Business process automation: Increasing efficiency

Interactive Intelligence argues for business process automation

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Business process automation: Increasing efficiency Shaheen Haque, territory manager, Middle East & Turkey, Interactive Intelligence.
By  Shaheen Haque Published  March 12, 2013

When most companies hear the term business process automation (BPA), they think about customer-facing or 'production' processes. Most companies deploy this technology to improve cycle times, reduce costs for operational areas, improve efficiencies and reduce the number of manual processes for transactional areas relating to their customer service and support functions, especially in their contact centres.

However, fundamentals of this methodology can just as well be applied to a variety of other internal departments in order to increase efficiency throughout the organisation. Among the processes ripe for BPA are "vertical" industry-specific processes such as insurance claims processing, healthcare patient-scheduling, or financial services and loan originations, as well as "horizontal" processes in virtually any company, such as new employee on-boarding, lead management, and IT equipment purchasing.

The benefits of BPA in such applications are especially pronounced when enterprises hope to achieve growth with minimal increase in staff strength. Many companies will find that they can maximise the efficiency of their workforce by using BPA solutions to streamline processes.

An example of such an area is the human resources (HR) department. Most HR departments have defined, repeatable processes, such as employee on-boarding, employee separation, and employee moves. These are ideal for automation and can lead to significant improvements of cycle times for employee recruiting and on-boarding.

Another prime area is any type of approval process since this is something that is widely employed by most companies. These approvals tend to waste a lot of time as papers and folders, either physically or via email, circulate and re-circulate through the office for approvals or signatures, occasionally getting lost and delaying processes and projects.  By automating these types of internal processes companies can increase visibility and improve tracking, which in turn can reduce the amount of time needed to receive an approval.

Other projects that can benefit from business process automation include facilities service requests for office moves, IT/telephony moves, add/change requests for telephone or IT services, legal documents, collaboration materials for marketing, QA processes, complaints and project management. Organisations can reap the benefits of streamlined operations though the adoption of BPA solutions but must have four considerations in mind in the early stages to greatly increase their chances of success.

Align BPA with business objectives

It is not uncommon for organisations to go through an extensive technology selection process before finalising the goals they would like or need to achieve with business process automation. Ideally, however, any BPA initiative should be driven by well-defined business objectives. High-level objectives may focus exclusively on cost reduction or cost containment targets, or, under the right circumstances, on increasing revenue generation potential. In either case, the process efficiency improvement should translate to quantifiable return on investment (ROI).

There may be many different ways to apply automation for increased process efficiencies in any number of processes. But what is the value of those efficiencies? Clear, well-defined business objectives will help ensure that all other key BPA considerations are in alignment, and that a BPA technology solution delivers real ROI.

Get the right people involved

A successful path to BPA requires involving multiple internal stakeholders, particularly where a process traverses multiple departments. Having IT management on board is critical to BPA's technology implementation aspects, and the business owner should provide the equally critical process knowledge. With the growth of knowledge workers and people-centric processes, it is important to additionally involve the end user for input on the process details, and to consider their perspective for a potential technology solution's ease-of-use in order to facilitate adoption. Successful BPA initiatives will involve people with the best practice expertise to execute the process discovery, analysis and design efforts that are absolutely critical, and that are best initiated in advance of technology solution deployment.

Identify the right process for automation

There are significant benefits to removing non-value adding work from a process. One study of idle versus processing time for work-in-process revealed that, for the average process, actual working time comprises only 0.05% to 5% of total elapsed time. In today's business environment, the real challenge, and corresponding opportunity, remains in improving processes that involve people. With so many potential processes to automate, it therefore is important to find a "good fit," to ensure identifiable efficiency gains that can generate quantifiable value.

BPA is well-suited for virtually any multi-step, people-centric process, especially those processes that are highly manual, repetitive, based on defined steps and utilised across multiple departments or teams.

Start small and grow

Demonstrable results matter. Look for BPA opportunities that allow you to start small, expand and continuously improve. Because BPA can have such a significant impact on process efficiencies, organisations may opt to initiate BPA implementations that focus on a mission-critical business process in its entirety.

Achieving a relatively quick win, ROI might mean breaking down a larger process into smaller, more manageable sub processes. BPA is best viewed as an iterative process versus a project. Again ideally, organisations should be able to continually refine and improve processes to create sustainability, where savings in one area could potentially fund the next initiative. BPA can have a "viral" aspect if done well; one successfully automated process with demonstrable ROI can lead to another.

The application of BPA to a wider range of applications within the organisation will lead to unmatched efficiency of the workforce. The time and effort recovered can take the pressure off overworked employees while freeing up resources to focus on new streams of revenue growth ultimately helping organisations 'do more with less'.

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