Business process automation (BPA) — the process whereby technologies or software take over routine, everyday tasks — has always made sense and always been something for which companies should be striving. The business advantage gained via automation is no longer reserved for just high-tech mega brands. Just one use case highlights the supply chain disruption which has created a surge of digital transformation initiatives in logistics and distribution. In an attempt to achieve automated logistics, data intelligence is fueling workflows such as freight bid pricing, route optimization and real-time GPS monitoring.

It’s why we’re seeing a surge of automation investment and project rollouts. A 2020 McKinsey & Co. global business leader study found that 66% of leaders were piloting solutions to automate at least one business process, up from 57% two years earlier. This trend continues to gain momentum – especially with supply chain disruptions overloading present logistics teams.

With BPA very much the new leadership imperative, the question therefore is not whether you should automate, but instead are you picking the right approach to suit your unique business environment.

So how do you begin? What are the approaches you can take to automate? What role do things like RPA, AI, and ML play in your initiative? How do you calculate and measure the ROI associated with your endeavor?

It all begins by examining three options that drive BPA; let’s dive into each quickly:

  1. Commercial Automation: When it comes to driving efficiency, productivity and maximization in your business, there are off the shelf tools that will help you automate and drive forward your processes, without having to resort to custom work. From ERP solutions to industry-specific workflow management tools, there are many times where commercial automation works best – particularly if your code is fairly vanilla and based on well-known paradigms. In those cases, commercial tools have already had a chance to catch up to where you are and, when deployed, can have immediate lift and ROI impact on your business.
  2. Custom Automation: This pathway starts to make sense when you have something about your code or processes that is very much domain specific. Custom automation works best when you are doing some ground-breaking stuff, and there is really nothing out there right now that is designed for the code you are writing, your processes, or your area of specialty. Many times, this automation pathway makes sense when you find yourself unable to stay as close to out-of-the-box as you can with a COTS product and are spending too much time trying to create custom code. In these cases, ROI comes more powerfully if you begin and end with a custom approach.
  3. Robotic Process Automation (RPA): When looking to automate — particularly for activities that are client-facing and customer-experience based — RPA is a very attractive option. Sometimes, where companies make a mistake when approaching RPA is they try to do it all at the start. Instead, leaders ought to first consider which of their processes are in control, repeatable, understandable, and well mapped. For the processes in which those conditions are true, you are ready to introduce RPA. In addition, RPA can also be applied on a modular basis – in other words, you might have (for example) seven processes that comprise a complete outcome of value (e.g., intake processes for shipping orders). Within these processes perhaps three are ready for RPA; by introducing RPA for those three in modular components, you build a “semi-automated” workflow that starts returning ROI immediately from RPA while you build towards a fully automatic end state.

Of the three options, RPA is quickly gaining market share and attention in the automation space, and it’s because of the clear ROI and business differentiating impact it affords. Here are a few statistics to keep in mind as you consider the parts of your business that could most benefit from RPA:

  • 53% of enterprises have already started their RPA journey
  • If RPA growth trends continue, RPA will achieve “near universal adoption” in just 5 years
  • 78% of those who have already implemented RPA expect significantly increased investment in RPA over the next three years
  • Top performers earned nearly 4X on their RPA investments, while most other enterprises have earned nearly double

As the research shows, the main gains provided by RPA include everything from lowered operational costs to reduced labor intensive tasks to compliance improvements to shift in team focus from rote manual to value-added tasks. Just imagine all that your team could take on if they gained back even a few hours each week! Those hours compute to faster software delivery cycles, growth in market share, increased customer satisfaction, differentiated user experiences, employee retention… the list goes on and on.

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These value-add gains, along with countless other advantages, are why so many leaders are realizing that if there is a case and process in which RPA can be applied, it should be seriously considered.

One more quick note when considering RPA: as a means to drive your BPA strategy – and this one involves something that needs to be top of mind for all of us — the role of data in our automation strategies is key.

Usually, in regular automation solutions, it’s important to have discrete data sets of synthetic data that protect you from regulatory requirements. These sets keep you from capturing or holding stuff that might be compromising for the individual whose data it is. But with RPA it’s quite different, in that the data you are receiving is dynamic and not known before the time it’s collected. So you have to make sure it’s protected and obfuscated, but that it can also still be returned to the original state if needed.

You will also need to have a good, robust full-continuum recover-on-failure capability, or the ability to capture everything you can to identify and log the data which not usable in its captured form. Hopefully, you can develop some RPAs to deal with cases of data that are not in usable form while also having the ability to alert humans in a timely manner so they can intervene, correct it and feed it back to the RPA.

The world of automation with the possibility of considerable operational efficiency and cost savings gains are here. In fact, it’s not a matter of when to automate anymore but how and in what ways. When you think of your processes, business mandates, and strategic initiatives… where is the first place you think your team should begin in the BPA process?


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