There are many automation solutions in the software industry, each having their own strengths and business applications. It can be confusing finding the right tools for your automation needs with so many categories of automation and so many software solutions in each one.
In this article we are going to focus on the different types of automation, not specific tools. You will find individual software solutions spanning multiple categories, and we find that is because there is crossover in their features, or the description is more of a concept. For example, you may refer to your “Accounting system” but are you using an ERP, MRP, Point of Sale or other specialized financial software? Business Process Automation, Workflow Automation – those are concepts as well as classifications of certain types of automation technologies.
We'll explore Business Process Management (BPM), Workflow Automation (WFA), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML) and Integration as a Platform (iPaas) and see if we can help clarify what each offers your organization.
The Automation Spectrum: A Quick Overview
First, let’s take a quick look at each type of automation and see if we can define it succinctly.
Business Process Management (BPM): Enterprise tool to plan, optimize and manage end-to-end automation. Often BPM tools have the same automation tool set to build and execute your workflows as BPA below, with the addition of the process planning, optimization, and management. The industry often interchanges these two technologies.
Business Process Automation (BPA): Automation tools offering end-to-end automation that enable companies to automate simple tasks to complex processes across an organization, between systems and even multiple organizations. You will find features like alerts, document generation and delivery, ETL, integration and many others. The premise is that you can utilize this vast tool set to create your own powerful automations.
Workflow Automation (WFA): Workflow Automation is a more generic term that all automation tools fall under, like Process Automation. When referring to WFA, many in the industry are referring to solutions that focus on, and are experts in, specific types of processes such as AP Automation and Document Automation.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA): Originating as a “screen scrape”, this automation is configured from the user interface based on replicating a user’s interactions, often referred to as “bots”. Perhaps a bot is taking information from a document and using copy / paste to enter it into another system, just like a person would. It has many uses such as handling routine inquiries like chat bots, parsing incoming emails and logging the data, or data validation - cross referencing several different sources of data. Its focus is a specific task, not an entire process.
Machine Learning (ML): A subset of AI, machine learning is utilized in process automation by learning and improving the functions is it performing without the need of being reprogrammed. If we are once more needing to take data from one source and enter it into another, ML may highlight specific areas it thinks it may have gotten wrong, and after being reviewed and corrected, it shouldn’t get it wrong on the next pass. It learns from its mistakes.
Integration Platform as a Service (iPaas): Solutions that enable customers to connect various systems and data sources through APIs and direct database access, and transform and transfer data from one to another. Perhaps you set it up to have invoices from the ERP and logged them into your CRM.
Honorable mention - Intelligent automation: A relatively new automation category, it refers to the use of advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and sometimes also includes (RPA), in combination with automation processes to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of various tasks and workflows. It's a more advanced form of automation that goes beyond simple rule-based tasks and can adapt, learn, and make decisions based on data and patterns.
Researching Automation Solutions
Over the years our team has assisted many organizations on their automation journey. Here is an example of the many paths to knowledge we have seen and how a company may research and learn about automation based on their immediate business challenges.
Companies often experience the bottleneck of receiving incoming paper and electronic AP invoices and manually entering them into their accounting system. It can be painful enough that resolving the issue becomes urgent. Manually entering the data, revisiting the occasional typo, losing invoices, pushing approvals through, and getting them paid on time are just some of the challenges, especially when experiencing growth.
In trying to find a solution they discover Robotic Process Automation (RPA). It appears they can quickly implement this technology to do the task of entering the data from the electronic invoices into their accounting system. It is recording the input from the team at the screen level and duplicating those functions. Quick and easy to implement but doesn’t usually address the paper invoices so a scanning solution would need to be found.
Further research leads them to Document Automation, a type of Workflow Automation (WFA). They learn that it is going to reduce the time they spend with the manual data entry as well, but instead incorporates scanning the documents, pulling out the data and even handling the approval workflow. Being a document focused solution, it can be applied to other areas of their business beyond AP that are also overwhelmed with the document bottleneck.
Then they find AP Automation, also a specialized WFA. This includes the document automation feature but is hyper focused on the entire AP Process: approvals, automating payments, communicating with vendors, and integrating with the accounting system they use. Two features that may stand out are machine learning and robotic process automation, built into the AP Automation.
The Machine Learning (ML) technology improves the automated data input over time as invoices are received from different vendors in various formats. As the data is automatically entered into the system ML points out areas it thinks it may have gotten wrong, and when reviewed the solution would learn from each correction over time so there would be fewer adjustments to make in the future.
The Robotic Process Automation (RPA) feature would enable an organization to connect with their legacy system that doesn’t have built-in access for other applications. It would record the keyboard entries, including logging into the system, enter the necessary data and then repeat those entries over and over to automate the integration. The lack of access to the legacy system can be a roadblock to integration and RPA can resolve that issue.
Catching the Automation Bug
It is very fulfilling to walk organizations through this process of learning about automation. We find that once they understand how automation can help one facet of their business, they start to think about other departments and their challenges and watching that penny drop is amazing. In the example above, someone addressing their AP challenges can suddenly realize that they should automate billing, collections and inventory. They consider sharing customer finance status with other appropriate departments with an (iPaaS) and perhaps using that same tool to consolidate their data in a data lake or warehouse. Then marketing automation, customer on-boarding, shipping, support, streamlining HR … it really is almost endless and becomes very exciting when they think of the time saved, the mundane processes replaced with automation, the increase of efficiency, and ultimately happier customers and business that runs much smoother.
That’s the wonderful thing about automation, it spurs ideas for further automation. The standard answer to business challenges becomes …
“Can that be automated?”
Automation as a Business Standard
We've covered quite a lot of automation technologies and when applying them to the challenges organizations face, it can become overwhelming to think of how many tools a company could utilize.
That's where BPM and BPA come in. At first, solutions of this magnitude may seem overwhelming as well, but when held up to disparate systems being automated by disparate tools it is actually more cohesive. Typically products in these categories offer specialized tools as part of their tool set, so one could take advantage of RPA, iPaaS, ML and more, all within a single product.
Building your own processes may be something your team has never done. Where do you start? What if you already have automation tools in place in specific portions of your business, are you supposed to start over and build your own?
Starting Small: Your Journey into Automation Excellence
The great thing about BPM and BPA tools is most allow you to purchase a license that has limited functionality so you can start small and learn. Perhaps you want to automate generating reports that you are running manually. Or dynamic notifications to your team, customers and vendors that go well beyond the emails sent from your core systems today. Perhaps a single person is setting up some initial processes, and then progressively you expand your automation practice. Over time, it can encompass stakeholders from every facet of your business who collaborate on the shared goal of making your operations as streamlined as possible. Best of all, you should see the return on your investment from the very start by implementing just a few entry level processes and be encouraged to learn, build and grow.
Bringing Your Automation into the Fold
As for your existing tools, integration is a standard technology offered by BPM and BPA solutions today. If you have an automation solution already in place that you want to retain, most often you can incorporate into your end-to-end automation, making it part of your entire automation practice, improving its effectiveness. Let's say our original customer with AP challenges fell in love with a specific AP Automation solution. Later, when they adopt a BPM solution, it can integrate with that solution and it becomes part of the whole, disseminating important information out to the entire system, not just their ERP.
BPM and BPA tools are a journey that you can build into a fully-fledged automation practice, revolutionizing the way your business operates, enhancing efficiency, and ultimately providing a competitive edge in the marketplace.