Framework For Business to Evaluate Tools For Business Process Automation

Business process automation (BPA) is the automation of manual paper-based processes using tools and technology. BPA can help an organization reduce cost and increase efficiency.

Once a decision to implement business process automation has been taken, choosing the right tool is the next significant consideration. While there are many tools available for BPA, and a discussion around these is imminent; the criteria for evaluating these tools must first be identified. Each organization may weigh these criteria differently and a framework has been provided to adjust the relative weight of the criteria against each other later in this series.

1 In-House Skillset

Organizations often have dedicated IT teams for improving and enhancing their internal systems. Selection of a tool should consider the level of the skillset of the in-house team and Power Users. Often, BPA vendors claim their tool make it easy for business users to create or modify processes that require some understanding of logic and being aware of basic programming constructs like conditions, loops and such. Alternatively, the organization may choose to outsource the requirement to an external vendor. In the case of the former, not considering this criterion in the tool selection process may often lead to an expensive and long drawn learning curve.

2 Form Complexity

Forms are the user interface element of a business process and have a key impact on determining the success of any business process automation. The complexity of a form designer varies from a simple drag-and-drop configuration to development by backend coding. Complexity also depends upon the type of data that needs to be populated as well as the data that needs to be captured by the end user. A complex form may have custom validations, parent/child relationships between data elements or require data from external systems.

3 Process Complexity

Gauging the complexity of the actual business process is another evaluation criterion. The process can either be sequential (series of steps performed one after the other) or it may require a non-sequential graph like behavior (often called as a state machine). A complex process may fetch or store data from an external system or even have an external trigger. Consider the case of a business process where a contract must be digitally signed upon creation of a customer record in an external CRM system. A typical business process will entail multiple outcomes, for example, the reviewer may not Reject the request but send it back to the author for changes; this could go around multiple times and so on.

4 Mobile Enabled

Today’s business environment is becoming increasingly diverse and remote. Businesses expect their employees to work from anywhere, either online or offline. Mobile-enabled forms can prove to be that secret sauce for the adoption of the system organization-wide. The added benefit of using the native mobile functionality like the camera or GPS opens new possibilities that are just not possible using a traditional PC based approach.

5 Document Generation

Paper-based record-keeping is an expensive and time-consuming part of any business. Often businesses print copies of ‘approved’ digital records because the automation is ineffective at generating the full document as required by the business. Even after automating the business process, one may still need the physical document for contract signatures, or to create a template before sending to the external vendor. Document generation allows the creation of a digital document from data, eliminating the need for paper altogether.

6 External System Connectivity

Business processes often require integration with systems outside the scope of the automation environment, either to leverage the data, services or as a trigger to initiate the process. Consider an example where a business process makes decisions on information available in an external HRMS system, such as approval levels for expenses. The number of connectors available for a tool will provide flexibility to integrate with current and future systems that the organization may adopt.

7 Requirement Stability

Business requirements regularly change with an ever-evolving business landscape, an introduction of new external influencers (regulatory requirements, market changes, competitive situations); business processes must adapt to embrace these changes. The selection of a BPA tool should consider this inevitability and the organization should favor a tool that allows for an agile implementation process. Not considering this may lead to re-work which will eventually increase the cost and cause unplanned delays.

8 On-premise, Cloud or Hybrid

Businesses should review the application landscape. Are they primarily on-premise based or have they embraced cloud technologies or have a mix of both? What are plans for the near term and long term? Running a process on either premise may require working with data/services on the other. For example, a process (in the cloud) may require HR data sitting in an ERP on-premise. While the cloud provides many advantages, there are specific use cases where this may not be the right choice. There are different architectural considerations when deploying on-premise or on cloud and being cognizant of these upfront will help avoid brittle workarounds in the future.

9 Insights

Someone once said, “you can’t manage, what you can’t measure”. This is true with business processes as with all things in life. The effectiveness of a business process is measured through adoption, adherence to SLAs and other metrics. The BPA tool should lend itself well to providing analytics for your business process that can be reviewed by the process owner as well as the organization leadership. This can help iron out kinks in the process, identify and eliminate bottlenecks, define a framework to drive performance and overall get a sense of the return on investment.

10 Budget, Licensing, and Support

This is an obvious one, but one that often takes a high priority for most businesses. There are many tools available, some cost good money, some even free! The other factor for consideration is the licensing model. Does the tool incur an upfront capital expense or does it allow for ongoing operational expenses? Which is better suited for your organization? What are the upgrade paths and release cycles? What sort of support is provided by the organization? There are multiple licensing models, per-server, per-workflow, per-user and even per-run – mapping this against your business use-cases will help to make a decision that is cost-effective and a right fit for your organization.

