Introductory guide to help you design and build modern business processes.
“A rule of thumb is that a lousy process will consume ten times as many hours as the work itself requires.”—Bill Gates.
Businesses today are all-in on being digital. Rattled by the pandemic and fuelled by a desire to emerge stronger, businesses are finding ways and means to use digital—not just to retain value, but to create new value. Business process automation is at the core of this transformation.
Wikipedia defines automation as a “wide range of technologies that reduce human intervention in processes”.
Automation is all around us, so much so that we take it for granted, e.g., when we withdraw cash using an ATM, request a fee waiver from the bank using its Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system or buy a train ticket using a kiosk.
Improving processes is not new; companies have been doing it for decades. What’s new these days is the use of ubiquitous data, unlimited connectivity and massive computing power of new technologies to dramatically improve the efficiency of the process and, more importantly, to reinvent some of them completely.
There are many types of automation; it depends on where you look. Industrial automation, home automation, logistics automation, etc., are all kinds of automation. This article will focus on Business Process Automation (BPA), which uses modern technologies to optimise or completely reimagine business processes.
What’s a business process? It’s defined as a series of steps taken to achieve a business outcome. Here are some examples:
As you can see from the examples, processes include internal-facing (e.g., procurement) and external facing (e.g., order to cash) ones.
There are many benefits to automating business processes, some obvious, but many non-obvious:
The non-obvious benefits, when applied at scale in the organisation, can create value and build differentiating capabilities. Imagine if you had data across your core business processes and the ability to use the data to make continuous improvements and create new value. Wait, did Amazon.com pop in your head? Amazon’s relentless push to drive value from its processes has led to industry-disrupting innovations such as 2-hour deliveries.
If you were a caterpillar before and are now using tech to only optimise your process, you have just become a faster caterpillar. However, if you are now using the new capabilities that tech offers and you aspire to relook the value proposition completely, you start to become a butterfly.
There are so many buzzwords used in the business process automation space that we must add an obligatory section outlining their differences and (mostly) overlaps.
Workflow automation is a subset of BPA. Workflows are work routines in a process. For example, consider a new credit card application process. One of the routines is to check the Know Your Customer (KYC) obligations. Checking KYC is a workflow with many steps. It is best if this workflow is automated. And because workflows are reusable, they can be used in other processes, thereby scaling the benefits.
If your business process interfaces with many IT applications, you might need Robotic Process Automation or RPA to automate the manual interfacing steps. RPA gives you “digital workers” or bots that mimic mouse clicks and keyboard strokes to complete a task.
Consider an employee onboarding process that requires uploading new employee data onto an HR system. This task is repetitive with well-defined rules. If this task is manual, an RPA bot could help automate it using the respective IT applications. But don't forget, RPA is still a short-term fix. A business process with many RPA fixes calls for an overhaul of the entire process.
Intelligent process automation (IPA) is not a new class of automation; it is just the evolution or maturity of workflow and business process automation using Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies such as computer vision and natural language processing (NLP). These technologies mainly convert unstructured information into structured information.
Consider the task of reading customer support emails. Today, NLP algorithms can read emails (unstructured information) and decide whether to respond using an article from the knowledge base or get a support person involved. It can do this by extracting structured information such as subject matter, urgency, sentiment etc. from the text of the emails and making them actionable.
In summary, it is fair to say that business process automation is evolving to the point that AI technologies will drive much of the automation in the future.
You have two options when looking at reimagining your business processes with automation:
You can always start with a few processes. Still, if you don’t have a plan for a systematic overhaul, you will not become a digital business—you will be a faster caterpillar, not a butterfly!
In our article, ‘You can’t point-solution your way to a transformation, we argued that you need to start thinking of digital platforms to become a digital business.
“A digital platform is a repository of business, data, and infrastructure components used to rapidly configure digital offerings.”—Designed for Digital, Jeanne Ross et al.
Platforms offer Lego-like composability to create and automate business processes. In our KYC example from earlier, KYC would be an automated workflow module that you can easily reuse in another business process flow without building it from scratch.
A Google search on “business process automation platforms” reveals many players in this emerging field—which is a whole other problem to solve! The good news is that the market for business process automation is mature and there are many platforms to consider.
An excellent way to approach buying the right platform is by first building an inventory of the processes you intend to automate and then analysing them to find the automation requirements. Don’t be surprised to discover that you might need to stitch a few platforms together to achieve all the functionalities you need.
Even if you have selected the right platform (or platforms) for your transformation, you still need to redesign or reimagine your business process.
Business process improvement is not a new activity. But, with the emergence of business process automation platforms, the same activity becomes more collaborative, takes less time, and frankly, is more fun to do!
Sometimes, an inefficient process stands out like a sore thumb. Too many people involved, too many delays, too many support tickets, etc. It is easy to identify such cases.
At other times, you might need to do some homework by analysing your process inventory and identifying the right processes from there.
In her book, The Power of Business Process Improvement, Susan Page recommends asking the following questions to identify the processes:
Once you’ve identified the process, you need to map the current flow. You can use digital whiteboards like Miro or flowcharting apps like Visio. The primary purpose of mapping is to draw out the steps in the process and identify information like:
It’s time to reimagine the current process. Your knowledge of the process and the business process automation platform will play a significant role in this exercise, so ensure that the right people are in the room.
Susan Page again has some guidelines for this activity. She offers the Improvement Wheel to look for opportunities:
Designing and building a new process is relatively easier if you use a BPA platform. Many of these platforms are low-code platforms, meaning that many of them offer Lego-type composable structures to create and manage processes.
However, a single platform may not have all the functionality you need; you might need to add a few more platforms. For example, not all BPA platforms offer high-level intelligent document processing capabilities to read unstructured information and convert it to structured information. You may need to stitch together a few platforms to power and scale such requirements in this case.
Once you have your new process working on the platform, you need to test it out with the target users. You can use the findings from the tests to tweak or fine-tune your process.
After you’re satisfied with the tests, you need to document the current process so that all process stakeholders understand how the process works.
You also need to inform the relevant process stakeholders and hold a few training sessions to help those who heavily depend on the process to understand the nitty-gritty details.
Once the process is running, it will generate data. Many of the BPA platforms offer a dashboard to view the performance of the process and other analytics to find gaps and opportunities to improve the process.
If you have defined KPIs for your process, you can gather the analytics for these KPIs as well, thus making the performance of the process transparent to all.
In summary, if you are starting out to automate business processes across your organisation, consider the 3Ps:
Good luck on your business automation journey. If you need a little help from us, just get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.
We gave the generative AI language model a quick whirl to see how it could help us in our work.