Automation: It’s a big part of today’s workflow. We asked a panel of experts some questions about the way it’s affecting today’s businesses, for better or worse.

How is data analytics playing a role in process automation?

John Burton: A better question might be how data analytics can play a role in process automation, because companies that do so are the exception, not the rule. That said, they’re great companies. It’s one thing to invest in big data on a widespread basis, but the weak link is whether someone will take those insights and translate them into action. Alerting someone to an anomaly is the very simplest form of this. The interesting part is that both process automation and data analytics are prime areas for what Gartner calls “citizen development,” where solutions are created with, and sometimes by, the very people who need them (as opposed to waiting for central IT or outside contractors to create them). We think this is a fantastic area for further investment.

Greg Lok: Quantified decision-making is playing a central role to process automation. The future of work is all about a connected ecosystem that is quantified and provides key constituents what they need, when they need it — on demand.

Bruce Orcutt: Analytics is playing a very important role in process automation. Not only does the data tell the story about system performance, KPI measurement and achievement, service level agreements, and overall process performance, but more importantly this data now provides a baseline and benchmark for further modeling to improve the process. I often tell customers you cannot improve what you do not measure, and the latest analytics tools truly put the real-time view of the process at your fingertips, providing you levers and controls to understand the true dynamics and dimensions of your processes that simply were not available to you previously. The visibility and process transparency achieved by data analytics ensures optimum and consistent results are achieved or maintained.

On a macro and micro level, how has automation changed the business environment?

Reynolds Bish: On a macro level, automation generally improves productivity and can help organizations achieve operational excellence. On a micro level, the benefits can be significantly greater. Software that can automate critical customer-facing, document-centric business processes by providing actionable information — in a more timely, accurate, cost-effective and compliant manner — can provide much greater benefits. These arise from an organization being able to better engage with customers and improve its competitive position, and thereby being able to better manage and grow its business. Realizing such benefits can literally determine the future success or failure of an organization.

Burton: “Changing” is probably a better term than “changed.” It’s very much in flux, and probably will be for quite some time. You’ve seen the classic reasons for automation bear fruit in the form of lowered costs, reduced mistakes, increased efficiencies, etc. What’s happening now (on the micro level) is the use of automation to address a large number of everyday processes, and automating them with the idea of getting them out of the way of the work people need to focus on the most. On the macro level, it’s the realization that process automation and integration are almost synonymous. It’s rare that a process involves a single source of content, or a single group of data assets — or, for that matter, that those assets are closely-held repositories. It’s quite likely that modern and future processes will involve orchestrating activity across a wide variety of Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings.

Bill DeStefanis: At a macro level, companies have become much more focused on the customer experience associated with process automation. Originally, most of the “low hanging fruit”-type projects were focused on dramatic cost savings and/or productivity improvements. An ancillary benefit of process automation is better use of communication technologies, such as email, social media and SMS, to notify customers about stages of completion or errors in the process. Examples of improved customer experience include both internal and external customers. An extension of these customer benefits at the micro level are moving beyond push notification services to now include progress dashboards where users can self-service and check on the progress of any particular process.

Lok: Work automation is making businesses smarter and provides a way to “level up” in a hyper-competitive marketplace. Automation works very well for mundane and repetitive tasks, and we’re seeing several applications of office automation across all sectors.

Orcutt: On a macro level the process transparency and performance metrics mean that managers, process owners, and analysts have real-time views into their process and more importantly, processes are improving the overall level of customer engagement. So customers are benefiting from real-time services and enrollment for specific benefits or accounts that previously would have taken hours or days. Think about the speed of mobile. As mobile users, our devices have given us new expectations. Only highly optimized and effective processes can meet the demand of “now,” so that is a big shift in automation within a business environment. On a micro level, the amount of information about the process is incredible — are people abandoning our process? Where are they abandoning, on what device or channel, from what age demographic, etc.? The amount of data and answers available to process owners is incredible and their ability to respond with the right process and, more importantly, the right experience, is making for more effective and efficient processes.

 Automation is making businesses smarter and provides a way to level up in a competitive marketplace.

How has mobility (tablets, smart-phones, etc.) affected/changed/improved workflow? 

Bish: Mobile devices have forever changed the workflow paradigm. Extending workflow and business process automation to what we call the Point of Origination — where customer-facing interactions actually occur — allows an organization to engage with customers anywhere, any time, and via whatever means they prefer, which is increasingly through the use of mobile devices. Look at how mobile new customer onboarding has changed the way banks process new account openings and enable applications such as remote deposits and on-the-go bill pay capabilities. The ability to capture and submit your ID, a check to be deposited or a bill to pay speeds business processes and better serves customer needs. Any financial services organization not offering these capabilities is now at a competitive disadvantage.

Burton: On one level, completely, and on another level, not at all. First, we believe “mobility” to be much more than devices. It’s about bringing the work to be done to the right person at the right time in the right form. Often, that’s on a portable device. Other times, it’s via email. Still other times, it’s within a software product or website they already use. In any case, it has to minimize the work the user has to do to accomplish goals. Respect for users and a renewed focus on usability is something we can thank the rise of mobile for. That said, it’s still about automating processes, integrating assets, creating opportunities, etc. It’s great that there’s a new medium for user interaction, but the work still needs to be done. Mobile becomes a powerful tool, but the goal remains automation and orchestration.