How to Identify the Right Business Process Automation (BPA) Tools for Your Organization

The previous blog provided a framework for a business to evaluate tools for business process automation. This blog explores some of the popular business process automation (BPA) tools that are popular when working with Microsoft SharePoint technologies and how they fare against the criteria that we defined in our previous blog. Ratings are provided on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least favorable and 10 being most favorable.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

According to Microsoft, SharePoint Designer (SPD) is a tool for rapid development of SharePoint applications. SPD includes the ability to create workflows native to the SharePoint platform. These are no-code workflow solutions that manage simple to medium complexity business processes in an organization. Forms created for SPD workflows often use HTML and/or InfoPath as their underlying technologies. Please note that since SharePoint 2013, Microsoft has introduced the Workflow Manager, where workflows can be designed visually using Visio. For this blog, we refer to both these technologies under the SPD moniker.

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Microsoft defines Flow as “a cloud-based service that enables business users to automate business tasks and processes across applications and services”. PowerApps is defined as “an enterprise service for innovators everywhere to connect, create and share business apps on any device in minutes”. PowerApps & Flow are in many ways Microsoft’s successors to InfoPath & SharePoint Designer. They are included as part of most of Microsoft’s cloud offerings (premium versions are chargeable separately) and are geared towards regular business users partaking in the automation process.

Nintex Workflow & Forms

Nintex is a third-party workflow automation tool, primarily used for SharePoint and Office 365. It leverages SharePoint’s native workflow engine and does not require additional infrastructure or client software. They feature drag-drop user experience for creation and modification of Workflows and Forms along with a plethora of other features that make it seamless to create, manage and monitor business processes in the organization.

The comparison presented below is based on the features that the individual product offers out-of-box or after minimal customization efforts. It does not possibilities that are an outcome of applying for extensions via custom coding.

1 In-House Skillset

Strictly speaking, all three options do not require custom coding. Having said that, SharePoint Designer presents the least visually interactive way of developing workflows. (Visio can be used as a tool to enhance this experience). SPD workflows are created using the SharePoint Designer tool and provide basic workflow capabilities. There are a limited set of built-in actions and anything more will require custom coding. The forms built for SPD workflows face the same issue as these are designed using either HTML/javascript or using InfoPath, which requires considerable skills and understanding to get anything more than the basics accomplished.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

4.0

6.0

8.5

Both other options provide intuitive drag-drop interfaces along with a gamut of other techniques that make it easier for users to implement business process automation. Most vendors portray BPA tools as easy for end users to make changes. While this is true to some extent, implementing BPA does require a sense of logic programming and is really geared towards power users.

2 Form Complexity

When using SPD to create forms for data collection there are two solutions available (SharePoint out-of-box forms and InfoPath forms). InfoPath provides the ability to develop forms with multiple input elements: text boxes, radio boxes, drop-downs as well as repeating groups/sections of controls. However, InfoPath is not intuitive to use and deployment of the forms require administrative access once you go beyond the basics. The alternative is SharePoint ‘out-of-box’ forms which can be used to create simple forms.

With PowerApps it is possible to create forms by writing Excel type functions for the business logic. It also supports HTML coding for branding but does not allow JavaScript which limits the ability of Power Users. However, PowerApps provides a bunch of starter templates that may be a good place to get started.

Nintex forms allow for different layouts depending on the users’ device. Furthermore, complex forms with repeating sections, two-way automatic data binding and easy access to SharePoint APIs (to name a few) can be built.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
3.5 8.0

9.0

 

3 Process Complexity

SharePoint Designer provides multiple pre-built actions that can be configured to create simple to medium complexity workflows. SharePoint Designer workflow is sequential which means that it only allows the creation of workflows that have a forward-only path.

Microsoft Flow is targeted towards actions performed by individual end users. It also has

many pre-built templates using which one can create simple to complex workflows. Flow does not directly support state machine workflows which allow for non-sequential execution of processes. While Flow provides many connectors and templates, it requires multiple actions to accomplish a single task, which can often be frustrating, especially for new users and an encumbering task for large complex workflows.

Nintex provides a drag and drops user interface to quickly create and edit workflows. The enterprise version has more than 200 workflow actions pre-built. Unlike other options listed here, Nintex allows you to create State Machine workflow (capable of flowing in any sequence and through any amount of iterations).

