Due to ever-changing market needs, enterprises worldwide need to automate processes to improve productivity and quality, reduce costs and mistakes, and become more agile.
As the enterprise automation market grows, businesses can consider a wide range of valid technology options to tackle their projects, which can quickly lead to enterprises being overwhelmed as to which automation technology to adopt.
In this article, we will look at the three most common automation technologies, namely Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Business Process Management Systems/Business Process Automation (BPM/BPA), and Low-code Application Platforms (LCAP), and how to choose the right one for your automation initiative.
Before discussing the adoption of different automation technologies, you must outline exactly which processes are to be automated and which stakeholders need to be involved. Multiple automation projects have gone haywire just because the understanding of the underlying process was missing. In this context, Business Process Improvement (BPI) is an ongoing and crucial exercise to identify inefficiencies and create a desired state to make business processes more reliable in the long term.
It is necessary to emphasize the importance of appropriate technology selection because an automation project is not driven by an off-the-shelf product (often!) that can be plugged in and played. It requires effort to map the complex processes accurately and then develop the automation. This means that in addition to funds, there is a fair amount of vendor lock-in, and time spent explaining the business processes to the vendor consultants and then developing the automation.
With that said, let’s deep dive into understanding these technologies.
Defining the right automation technology for your business requires a good understanding of the different technologies and how they are defined:
Robotic process automation or RPA platforms automate human tasks for applications that do not have integration interfaces. These can be, for instance, copying information from one application and pasting it into another. Several use cases also deal with desktop level automation including Microsoft applications.
They use multiple techniques, including operating system APIs, optical character recognition (OCR), and image recognition. This technology does not only reduce personnel requirements but improves accuracy and reduces or eliminates human errors.
Fig 1: Illustration of an RPA use case
Business Process Automation (BPA) or Business Process Management (BPM) is a set of tools designed specifically for business process automation at an enterprise level. To put it simply, these tools help businesses plan and automate their complex business processes by building a dynamic technology environment based on value-added knowledge work. BPM/BPA tools can orchestrate business processes and automate the tasks within those processes.
Fig 2: Pictorial demonstration of BPA
The key differentiator of Business Process Automation (BPA) tools is that they provide features for managing the complete life cycle of business processes:
Discovering new processes
Execution and Orchestration
Creating dashboards and analytics to identify opportunities to improve the process
Low-code Application Platforms (LCAP) are visual-based, integrated development environments (IDEs) that provide a way to rapidly develop graphical user-facing applications such as mobile or web apps. The visual nature of LCAP development environments and the way they create a model of an application is a close match for modeling a business process.
LCAP platforms provide tools to define the application steps, user interface (UI) components, data storage, and connectivity to external systems. You then deploy this into the low-code environment, which is either a cloud-hosting environment or a set of servers on which you have installed the low-code runtime.
When considering automating your processes you must look closely at your objectives to choose the right solution, as not all automation technologies are suitable for all scenarios.
Use Robotic Process Automation (RPA) when:
The process is highly manual and repetitive.
The process is rule-based and has activities with clear processing instructions. An example of such tasks would be time and attendance management, password resetting, extracting data from one system to another, and routine monitoring. These tasks require data to flow from one system to another and there is no system level integration available or possible (See figure 1).
RPA is not suitable for when:
Your requirement is to automate an end-to-end process with multiple stakeholders. RPA does not provide you with the capabilities to carry out end-to-end business automation and is better suitable for mature and stable processes with low exception rates and those with standard readable electronic input types (E.g., Excel, e-mail, XML, PDF, etc.)
You need case management to manage complexity
You are automating processes that will change in the short term, processes with a high number of complex variations, or processes where human judgment and exception handling is extremely high you should consider using a BPM/BPA tool instead of RPA.
Use Business Process Automation (BPA) when:
You need to discover and orchestrate complex business processes that cross organizational and ecosystem boundaries (see figure 2) and needs to provide detailed reporting and metrics for Management Information Systems (MIS) and continuous improvement efforts.
You have use cases with several actors involved in completing a process, as BPA platforms offer strong capabilities of modeling processes, cases, and decisions intuitively.
BPA offers a faster and more agile development environment while continuing to focus on enterprise-wide process discovery, visualization, and monitoring. An example of a good use case for BPM/BPA would be complex claims management that involves multiple parties and systems for review and approval. Other examples include acquisition and procurement services or integrating and streamlining the workflow for capital expense approvals.
BPM/BPA is not suitable when:
You are looking to automate a series of functional tasks, as they come at a higher cost and complexity for functional automation. This type of automation technology should be used to orchestrate complex business processes and automate the tasks within those processes.
BPA tools are not a substitute for the ones used for task automation and the mistake of confusing both should be avoided.
Use Low Code Application Development (LCAP):
For citizen-led faster automation development for smaller teams. Generally, this is achieved by ready to use templates available with the vendor.
When your process has a web or mobile user interface, and a single business team uses the business process.
When there is a need to create drag and drop interface by integrating some modern applications underneath.
Some use case examples where LCAP can be used are: Creating a quick satisfaction survey, marketing content approvals, leave request, and time approval.
Do not use LCAP when:
The process is complex and involves several actors.
The process needs case management and process states must be maintained for a long period of time.
The process crosses organizational boundaries.
In the previous section we outlined some cases in which you should and should not use the respective automation technologies, but as with most things, there is no one size fits all and, in many cases, you will work with a mix of technologies that best reflect your company’s processes and requirements.
In this section we will present an example to showcase how these technologies can complement each other and how they differ from each other in their overall purpose.
Fig 3: High-level process view for a procure-to-pay process
In the example showcased in the image above (figure 3), a business wants to make a new purchase. This involves different departments. On the first level, the business makes the request and sends the details about the purchase to the operations department.
Take for instance, the business is using a customized legacy system to trigger the process and filling out the necessary details of the planned purchase. The procurement operations team members must pick up those details and make a workspace in SAP Ariba. But as a matter of fact, if the two systems do not talk to each other, this activity must be manually carried out. Hence, wasting a lot of time and effort and leaving the details open to human mistakes. This is a clear process with very few exceptions and a typical use case for RPA.
Upon receiving the request, the procurement operations department must first allocate the correct procurement expert to the requirement. After this, the expert must fill out various details on multiple applications, complete internal team procedures like, info on compliance, tax codes, vendor due diligence, sustainability, etc. These details are usually added in either custom applications or endpoint solutions, requiring visiting multiple applications. Potentially legal/compliance teams will also need to be involved, increasing the overall complexity for the operation team.
These platforms are also beneficial for the teams who wish to create their own ad-hoc processes which might exist only for a specific event or occasion. For example, an organization conducting a case-study competition for local colleges might need a temporary application to quickly create an interface, forms and widgets to gather inputs from various university teams, broadcast communication, make updates, scoring, and invitations etc. This need is best fulfilled by custom low code applications.
Complexity can be reduced, and the process can be made more efficient by leveraging a Low-Code Application Platform (LCAP) to integrate with all these applications and bring a unified user interface to manage all the activities for a particular purchase. The benefit of this approach is the speed of execution, as the user can create the interface with minimal IT support.
Finally, to orchestrate and execute the end-to-end process (see figure 3), you will require some of the following capabilities:
Next best action support
Forms to capture inputs
Manage documents and case management
This is where Business Process Automation (BPA) products shine. A typical BPA project requires a product owner from business to drive the overall strategy, line workers (process SME’s), professional process modelers, technical architects, testers and IT support. As organizations mature from task level automation and start looking into end-to-end automation, they can orchestrate the current RPA initiatives via BPA platforms.
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