
Get an overview of BPA offerings in the
Gartner® Market Guide for Business Process Automation Tools.

How is business process automation different from RPA?

One particular technology may come to mind when you think about business process automation—robotic process automation, or RPA. But the major difference between these two technologies is that RPA is meant to handle two specific use cases, while BPA can orchestrate complex end-to-end business processes

RPA is best leveraged for these two primary use cases:

  • Connecting systems: RPA can connect legacy systems that lack APIs.

  • Task automation: RPA can automate repetitive tasks performed on client applications, like copying data from one system to another or triggering an alert or notification.

To do anything beyond these, you need the full range of capabilities in a business process automation platform. RPA is just one piece of a successful business automation strategy, not a replacement for or competitor to it.

Which types of business processes can be automated?

Across all industries, teams doing change management and digital transformation projects must address and deal with complex, often longstanding, processes with a long list of dependencies. That can add up to excessive documentation, more room for error, and technical debt. That’s where business process automation comes into play, giving teams speed, accuracy, and other benefits.

Check out these process automation examples, common scenarios where BPA can improve a process to give you better results: 

  • Procurement. A government agency modernizes its procurement process to ensure it can provide vital goods and services on time. Using data fabric, it unifies its data sources and creates one centralized system where everyone can see the information they need to take the next steps in the process. 

  • Customer onboarding. A bank creates a better experience for customers by streamlining the account opening process, using automation to create contracts and documents, and reporting any exception requests on-demand for employees to review. 

  • Customer service. An insurance company makes the underwriting process faster for customers by connecting agents and underwriters in one platform. These employees can now track the status of all policies, potential issues, and their timing, claims, and payment statuses in one place. And with automation, they avoid any manual, repetitive tasks.

  • Compliance. A financial regulator ensures risk management processes stay compliant by using automation for data management, visibility, and one-click reporting to easily provide documentation to auditors.  
“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

Benefits of business process automation.

As evidenced by these examples, business process automation can of course deliver results in terms of time and cost savings. But it also delivers a range of other results, like improved accuracy with less human error, higher customer satisfaction, faster delivery of new products, and more visibility into processes.

BPA can also help companies dealing with high-stakes compliance issues. BPA both automates compliance tasks and offers an auditable record of work to ensure compliance with stringent industry and governmental standards.

More broadly, BPA makes space for real change: the ability to adapt quickly may prove to be the most powerful competitive differentiator in the list of BPA benefits. A leader who can automate more of a workflow is able to point their people toward more innovative work, leading to more cross-functional collaboration that spurs breakthroughs. These teams go on to become more agile, a value that should not be underestimated.

In the end then, what is business process automation? It’s an approach to improving your processes by automating wherever you can so that work happens fast and employees can focus their time on higher-value tasks—all in the name of making your business more adaptable.

Want to improve your processes?
The Ultimate Guide to Continuous Process Improvement
provides a tried-and-true methodology.