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
3.5 6.5

9.0

 

4 Mobile Enabled

SharePoint Designer forms (built using InfoPath) and HTML devices are not automatically optimized for mobile devices. While these forms may render on a mobile screen, the experience is often less than ideal. SharePoint 2013 onwards introduced the concept of device channels, but that requires the creation of mobile-specific master pages for each device channel. Having said that, the new SharePoint Modern Experience provides responsive forms. In either case, access to native mobile capabilities is not present.

PowerApps, on the other hand, provides a mobile-first view towards forms. It supports native mobile interfaces such as access to GPS, Camera, Signal Connection, Location, and Accelerometer. The PowerApps app is available from Apple and Google stores and can be installed on users’ devices. It also supports Push Notifications which are a great way to alert users to imminent actions. PowerApps also provide offline capabilities.

While Nintex forms are primarily designed for the PC, they provide adequate support for mobility. These forms can be run within a mobile browser or through a fully native mobile application that can leverage some device capabilities such as Camera and GPS signals. The Nintex AppStudio addon allows for the creation of custom-branded native mobile apps that can be mass deployed via your corporate MDM solution. Nintex also provides offline capabilities for the native mobile applications.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
2.0 8.5

6.0

 

5 Document Generation

SharePoint Designer workflow does not have an out-of-box action to generate a document but using a SharePoint feature called “property promotion-demotion”, it is possible to inject some basic information into a document template. The generated template could then be converted to a PDF using SharePoint Word Automation services (not available for SharePoint Online).

Currently, Flow does not provide any specific Document Generation capabilities, much like SharePoint Designer workflows. However, Flow provides built-in connectors for DocuSign and Adobe Sign. Both these products allow for document templates to be defined and for signatures to be triggered on these templates via Flow.

Due to Nintex’s acquisition of Drawloop, Nintex now has a document generation feature built right into their workflow tool. The user experience is intuitive and you can quickly create a document template, map properties from the workflow into the document and generate Word or PDFs document.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
3.0 5.0

8.0

 

6 External System Connectivity

SharePoint Designer Workflows do not have pre-built connectors for any third-party applications, however, an HTTP web service connector is available. In theory, it is possible for a developer to build connectors to other applications and expose these via an HTTP web-service, but this approach is complex, time-consuming and difficult to maintain.

Both Nintex and Flow have several prebuilt connectors for popular systems such as Microsoft Dynamics, DocuSign, Twilio, SharePoint, Exchange, Azure, and others. It is worth pointing out that currently, Flow provides many, many more connectors than those available with Nintex (some of these are only available via a Premium subscription to Flow).

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
1.0 8.5

5.5

 

7 Requirement Stability

Business Processes developed using SharePoint Designer Workflows, to a high degree of probability will involve some custom coding via Web Services or other mechanisms. We often find that these have been put together in a hurry to meet business deadlines. Compounding that effect over several iterations leads to a system that is or tending to be unmaintainable. Testing takes longer and there is a high probability of unwanted side effects.

Both Microsoft Flow & Nintex offer GUI based drag-drop interfaces, favoring visual paradigms over coded ones. This reduces, if not eliminates the need for custom coding and changes are incorporated with relative ease and stability as compared to those developed with SPD.

It is noteworthy that Nintex provides some actions over Microsoft Flow that further reduce steps required to accomplish a specific task. Consider this example, an HR executive creates entries into a list of candidates that are about to join. The system should email these documents to the candidate for review. With Flow, separate steps are required to retrieve the item and the contents of the document and can take several steps to accomplish this; with Nintex this is a two-step process.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
3.0 7.5

9.0

 

8 On-premise, Cloud or Hybrid

SharePoint Designer Workflows work within SharePoint Online and SharePoint On-premise. There isn’t much difference to these except that the workflows cannot contain server-side code with SharePoint Online. Any custom code should be written and hosted outside of the SharePoint Online environment (say, as a Web Service in Azure). For cross-premise connectivity, SPD workflows will require the use of the “Call HTTP Web Service” action, which will require some level of custom coding and a whole heap of security planning.

Microsoft Flow is a cloud-only offering. As of today, there is no on-premise version of Flow and neither has one been announced. However, Microsoft makes cross-premise connectivity much easier using the “on-premises data gateway”, which allows for connecting to on-premise business data without the need to poke holes in the firewall or writing custom services. This gateway currently supports connections to SQL Server, SharePoint, Oracle, Informix, Filesystem and DB2 systems.

