It’s one of those phrases that any consultant worth their salt will have in their vocabulary… and will be willing to liberally throw around.
But what is process automation? What are the benefits? Why do you need it in your business?
What is process automation?
At its most basic level, it is using technology to automate business processes into a sequence that simply and easily transitions from one task to another.
In short, it means that rather than having your highly valuable, trained staff following a bouncing ball for low-value processes and activities, you can use technology.
Its far cheaper and it frees up your skilled resources for other, more valuable activities that require a logical application; we’ll come back to this point in a minute.
What are the benefits of process automation?
The key benefit is that it allows you to realize the most value and efficiency from your precious, limited resources.
Unfortunately, none of us have the luxury of unlimited resources available for use in our businesses. Even if we did, there’s a tipping point where more resources can actually negatively impact efficiency. Increasing costs. Time, effort and skills are wasted.
This is where automation steps in to help by utilizing technology to take care of the repetitive, recurring and low-value work.
What are some examples that might apply to your business?
A key example is expense authorizations. Rather than manually handling all expense requests yourself, or having your accountants handle them, why not automate the small ones. If an expense fits certain criteria, for example, it’s low value and from a current supplier, then these invoices can be identified, and automatically approved and paid.
Steps such as this can help your business reduce operating costs and, therefore, increase profit.
Process automation can ensure you provide market-leading customer service, improve productivity, lift employee morale and strengthen governance, all while reducing errors.
Which processes are candidates for process automation?
Technology is invaluable and it’s advancing at a sometimes-frightening pace. But even in this environment, there are still areas and activities where technology has not developed far enough to handle effectively and a human touch is needed.
While surgeons today use robots to handle intricate surgeries, diagnosis is best left to a human. How would you feel going to the doctor, having a consultation with a robot and it diagnosing your illness? A little bit disconcerting isn’t it?
So, if it’s not able to be used for everything, what processes are the best for automation?
Generally, processes that are repetitive, don’t require the application of logic or thinking, don’t need human intervention and need to be error-free are great candidates for automation.
We’ve already mentioned a scenario of automating certain expense approvals, but other examples that may apply to your business are employee onboarding processes, travel authorizations, annual leave or sick leave requests.
Data matching and cleansing activities are also great candidates for automation; don’t spend time reconciling your banking transactions with your invoices, automation can do that.
Another application might be if you need a regular report compiled for your business. Set up your tech to know where to pull the data from, how it needs to be collated and how to visualize it, and voila, your report will be ready on time, every time.
Human time is then only needed for explaining what the trends mean, their impacts on the business and the actions needed to optimize them or mitigate their impacts.
What are the fundamental principles for process automation?
Firstly, you have to completely understand your existing systems and process. Once you fully understand how they interact, their dependencies and interlinkages, and have analyzed all possible impacts or knock-on effects, you can start to simplify the processes and introduce automation.
Secondly, integration is key, automation should be used alongside and integrate with your existing processes.
Interfaces and interactions between the processes must be seamless at all times and at all levels of the business. Automation processes must be consistent with other processes of the business in both their inputs and outputs.
Make sure there’s enough flexibility in your new way of doing things to allow them to evolve as your business grows. Very few businesses remain stationary; all grow, consolidate, evolve or devolve over time. Make sure you take this into consideration and build in flexibility for the future.
A step by step approach is needed with a fail fast and roll back approach to understand what truly works and what doesn’t.
Stage it. Don’t be afraid to question or stop on some processes and most of all, keep things simple.
There’s no rush. Do it right, don’t do it immediately if you aren’t ready. Keep in mind there are specialist companies out there whose existence is doing this work. So, get their opinion or get them to help you.
And finally, make sure your staff are informed and understand the new automation opportunities. Tell them how these will impact their own work, processes and ways of doing things. The more they understand, the better they can work with the process.
Process automation isn’t for everything but can be invaluable for recurring, repetitive processes in your business.
Map your business out today. Identify the processes that are candidates for automation that are similar to the examples above and implement these using a trial and error approach.
Then watch the benefits of efficiency, simplicity and automation take effect in your business.