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.
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.