Nintex provides ‘premise-specific’ flavors of the tool, there is Nintex for SharePoint (on-premise), Nintex for Office 365 (online) and Nintex Workflow Cloud (independent online offering). Despite having such a broad-spectrum product portfolio, cross-premise connectivity with Nintex requires techniques like that of SharePoint Designer Workflows. Nintex provides options for customers on any-premise but does not deliver when it comes to cross-premise connectivity.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
2.0 9.0

6.5

 

9 Insights

With SharePoint Designer Workflows, logging and data tracks must be manually maintained within the workflow. There are no automated means by which process metrics will be tracked. For consistent reporting, a significant upfront design is required; yet the effectiveness of the reporting will be dependent on the individual authoring the process automation.

Microsoft Flow provides basic reporting using Flow Analytics, a premium feature included as part of the P2 license. In its current form, Flow Analytics provides three metrics Total Flow runs by day, Number of flow runs and Flow runs trend. For custom business-specific analytics, Microsoft Flow currently suffers from the same challenges as those of SharePoint Designer Workflows. SLA monitoring and measurement is yet another item that is currently missing from both SPD and Flow.

Nintex Hawkeye is the process analytics offering from Nintex. Marketed as “Process Intelligence and Workflow Analytics”, it features the concept of lenses which are perspectives on the process data. There are primarily two types of lenses, Usage lens which provides low-level consumption based metrics and Process lens, which provide information that is specific to a business process. There is some work required on part of the process author to provide effective data for a Process lens, but this is as easy as ensuring certain ‘beacons’ are placed within the workflow (using a drag-drop paradigm).

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
1.0 3.0

8.5

 

10 Budget and Licensing

For organizations with SharePoint on-premise (2010 and later) and/or SharePoint Online, SPD workflows are free to author and run. If the organization chooses to author workflows using the Workflow Manager capabilities, a Visio 2013 Professional license is required for each user that authors the workflow.

There are currently four plans of Microsoft Flow, ranging from Free Plan (no-cost) to Plan 2 ($15/user/month). Each plan offers different maximum runs of Flow per day and different frequencies of the Flow runs (interval between each run of the Flow). There is no SLA for the Free Plan, whereas the other plans offer a 99.9% availability SLA by Microsoft. While the base cost for Flow is per-user, there is an underlying cost associated with Flow Runs – each unit of 50,000 flow runs over and above the allocated quota per plan (aggregated across all users) will cost $40/month. For full details on Flow plans and pricing, please refer to https://us.flow.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/

Nintex offers three licensing models, per workflow (authored), per user and per server (on-premise only). There is no additional cost for workflows run. These prices are not public but are available through Nintex Partners. They tend to be higher than Flow on a per-user basis. The per workflow model allows the use of Nintex products across on-premise and online environments simultaneously and is the most flexible option available if the organization has online as well as on-premise environments.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow Nintex Workflow & Forms
8.0 6.5

5.0

 

The table below summarizes the scores for the options against our defined criteria. It is important to note that different organizations will assign different relative importance to each criterion which will ultimately result in a choice that is a best-fit for them. To this effect, an excel sheet is attached which provides the option to assign weights to the criteria and provides a weighted average score of the options listed.

 

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Flow & PowerApps

Nintex Workflow and Forms

In-house Skillset

4.0

6.0

8.5

Forms Complexity

3.5

8.0

9.0

Process Complexity

3.5

6.5

9.0

Mobile Enabled

1.0

8.5

6.0

Document Generation

3.0

5.0

8.0

External System Connectivity

1.0

8.5

5.5

Requirement Stability

3.0

7.5

9.0

On-premsie, Cloud or Hybrid

2.0

9.0

6.5

Insights

1.0

3.0

8.5

Budgets & Licensing

8.0

6.5

5.0

Small Business Essential Tools

We are a technology consulting firm and our main initiatives are around the modern digital workplace. We talk to customers about Digital Transformation, cloud applications, and productivity.

As a Programmer myself, I think back to the days when we developed applications for desktops and servers. Then came this wave of the website for eCommerce and then all cloud computing power. There was a proliferation of apps for mobile devices, and now, the only applications I run on my computer, besides Microsoft Office is just my browser.

Everything I need to access my business and my entire life is available through the browser or the apps on my cell phone. Even my office files are accessed this way. We don’t have single file share in our office and we make a very serious attempt not to even send files over to each other in email. One of the last and lingering reasons for me to keep any machines in my office was my QuickBooks application.

