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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Business process automation

Business process automation, or BPA, is the strategy a business uses to automate processes in order to contain costs. It consists of integrating applications, restructuring labor resources and using software applications throughout the organization.

There are four main techniques for delivering automation of a business process.

Extension of existing IT systems
As most IT systems are inherently automation engines in themselves, a valid option is to extend their functionality to enable the desired automation, creating customized linkages between the disparate application systems where needed. This approach means that the automation can be tailored specifically to the exact environment of the organization, on the down-side it can be time-consuming to find the necessary skills either internally or in the marketplace.

Purchase of a specialist BPA tool
Specialist companies are now bringing toolsets to market which are purpose-built for the function of BPA. These companies tend to focus on different industry sectors but their underlying approach tends to be similar in that they will attempt to provide the shortest route to automation by exploiting the user interface layer rather than going deeply into the application code or databases sitting behind them. They also simplify their own interface to the extent that these tools can be used directly by non-technically qualified staff. The main advantage of these toolsets is therefore their speed of deployment, the drawback is that it brings yet another IT supplier to the organization.

Purchase of a Business Process Management solution with BPA extensions
From the discussion below, it will be seen that a Business Process Management system is quite a different animal from BPA. However, it is possible to build automation on the back of a BPM implementation. The actual tools to achieve this vary, from writing custom application code to using specialist BPA tools, as described above. The advantages and disadvantages of this approach are inextricably linked – the BPM implementation provides an architecture for all processes in the business to be mapped, but this in itself delays the automation of individual processes and so benefits may be lost in the meantime.

Business Process Automation (BPA) v. Business Process Management (BPM)

An area of discussion exists as to whether BPA is a distinct field of activity in its own right or merely a subset of a wider activity known as BPM. Given the similarity in terminology it is not surprising that most casual observers would believe them to be closely related if not identical. However, to experts in these areas they carry very distinct meanings, even if they are ultimately complementary concepts. To explain this further it is necessary to summarise the views of each camp:
The BPM camp asserts that before any process can be automated, it is necessary to define (often at a very strategic level or enterprise-wide) all of the business processes running inside an organisation. From this the processes can be re-defined and where necessary optimised, including automation.
The BPA camp state that until a process is automated, there is no real value in analysing and defining it, and that the cycle of business change is so rapid that there simply isn’t time to define every process before choosing which ones to address with automation, and that delivering immediate benefits creates more value.
There is no consensus amongst which view will prevail, however it can be seen that both perspectives are at least complementary to some extent. Process improvement methodologies such as Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma appear to align well with the BPA view of the world, as they constantly look for incremental opportunities to make processes more efficient and reduce defects, however these methodologies can also be used downstream of a BPM deployment.

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