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A Detailed Primer on Business Process Automation

Posted by Henry Cheang | April 16, 2014 2:00 PM

BUSINESS PROCESS AUTOMATION

Drawing from the experience of a master

Now, I’ve recently been writing a fair bit on the benefits of automation and the advantages of SaaS, but let’s face it – I will never know as much as Robert Al-Jaar, on these domains. And so, I was lucky enough to sit down with Robert and ask him a few questions on automation and its place with business practices. The following is the essence of our conversations (mildly edited for length and clarity): 

Even before getting to the benefits of automating business processes, can you give me your breakdown of how they’re categorized in real-world business settings?

Generally, business processes can be categorized as:

  • Ad-hoc: These are unplanned processes without pre-defined structure or routing to which you must react on an ongoing basis. We can classify many administrative processes as ad-hoc processes.

  • Collaborative: Creative marketing projects, product development projects, and HR recruitment campaigns are examples of collaborative processes where participant roles are well defined but the flow of work is not rigid.
  • Production: Production processes are workflows where tasks are performed repetitively and in high volumes with the goal of delivering a specific value to the business. In these types of processes, structure and routing are very-well defined. Manufacturing, insurance claims, and loan processing are examples of production processes.

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Those sound remarkably broad. Are there other classification schemes?

Yes. One may want to look at processes from the perspective of automation, BPA – business process automation (BPA - defined as the automation of complex business processes and functions beyond conventional data manipulation and record-keeping activities, usually through the use of advanced technologies"). So, through an automation lens, we can look at processes across three dimensions:

  • End-points
  • Vertical
  • Location/organization

Could you elaborate on these dimensions, beginning with the end-points dimension?

The end-points dimension refers to the participants involved in the automation at the edges of the process. There are three possible scenarios at play here:

  • Person-to-person: In this scenario, the process to automate is among people or groups of people. Examples include performance reviews, approvals for expenses, and HR processes –most administrative type of processes can belong to this category.
  • Person-to-machine: Here aprocess is connecting people to machines. An example is that of a citizen interacting with a website to apply for a driver’s license, or of a customer interacting only with a website for purchase transactions, a la Amazon.
  • Machine-to-machine: In this type of process automation, participants are machines. This is often referred to as Straight Through Processing (STP). It occurs when your business is set up to run on auto-pilot, with machines operating on pre-set algorithms and instructions at the speed of the Internet. A good example is that of financial services where a bank would have invested in computer systems that automate the mortgage process or the insurance process – effectively, with STP, your company’s IT resources make money for you even as you sleep!

Wait. Back up. How do you automate person-to-person processes?

These processes start and end with people who may also use machines, but the key participants are people. Take, for example, the act of completing an expense report. Someone has created a digital expense report template, stored it in the cloud for use by employees, and set up rules for its use. An employee may then access the template on the cloud, fill it out, and email it through her computer. The expense report is then routed by email to the manager who approves it. Effectively, the end-to-end process between these two people involved (person filing the report and person who approves it) is an automated person-to-person process. 

Got it. Thanks! What about the vertical dimension?

This is a reference to business processes that are specific to particular industries. For example, the lending process in banking is specific to the financial services vertical. 

I think we can contrast this dimension to “horizontal” processes - processes that are used across industries in very similar fashion such as filing expense reports, procurement, or contract management.

Of course, the crown jewel of "horizontal" processes is probably the customer acquisition process. The essence of this process is almost uniform across all industries (with minor variations) where an online channel is used for customer acquisition. Importantly, customer acquisition is arguably the primary process that relates to revenue growth and market expansion, as opposed to efficiency or cost savings. Automating this customer acquisition process makes companies agile and responsive to changing customer and market needs. Very powerful with a high ROI potential.

 

Whoa. I can honestly say that I’ve never thought of the customer acquisition process in that way! And the location/organization dimension?

Well, the location/organization dimension is a reference to where business processes begin and end. For example, we can look at business processes that are:

  • all internal to one organization (intra-organization)
  • between two organizations (inter-organization)
  • among multiple organizations (extra-organization, ecosystem)

The reason to consider this dimension is because it gives us a framework with which to understand the complexity of the business processes inherent to a given company when we embark on a BPA initiative. 

Can you give me the main reasons for considering automating business processes?

Certainly! There are many benefits of automation, in fact. Automating your business processes should lead to one or more of the following benefits:

  • exceptional customer experience; improved customer perception
  • improved agility, flexibility, scalability - innovation
  • greater efficiency and productivity, leading to competitiveness and speed-to-market
  • gaining deeper insights, which permit you to make faster and more consistent decisions
  • greater market and thought leadership
  • global reach
  • improved compliance and risk management
  • lowered costs and heightened profitability

Basically, when you automate your business processes, you’ve taken the first step towards better business results for your company. Start with BPA to automate the execution or flow of processes. Done right, you get more process efficiency. What you also get is visibility over the automated processes. After all, you can’t automate without first somehow tagging every asset or service in the process. With this visibility, you’ve gleaned a much more complete picture of your company as a whole, enabling better decisions and better actions. Effectively, you get much better control.

How does this relate to Cimpl?

Excellent question. You know Cimpl’s motto, right? "Connect. Clarify. Control." Well, with respect to BPA, what do we have for business process… "automation; visibility; control." Automation is about connecting things and people together. Visibility is about clarifying what the business process is doing and what state it’s in. And control is control! So with Cimpl, our customers get a SaaS solution that enables them to easily automate their telecom expense and IT asset management processes in order to connect all their technology expense data together, to gain visibility over their assets and related business processes, and to effect optimal control over how they deploy their assets in order to maximize ROI and business value. Absolutely fantastic, wouldn’t you say?

To be continued in Part 2, which I’ll publish next week!

Robert Al-Jaar had an illustrious 25-year career creating and leading software product and services divisions at multiple technology and consulting companies. He has delivered phenomenal results in product innovation, software development, product management, and professional services for Silanis, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Netscape, and Digital, among other top firms.


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Topics: Business Automation, SaaS

Written by Henry Cheang

Henry has a lifelong passion for science and technology. This enthusiasm is put to good use in a cutting-edge software company like Cimpl. As product marketer, Henry researches market and user needs to develop user and buyer personas, contributes to product design, and helps coordinate product messaging. Henry also writes nearly the entirety of all documentation for Cimpl’s many successful platforms. In his spare time, Henry devotes much energy to family, friends, and martial arts. Henry recently completed his Master’s in Business and Administration from Concordia University, where he specialized in the study of marketing, organizational behavior, and corporate governance. He has authored academic papers on the latter two subjects; these papers form part of his bibliography of over 20 professional research publications.

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