QuickBooks desktop version kept me wanting to maintain a server, it was the way I ran payroll, invoicing and payment collections. Some very important functions to keep my business running.  We had a power outage because of a storm and I was out of town. The power didn’t return back for multiple days and my UPS didn’t last. This crashed the server on which the software was running and I spent days recovering all the information on that server.

One of the main applications on the server was the QuickBooks applications and I knew that I had to move that also into the cloud.  So here is a list of some of the essential applications that we use as SaaS cloud-based applications.

  1. We host our website through a managed hosting company and our website is built on a CMS technology just like WordPress or Joomla.
  2. Our Email, file sharing, and Web-conferencing are all run through Office 365. We use Skype for Business to run our online meetings, we even use Skype for business as our Telephone provider. We use SharePoint online for our intranet and file sharing
  3. Our website is integrated with our Marketing Automation solutions for which we use Dynamics 365 and Click Dimensions. When you visit our site you complete a form and that information is directly sent into our CRM System which is built on Dynamics 365.
  4. We have some eCommerce capabilities on our website and for that, we use Authroiize.net as our payment gateway.
  5. We moved to QuickBooks online 2 years ago from QuickBooks on-prem. We felt like we lost some functionality when we first moved, but since the move, we have not once had to worry about backups or file management. We used Intuit to do our payroll and the QuickBooks online app integrates with Authorize.net so the online transactions all flow through automatically. Of course, there are many other great solutions out there for small business accounting and operations.

However, between Office 365, Dynamics 365 and Quickbooks we have a solid foundation to keep scaling. These systems are cloud-based – we can work from anywhere and they are secure.

How to Select Business Process Automation Software

Plus, which BPA software do we recommend?

Business process management (BPM) and Automation (BPA) software are one of the fastest-growing fields in technology, with estimates for company expenditures on BPA/BPM software ranging fromUS$13.5 to US$23 billion in the next few years. These figures are likely low-end estimates as well, given the wide-scale digital transformation occurring across industries and the speed at which companies are looking to technology to give them a competitive edge.

In such a fast-growing market, hundreds of software companies from Appian to Zapier have thrown their hat into the business process automation software ring. So how do you choose the best business process automation platform for your business?

We recommend you begin by answering the questions below, which will help you determine your software evaluation criteria:

  • How quickly can you implement a solution? Business process automation gives your organization a strong competitive advantage by reducing costs and expanding capacity. The faster you can put your solution in place, the more quickly you’ll start realizing returns that can increase your competitiveness.
  • How “future-proof” does your system need to be? Are your business processes largely static, or do they change each quarter? If you need to make regular changes, do you have IT staff available to help, or will your business process automation software need to be a “drag-and-drop” style tool that any user can master?
  • What level of support and customization will you require? Depending on your internal resources and the complexity of your business process automation workflows, you may need to look for a business process automation partner to help customize your system.
  • What integrations will be necessary for your existing systems? Does your business operate with closed, proprietary software, or are you on a platform that easily supports outside integrations? You may want to look for tools that plug into your existing infrastructure directly.
  • What is your business process automation volume? Are you planning on automating a few dozen tasks each month, or a few million? What failure rate, if any, are you able to tolerate at these levels? What level of redundancy, reporting, and record-keeping will you need?
  • How many functions/different workflows will your BPA system support? Will your business process automation software support a single department or your entire organization? Will it be used for a particular purpose (e.g. invoicing) or does it need to be a swiss army knife capable of supporting any automation you dream up?

Once you’ve answered the questions above, it’s time to go shopping. As you evaluate the various business process automation software options, the following questions can help you in your comparisons:

  • How common is the tool on the market? More broadly used tools will generally support more automation and customization functions, and you’ll have access to a deeper pool of developers with experience working with the software.
  • Does the tool support add-ins and apps? Today’s best software benefits from crowd-sourced plugins and apps that offer key parts of functionality and can considerably speed up your development process.
  • What are the price and licensing options? Flexibility here is key. Every business is different, and you’ll want to find the right balance of seats, service level, and affordability.

Our Recommended Business Process Automation Software

At IOTAP, we’ve been working with business process automation software for decades, guiding some of the world’s largest customers through their digital transformations. And with that experience, we recommend a combination of Nintex and Microsoft SharePoint.

These two tools provide a flexible, affordable solution that is robust enough to handle the majority of BPA scenarios. Even better, SharePoint and Nintex have the potential for almost limitless customization and can support a much broader digital transformation as part of the popular Office 365 suite.

