Business Process Automation – Is It For You?

Mark Canes

If you work for a large organization, chances are that you're quite familiar with the concept of Business Process Automation ("BPA"). However, many smaller businesses may have heard the expression but are either not sure what it exactly encompasses, or think that it's just for larger enterprises.

So what is Business Process Automation (or BPA)? Business Process Automation is exactly what it sounds like. It's essentially the automation of processes using software (and software integration), eliminating and/or streamlining manual processes, in order to save costs (usually HR-related costs), speed up processes and eliminate errors. It's important to note that effective BPA will often eliminate redundant pieces of software as well as reducing the need for human intervention.

Examples of Business Process Automation: 

  • Electronic Document Management Workflow - when a completed claim form is uploaded to an insurance company's portal, BPA software scans the form for a barcode that identifies the file and claim numbers, and then routes the completed form to the relevant claim adjustor's inbox, and updates the file's claim status to "submitted". This in turn triggers an email to the claimant, and creates a task and due date for the adjustor.
  • eCommerce Integration - a distribution business receives orders from customers via their own B2B website and Amazon. These orders arrive electronically and are imported into their ERP software system. BPA scans the incoming orders based on pre-established criteria (such as order quantity or the value of the order), and routes them automatically - if the order is marked as OK to ship based on the criteria, the system will automatically create a pick ticket sent to the appropriate zones in the warehouse.

Many small and medium sized business ("SMB") do in fact use bits and pieces of BPA to automate aspects of the business, but it's not usually part of an overall business strategy. The benefits of BPA if properly implemented are clear: save time and money, reduce errors, and improve the bottom line. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

But there are three factors that typically constrain the SMB from even starting to look into business process automation as an overall strategy. These are:

Lack of Knowledge

Many SMB owners are simply not aware of the potential to automate processes. Entrepreneurs typically focus on their product or service, and sales, and in a smaller organization you may not find the level of operational management experience or knowledge of BPA. These companies usually solve  bottlenecks by adding more employees to the mix, instead of looking for ways to automate processes.

Prohibitive Costs

If you do a search for BPA vendors, you'll find that most appear to offer costly solutions - in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and this numbers can deter any SMB from even looking further. However, rest assured there are some very affordable BPA solutions out there - particularly in comparison with the ongoing cost of hiring additional employees.

Lack of Defined Processes

Probably the biggest practical obstacle is that many (most?) SMBs do not have well defined processes. There are often many exceptions to whatever processes are in place, and they are usually based on the knowledge in someone's head. This is not necessarily always a bad thing, it's just a fact of life. But you cannot automate a process that cannot be accurately defined.

So what sort of systems can help with Business Process Automation? You may already own some fairly good ones. Do you have ERP software that offers workflow automation, but you've just not taken advantage of it? Do you have different pieces of software that don't integrate with each other, but could?

Learn more about how to use BPA to identify bottlenecks and how to perform a cost/benefit analysis.