Process Automation is a term that tends to attract a degree of scepticism from a wide range of the business community. Many would be aware that process automation is in wide use within the enterprise environment, where resources are extensive and technical expertise abound. This, combined with the fact that process automation is often discussed in vague, general terms, can create the perception within the Small to Medium Business space that real process automation is beyond their grasp. There is also a slew of products out there that claim to be able to automate this or that without being specific on how this is achieved and what the prerequisites are. It is understandable then that there exists a general caution within the SMB space towards those that come bearing gifts of automation.
This same environment is also responsible for failing to clearly articulate the value of process automation. Again, the use of vague and general promises to unlock value beyond one’s wildest dreams are all too common in the automation space, driving the wedge of scepticism deeper still.
Before we get into how process automation is actually much simpler than many businesses might think, we’ll spend a little time talking about how it can bring value to your organisation.
At the most obvious level, process automation reduces the human effort involved in running your business. At this point, many businesses again think of the negative impacts of large-scale downsizing and laying off employees. In the SMB space, people are an incredible asset, and not one to be flippantly cast aside. So, although reducing headcount remains an opportunity for businesses with the right profile, the primary value in process automation actually exists in freeing up your workforce to spend their time on more value-added activities. By their nature, processes that are suitable for automation (at least at the beginning of a business’ automation journey) are repetitive, mundane, low-value activities. Time spent doing these activities at the lowest-end of the strategic spectrum is time not spent concentrating on what matters most in a business, such as product development, user experience, customer satisfaction, service improvement, quality management, and risk-reduction, which all bring much greater value to a business.
So, is process automation really the black-box so many would have us to believe, and how does a business get after it? Fortunately, it’s simpler than you may realise. For an activity to be a suitable candidate for process automation, it should possess three key characteristics:
- Rule-Based – the activity should be able to be described by a series of rules which dictate how to treat a certain problem given different conditions. While the simplest processes (and the ones a business should start with) will not have any variations, there are many instances in which local, regional or product or customer or supplier-based variations may exist. As long as these variations can still be described by rules, it may be suitable for automation. Conversely, processes that require human judgement are usually (but not exclusively) not suitable for automation.
- Digitized – the activity should be carried out within a system or may be carried out across (and between) several systems. This can include that most abused intermediary – MS Excel – which carries part of the load for such a significant number of processes in the SMB (and Enterprise!) space. As long as it involves the transference of data, it’s still in the pool.
- Documented – this is a simple one to fix but one where a lot of businesses fall down, which is to not have documented processes. Process documentation can be developed within the four walls of the business or technical documentation from software systems may be leveraged to draw out the existing documented processes.
That’s it! That’s literally all that goes into determining if a process may be automated. There are some additional considerations such as how frequently a process is carried out and how long it takes, to determine the value of automation. Typically, a higher-frequency process with a greater aggregate time spent working in the business will deliver the best value.
So how does a business get after process automation? There are several approaches. For businesses with a range of discreet business applications used to enable their processes, it can be a bit like eating an elephant. It’s typically best to select the most ideal candidate process, map the systems and data used, ensure connections such as API’s are in place and then use one of range of automation tools available on the market to develop an automation script that carries out each step based on the prescribed rules. This first one will typically be a painful yet valuable learning experience, which should be learnt from to improve the speed and reduce the cost required to automate the second process and so on. This may require some dedicated resources and can be costly and time-consuming.
Another approach to achieving process automation is to migrate your business processes onto a single platform such as SAP BusinessOne or SAP Business ByDesign. By bringing all of your applications and data into a single platform that is already documented, rules-based and digitized, you’ve already set the preconditions needed to start automating, in a fraction of the time and at the fraction of the cost. Better yet, these two SAP platforms – which are tailored to the small and medium business space – already have a bunch of neat automation built-in, cutting out the requirement to develop automation scripts. And if that wasn’t simple enough, they also have simple, user-friendly interfaces in place that allow you to develop process automation scripts, and because the data is all connected, it takes substantial time and cost out of the automation process.
What this means for businesses is that instead of having their workforce spending time doing rule-based and repetitive work, they can be freed up to focus on customers. This doesn’t just lead to happier customers, but also to a happier workforce, higher retention rates and all the business benefits that come with that.