Advantages of Nintex for Business Process Automation

Nintex has developed a highly rated business process automation tool that integrates directly with Microsoft Sharepoint: Nintex Workflow. This combination of tools offers the following benefits:

  • An unrivaled speed of implementation and ease of use
  • A very attractive price point in an industry where affordable enterprise solutions are few and far between
  • “Drag-and-drop” workflow creation that does not require any coding
  • Integration between Office 365, SharePoint and other external systems (DocuSign, Twitter, etc.)
  • Robust user role and visibility support, which allows you to present only relevant information to your different audiences with a single platform
  • Document management and storage is built right into the system, allowing you to set up deliverable approval flows with ease
  • Cross-platform notifications, via email, text and even IM
  • “Lazy Approval”, which allows users to approve workflows or tasks from any alert on a device
  • Lists, email alerts, and various workflow configurations are easily configurable by any user
  • The ability to assign tasks and schedule appointments automatically
  • Built-in business process automation documentation with the annotate feature
  • User account and permission assignment workflows that work with Active Directory
  • The ability to reverse or elevate workflows to different business logic states depending on approval levels to ensure a workflow reaches the correct outcome
  • Automatic document updates

That was certainly a lot of information to cover. If your organization is considering business process automation and automation software, we invite you to talk to IOTAP’s BPA experts today. We can help you select the right tool and process to help accelerate your business.

Where SharePoint Excels at Business Process Automation

Companies seeking an efficient solution for business process automation often look up to Microsoft SharePoint for an effective platform. While SharePoint workflows have some limitations, having a third party engine on top of it can really make a difference. Business process automation using SharePoint in conjunction with something like Nintex workflows can help to streamline operations, reduce costs, increase efficiency, improve customer service, and provide consistency for document-heavy business processes.

In this blog, we look at the different business processes that can be automated with SharePoint.

1. Document Feedback and Approval

Today’s leading organizations face document overload: an overabundance of documents that must pass through numerous hands before being approved. Proposals, contracts, service agreements, sales presentations, employee training materials, and other documents often go through a multi-step feedback and approval process before they are ready for use. SharePoint offers a convenient resource for efficient document management, allowing stakeholders to provide feedback and approval as new documents make their way through the workflow. Documents can be reviewed and edited online in SharePoint, allowing multiple users to contribute to a project without any confusion over where the latest version can be found.

The SharePoint approval workflow routes documents from one party to the next, assigning review tasks and following up with reminders to ensure that work is completed quickly and efficiently.

The document approval process can cause big backlogs for organizations that don’t have a system in place to manage documents and alert owners when they need to weigh in. Using SharePoint’s built-in features to upload, edit, and manage documents allows organizations to expedite the approval process for all manner of important documents.

2. Holiday and Paid-Time-Off Requests

Employee scheduling is crucial to keeping any organization running smoothly, and inaccurate paid-time-off tracking is costly. However, tracking holiday time and other PTO for a large company can be a drain on management and HR employees’ resources. Using Work 365 Leave and Time Management Apps that syncs with SharePoint, employees can submit requests for time off, managers can approve those requests, and available time off can be updated automatically so that employees, managers, and human resource specialists always have an accurate accounting of an employee’s used and available PTO.

3. Customer Support and Customer Service Requests

SharePoint is a powerful tool for organizing and managing lists of activities, which is especially useful when managing customer support requests. Customer service workflows can be configured to support the activities below, reducing the number of time employees must spend responding to customers and increasing efficiency and customer satisfaction:

  • Service request or incident tracking
  • Providing status updates on technical support resolution
  • Alerting managers and assigned representatives to new tickets or status changes on existing tickets
  • Tracking shipment and order statuses
  • Customer service scheduling and appointments
  • Progress toward complaint resolution

As customers demand increasingly fast and personalized service, SharePoint automation helps organizations keep up while alleviating some of the strain on their busy customer service and support departments.

4. Employee Onboarding and Off-Boarding

Fragmented onboarding and off-boarding processes can cause big problems for organizations of all sizes. New employees need an efficient, accurate way to receive the information they need to perform their duties, and existing employees need to be handled with care to avoid legal consequences and loss of employee knowledge. SharePoint can help organizations address both concerns with workflow processes to streamline the way employees join and exit the company.

Some onboarding and off-boarding automation that can be set up via SharePoint include:

  • Online form submissions and a central data repository that can be accessed by involved employees and departments
  • Workflow automation and alerting to avoid missed deadlines and expedite approvals for onboarding
  • Secure online portals to limit unauthorized access to sensitive, proprietary assets for existing employees

Document-heavy processes are easy to automate with SharePoint. Talk to IOTAP’s specialists today to learn more about business process automation solutions designed to fit your organization.

