The evolution of technology has encouraged organizations to seek new and innovative ideas to drive efficiency and streamline communication between parties. As a result, more companies are implementing IT systems to support their operations. In competitive markets and a world capitalizing on the use of big data, companies must leverage technology to increase value, manage risk, and gain transparency into their business operations.
In an effort to maximize return on these systems, business process automation (BPA) programs are being launched to identify recurring and repeatable workflows and to enact policies and leverage the technology to get work done faster, more efficiently, and with fewer errors.
Nancy Scott, a Director at Stout and the firm’s BPA expert, weighs in on key considerations for launching a successful automation program through strategy, technology, and prioritization. Nancy has more than 20 years of experience in building and leading highly effective teams leveraging BPA to solve complex problems. She has experience across multiple industries and is both LEAN- and Six Sigma-certified.
In general, when someone hears the word “automation,” the initial thought that comes to mind are robots and fears of job loss. But that isn’t what BPA is about.
In its simplest sense, BPA uses technology to transform manual, routine, and time-consuming tasks into automated processes. The goal of a BPA program is to optimize workflows for efficiency and then leverage technology to automate the flow of work. This enables standard data-capture and information management, resulting in streamlined employee collaboration and enhanced client experiences.
Consider a department that uses spreadsheets to track incoming and outgoing requests. Alternatively, consider a team responsible for managing contract submission, review, approval, and execution through email. BPA leverages workflow engines, web-based portals, rule-based notification systems, and other technology-enabled features to drive workflow and ensure a repeatable and measurable process.
Generally speaking, any manual effort that has a medium to high volume, has multiple steps with repeatable tasks, and involves three or more people is a potentially ripe opportunity for automation. Time-consuming business-critical processes that are core to a company and are important to get done right the first time should be considered. If there are time sensitivities, automation can provide logs and timestamps that capture when steps are started, completed, and how long a step takes. Analyzing this data can help spot inefficiencies and bottlenecks in the process that may be impacting deadlines.
Additional examples would include shipping-logistics and project-governance tasks. BPA can govern security protocols in the event of a network-hacking incident. These situations and responses are predictable and benefit from reductions in human error.
Companies are also prioritizing workflows that require tiered approvals. For example, a company may require different approvers for invoices over a certain threshold. Instead of managing that process through email, BPA allows groups to set rules that auto-route invoices to the appropriate person quickly and correctly. This same approach can apply to contracts and other documents.
Companies are increasingly using BPA to track survey responses, and summarize data and performance indicators for strategic management decisions. New hires are able to access systems and training courses instead of relying on human resources departments to initiate the process. Legal departments are using litigation hold tools to inform custodians of their legal hold obligations and automating the preservation of potentially relevant data, thus reducing the risk of accidental deletion of key information.
Identifying processes that are high-risk and high-dollar and that require extensive human involvement is a great first step to see if the organization can benefit from BPA.
I worked with a global Fortune 500 company’s legal department that was engaging with nonpanel law firms and used manual, inefficient processes that led to long cycle times, lost requests, and employee frustration. Users were required to fill out a form and submit them to a central mailbox. Resources were staffed to monitor the mailbox and manually distribute requests to individuals, which was time-consuming and error-prone and often resulted in delays if the mailbox was not checked as scheduled.
Our team conducted an end-to-end process assessment to identify what could be optimized and/or automated. We then built a custom workflow using a technology the organization had recently implemented. We introduced a web-based form leveraging required fields, standard formats, and logic-based dropdown selections. The central mailbox was replaced with business rules to drive routing and approvals. A custom dashboard was also configured to provide real-time status updates.
The department gained extra capacity as a result of the automated workflow, enabling attorneys, paralegals, and support staff to focus on higher-value work. The shift also increased visibility into a variety of metrics required to define standard service-level agreements with key business partners. Perhaps most important, it improved team collaboration and cross-department communication.
The short answer is no.
If you think about accounting firms, law firms, and corporations – all of these organizations have individuals and teams in operational-type, roles-performing services or have response-based interactions with internal departments and/or external vendors. Some examples might include: a procurement team onboarding a new client or vendor; a legal group generating standard contracts such as a nondisclosure agreement, management of contract renewal, and expiration dates; and various services requests from other teams. Another example is an e-billing system where timekeeper rates are managed alongside budget forecasts and actual fees incurred. Tracking this information enables visibility into costs, which leads to smarter decision making and improved spend management and predictability.
All industries and organizations can benefit from BPA in the form of increased visibility into their operations as well as efficiency, all while reducing operational risk.
Automation has actually been around for decades since the introduction of the assembly line. Business process automation has evolved as technology improves. It started as a mindset and has transformed into defined and actionable change that benefits teams, departments, and companies of all sizes. BPA is becoming more frequently applied as functionality is embedded within each respective application.
Corporations are realizing the benefits of BPA and taking measures to develop programs around the technology they are procuring. Departments are gaining extra capacity as a result of the automated workflows defined through BPA. This has created a unique opportunity for companies to enable their resources to be more innovative and focus on higher-value work while reducing risk and operating expenses.
When you decide to automate your organization’s process, a common reaction is to try and automate all processes. I highly discourage this, as it could be the beginning of the end of the program. Instead, carefully identify a few simple processes as your initial focus. Once those have been successfully launched and are up and running, take a moment to celebrate the wins. Avoid the hype, and select the tool that best meets your company’s requirements and is easy to use. Remember that change can be hard for many people. To minimize resistance, keep people informed using the multiple communication channels and train the users on fundamentals of the platform to get acclimated well in advance of your rollout.
The first thing is to identify who your key stakeholders are and then define your scope. This may include departments and teams that the processes touch; for example, procurement and IT. Next you will need to get a handle on the key processes that could benefit from BPA. If you have them mapped, great, you are way ahead. If not, this is an area you should spend some time. Conducting an assessment of the candidate processes to understand efficiency lift and cost benefit will help confirm if a process is a good fit for automation. Understanding the range of the process scope is as important as the value of the input into building out your requirements for tool selection.
Once you have defined all functional and technical requirements, you are ready to begin evaluating technology solutions. During this phase you may consider a request for proposal (RFP) approach where you will have each technology provider show you how they will meet your requirements. Demonstrations, onsite presentations, and hands-on proofs of concept are all ways to help further evaluate the different solutions and supporting product teams.
Depending on your strategy and the technology solution you select, implementation can take several different paths. Ultimately, the next step is to begin automating the workflows you defined in the scope. Start with a simple workflow first, as early successes are important to gain organizational support and build enthusiasm for the BPA program.