DeStefanis: Incorporation of mobile devices in an automation process is a requirement in many situations, particularly where approvals are necessary to complete a transaction. Most organizations have an increasing number of mobile workers who need to stay connected to information sources and business processes. Mobility has aided in the productivity improvements associated with business processes and the overall customer experience. However, it has also introduced other concerns, such as security and privacy, that need to be taken into consideration in the upfront design of the business process. Another way mobility has improved business processes is by allowing them to start earlier. No longer do users have to wait to come back to the office to initiate a process. Examples include submitting product or service orders while interacting with customers or initiating an insurance claims process right from the accident scene. Starting business processes with mobile devices can enhance those processes by incorporating device-driven technologies such as location services in digital capture with onboard cameras.

Lok: Mobility is a reflection of customer needs and the rapid advancements in tech. Tablets and smartphones are enablers, but it’s the operating systems (iOS and Android) that are enabling change. A good example is Robin Powered, a startup we are invested in that uses tablets outside conference rooms to display and book rooms. You can also reserve a room like you would reserve a reservation on Open Table — all at the hands of your phone. 

Orcutt: Mobile has changed everything. I mentioned the speed of mobile earlier. Customers have the expectation of “now.” If I am on my couch using my tablet I expect to be able to do whatever I want with a couple of taps and a swipe. Mobile is … challenging existing processes and architectures to deliver real-time user experiences. So mobile is a wonderful improvement and advancement. It also presents significant challenges related to security, performance, user experience, data management, responsiveness, monitoring, integration, etc. Mobile is changing the way users and customers experience processes and it is a great thing for business and technology.

Phelps: Tablets and smartphones have been quickly adopted by frequent travelers and mobile workers, but a big surprise is how much they help people in the office. Whether employees are in meetings or simply just working from their desk, they are able to collaborate with colleagues and make decisions anytime, anywhere. One company I worked with automated their PO request process by enabling managers to approve POs from their mobile device — saving time and enabling products and services to be procured faster.

Can you point to a business function that you feel will never be able to benefit from automation?

Lok: The business function that would provide the most value is also the one that has the most challenges.  Robots and software that streamline processes are great when the functions they are replacing are as simple as moving a product from point A to B.  Creating an experience between a hotel guest and a robot receptionist is much harder.  There are advancements in AI and dexterity controls, etc. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.

Phelps: While many tasks involving talent management and sourcing can be automated – for example, coaching and developing employees or having recruiters schedule interviews – the actual interview will never be automated. You still need to speak with the candidate to determine the right fit. However, outside of the interview itself, at least we can remove some of the manual work through HR process automation.

What advice or best practices can you share for identifying specific processes that could benefit from automation? 

Bish: When identifying critical business processes that can benefit from automation, we always recommend looking at where customer-facing interactions and paper arise. They tend to be in processes that bridge what we call Systems of Engagement and Systems of Record, or core, back-office applications. Starting with these is often the first step in achieving operational excellence and enterprise agility.

Burton: Sticking with the notion of spending time on automating away those everyday processes that get in the way, command less attention to detail, and add up on both a personal and company-wide basis, the thing a company could most benefit from is making workflow available to everyone. Automate any process, by any person, when appropriate and possible.

There’s a good parallel here — spreadsheets. Virtually every business user today has used Excel or something like it. Virtually everyone can create a list in it. Some people can do more with it. Specialists can do amazing things with it. But no one thinks it’s strange, special, or unusual. Workflow and business process automation needs to become like that, and if it does, every employee a company has will be an employee able to help the company innovate.

DeStefanis: Designers of business processes need to think beyond just cost savings and productivity improvements. For example, organizations should look at how automation can help with corporate governance and compliance initiatives. These can be achieved through error reduction and protection of sensitive information through the use of digital technologies such as encryption. Process tracking and logging are also ways to enhance a company’s position if an audit triggers legal action related to a suspected breach. Technologies, such as document recognition and optical character recognition, allow companies to pinpoint sensitive information within documents as they move through a workflow. This way, documents containing sensitive information can be identified, tracked, and in some cases blocked from proceeding through a business process.

Orcutt: If someone touches a piece of paper or enters data into a screen it is ready for automation, and the ROI is not only fast, but the business benefits through improved customer service and better customer engagement, and revenue acceleration is meaningful.

Phelps:  When you’re first beginning to automate processes, there’s an instinct to start with a large, enterprise-wide business process. But the consensus required to get those off the ground can be time-consuming and often very political. Instead, look for quick wins that offer big returns on a smaller, more self-contained scale. One example is working with the strategic sourcing department to automate contract management. Once employees hear success stories from these “early adopters,” then they’re more likely to jump on the bandwagon to automate more complex processes. You also will want to look for ways to change paper forms into electronic forms – and automate associated approval processes; make small process changes that eliminate inefficient procedures and unnecessary steps; break large, complex processes into smaller, easy-to-automate “chunks” and improve communication and collaboration between departments. Overall, look for quick wins. Build upon that success to implement an enterprise-wide solution that automates, optimizes and transforms business processes.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Workflow.