The above examples are just a few of the ways in which business process automation can be implemented in your business. If your organization is struggling with process management and coordination, we invite you to talk to IOTAP’s BPA experts today.

An Introduction to Business Process Automation: Why It’s Worth the Investment

The robots are coming, and there may never be a better time to be in business.

A recent McKinsey study found that approximately 45% of the activities that workers are currently paid to perform can be automated with existing technology. That figure represents approximately US$1.1 trillion of wages in India and US$2 trillion in the United States, an incredible opportunity for businesses to lower costs, free employee time for more valuable activities, and increase profits.

In this context, the question most businesses have today is how exactly they can capitalize on the various technologies in the market. And the answer is Business Process Automation (BPA).

What is Business Process Automation?

Put simply, Business Process Automation is the technology-enabled automation of activities or services that accomplish a specific function or workflow. Many businesses likely have some version of BPA currently in use within their organization. Some of the most commonly automated functions across industries currently include:

  • Accounting and Invoicing
  • Receiving and Delivery Operations
  • Sales and Marketing Operations
  • Quality Assurance and Corrective Action Reporting
  • Materials and Service Ordering
  • Product Lifecycle Management
  • Human Resources
  • And More!

How Can Business Process Automation Help Your Business?

There are a number of areas where BPA can help increase efficiency. Below are a few examples:

  • Reducing or eliminating repetitive tasks that do not add value to the customer
  • Speeding up the execution of tasks that are always triggered based on a timeframe, customer activity, or another frequently occurring event
  • Increasing efficiency by offering greater self-service options
  • Reducing manual involvement in a back office and administrative functions

Ultimately, wherever you need to free up resources by reducing the time spent on a commonly executed task is a good candidate for BPA.

What Industries Benefit the Most from Business Process Automation?

One of the advantages of BPA is its applicability to virtually any industry. The functions below are largely common across industries and are prime candidates for Business process automation.

  • Sales and marketing (via automated lead nurture activities)
  • Management (via reporting and analytics)
  • Operations (improving efficiencies in product delivery)
  • Supply chain activities (automating inventory management, etc.)
  • Human resources (providing access and training to new employees, filtering resumes, etc.)
  • Information technology (managing and integrating existing systems)

What are the Benefits of Business Process Automation?

McKinsey finds that companies who have invested in BPA typically see an ROI of between 3 and 10x their investment. These returns commonly come from the following areas:

  • Reduced Costs: Anywhere automation can reduce manual labor on a task represents a significant saving to the business. BPA also helps significantly reduce inefficiencies and rework as well.
  • Improved Customer Service: Customers benefit from a host of efficiencies that increase the speed of service and satisfaction. Improvements in the areas of ticket assignment, response times, self-service, and follow-up all help contribute to a lift in overall service quality.
  • Motivated Employees: Numerous studies have shown correlations between employee engagement and company performance. Employees freed from the tedium of repetitive tasks that do not add significant value are more likely to devote their best efforts to more impactful areas of the business.
  • Increased Capacity to Deliver More Services: When time is freed up from repetitive tasks, this labor can be shifted into more sales and marketing activities, which allows a business to grow at an increased rate for the same labor cost.

We hope this overview of Business process automation shows you some of the benefits of this approach. With technology’s rapid evolution, it can be difficult to understand exactly where to start. If you’d like to talk to a business process automation expert, please contact IOTAP today.

Implementing Agile Business Process Automation

How to use technology to quickly automate your business and save time and money

Last week, we introduced you to business process automation and discussed why BPA is worth the investment. This week, we’re going to detail the process we use when working on business process automation software (you may also know this term as business process re-engineering (BPR), or business process automation (BPA)).
But first, let’s discuss the philosophy behind our business process automation approach. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned after hundreds of successful enterprise and small business software deployments, it’s that business processes are constantly evolving. That’s why IOTAP strongly believes that an Agile development methodology is a correct approach to business process automation: it allows you to start small, build momentum with quick wins, and continue to grow your automation capabilities as your business evolves.
Below are the steps in our agile business process automation process:
  1. Identify What You’ll Automate (and Plan How You’ll Do It)
  2. Outline Opportunities to Simplify Operations
  3. Standardize Processes
  4. Implement Automation

IOTAP’s Agile Business Process Automation Approach

Business Process Automation Approach

Business Process Automation Step 1: Identity What You’ll Automate, and Plan How You’ll Do It

