Technology has long been employed in speeding up or simplifying business processes. A century before the invention of the computer, for example, the telegraph replaced men on horses as a way to communicate orders to the factory. It’s been one innovation after another since then. Today, we are seeing steady growth in the area of Business Process Automation (BPA). And, while we’ve come a long way since the days of dots and dashes, the essentials have not changed much.
What is Business Process Automation?
Before we get into defining BPA, it’s worth first answering the more fundamental question: “What is a business process?” A business process is a series of tasks that produce a desired business outcome. For example, taking a sales order over the phone is a business process. The process starts with someone answering the phone, then listening to the order and entering the order details into an order management system, issuing an invoice or collecting payment.
This order intake process then hands off to an order fulfillment process. Order fulfillment is a separate business process. It involves someone executing the requirements of the order, e.g. picking merchandise from the shelf and shipping it to the customer.
Automating a business process means looking at its flow of steps and identifying manual (i.e. human) actions. Answering the phone is a manual step. Entering the order details into the order system is a manual step. For the sake of argument, we’re going to say that manual steps are bad. People are expensive. They make mistakes. They take vacations. What if we could substitute a computerized action for a manual action? That would automate the business process—BPA.
How BPA Works
BPA is a process of application integration and orchestration. Let’s say we want to automate the “answer the phone and take the order down” steps of the sales order intake process. First, we would substitute an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system for the person who usually answers the phone. The IVR system can easily be set up to receive commands like “to place an order, press 1.” At that point, though, the IVR system needs some help to process a sales order.
To automate the process, it is necessary to integrate the IVR system with the sales order management system, which might be part of an Enterprise Resource management (ERP) solution. The ERP solution holds the company’s product catalog. It can book orders and initiate order fulfillment processes. By integrating the IVR and ERP systems, BPA makes it possible for caller to type in his or her account number, a product number and quantity into the phone. The VIR system transmits the order data to ERP. The customer has placed an order over the phone without actually talking to anyone.
Except, integration alone won’t accomplish this. For the automated order intake process to work, there has to be orchestration between the IVR and ERP systems. Orchestration is a matter of one system triggering another’s procedures based on a workflow. This is known as a “procedure call” or “remote procedure call.” It’s usually mapped visually with if/then statements, e.g. IF the customer types in a product number (into IVR), THEN the ERP needs to check to see if the product is in stock.
We have worked with many companies on BPA. The example described above is deliberately simple to explain the concept. In real life, BPA can get extremely complex, which is good. Companies want to offer streamlined, intuitive experiences to customers. They want to take people out of routine, repetitive business processes and let them use their human brains for valuable work instead.
Doing BPA the right way is only partly about software, however. Success with BPA has a lot to do with understanding how a business works and how it competes strategically. Process automation needs to serve business goals, even if it’s executed on a technical level. We can help you with BPA on both levels: the business analysis and the technical implementation.