Identifying Which Processes You’ll Address

Efficiency can be realized across numerous areas of any business, which can be both a positive and a challenge. We recommend beginning your BPA planning process by identifying which tasks are likely candidates for automation and prioritizing them in the work plan. Ideal initial candidates for business process automation include:

  • Paperwork-heavy processes (both physical and digital)
  • Manual/ employee-dependent tasks that must be delivered with a high degree of reliability or fast speed
  • Key activities that need to be regularly tracked and reported
  • Areas where record-keeping, compliance and approval have high importance

People, Partner, and Technology

The typical business process automation project may start small, but it won’t be long until you’re starting to affect a number of different teams and departments, which has the potential to be very disruptive if not managed correctly.

That’s why it’s critical to identify the people who will be leading your BPA initiative, the partner you’ll be working with, and the technology that you’ll use before beginning any development work.

Finally, choosing the best business process automation software is no easy task. We’ll cover this topic in more depth in a later blog, but for now, know that the two most important criteria that we evaluate are a speed of implementation and tool flexibility. Think Agile!

Business Process Automation Step 2: Define Opportunities to Simplify Operations

Before development begins, your business process automation partner and project manager should work closely to vet the ideas you put together in Step 1 and identify areas where you can simplify your operations. At IOTAP, we focus on three areas:

  • Disentangling: establishing a clear process and defined authority for a particular task

o   Example Situation: A customer service department that accepts tickets via email to a common support address. Whoever receives the email first acts on the ticket, but reps generally do not have good visibility into priority or assignments, and management does not have good data on case open and closure rates.

  • ReducingRemoving manual work from employees and having software do the work

o   Example Situation: Manual sales reports aggregated from CRM, accounting, and other systems each week for distribution to and review by sales managers.

  • Parallelizingidentify areas where work can be sped up by having different processes performed in parallel.

o   Example Situation: An employee onboarding process that requires a new staff member to provide documentation for payroll, insurance and other benefits, complete training courses, and gain access to required systems, with all of these functions carried out by a different staff member at different times.

A few questions to ask during this process include:

  •  What repetitive tasks can be taken out of an employee’s hands?
  • What are the criteria for sending an alert, and who should be notified?
  • What actions should be taken based on a trigger such as an event or elapsed timeframe?
  • Where will a human need to make a decision or use judgment in the process?
  • What records and data need to be captured? Where do they need to be saved/visible, and by whom?

Business Process Automation Step 3: Standardize Processes

Once you’ve identified where you can simplify your operations, it’s time to standardize those business process automation workflows so that development can begin. At IOTAP, we use a three-step BPA standardization process:

  1. Define: At the outset, we define exactly how business processes should be completed in order to provide a blueprint for automation. During this stage, all potential system inputs, outputs, and conditions should be reviewed and discussed with stakeholders so that processes for the most common scenarios and exceptions are agreed upon.
  2. Document: Once your business processes are defined, the next step is to build a flow-chart that documents exactly how, from a technical standpoint, your business process automation will be addressed. This documentation should include both manual and system-generated activities, as well as interactions across different systems.
  3. Set Service-Level Agreement: Finally, the standards for successful business process automation must be set. If a customer requires a response to a service ticket within 2 hours, that criteria should be known so that it can be built into the system. If customer data must be stored and accessible for five years after a transaction, that requirement must be defined.

At the completion of Step 3, you’ll have the blueprint and architecture ready to develop your business process automation solution.

Business Process Automation Step 4: Implementation

Remember the Agile Development motto: start small and iterate. The requirements that you identified in Steps 2 and 3 above should be prioritized for a speed of implementation, with the goal of delivering a few key quick wins and gathering user feedback on the experience to guide further work.

These quick wins could be solutions for the most tedious chores employees are currently working on that help build stakeholder goodwill or systems that solve a frustration point for customers.

Once you’ve achieved your first BPA wins, it’s time to iterate your solution. Business Process Automation is an ever-evolving field, and your goal should be to continue to identify opportunities for improvements. These improvements could include supporting additional functions, moving to “version 2.0” of automation systems as your employees gain experience with the system, or adding capabilities to provide more self-service to customers. But your goal is to establish a mindset of continual evaluation and improvement of your business process automation.

We hope that we’ve provided you with a good overview of how to approach business process automation and re-engineering. As you can see, the possibilities in this field are virtually limitless. If you’d like to discuss how to start the process or improve your current operations through business process re-engineering, talk to IOTAP’s business process automation experts today.