Business process automation (BPA) can deliver many benefits, including increased efficiency, enhanced productivity, fewer errors and improved process consistency. But not every process is an ideal candidate for automation and not every BPA effort goes smoothly. That’s why it’s important to apply best practices when choosing, planning and executing BPA projects. These 10 best practices can help you pick the right targets, achieve higher success rates and maximize the benefits for your organization.
What Is Business Process Automation
Business process automation (BPA) refers to the use of technology to streamline and automate repetitive manual tasks within an organization. The goals of BPA include improving operational efficiency, reducing errors, standardizing processes and freeing up staff to focus on more strategic value-added activities. BPA can be applied to a wide range of business processes across almost every part of the company, from simple data entry and data management tasks to complex processes, such as supply chain management and customer service.
"The goals of BPA include improving operational efficiency, reducing errors, standardizing processes and freeing up staff to focus on more strategic value-added activities."
10 Best Practices to Automate Business Processes
Companies can maximize the success of BPA projects by following best practices at every stage, from planning to implementation and training. It’s important to start with a methodical approach to identifying candidate processes for automation, prioritizing tasks for automation and considering the impact on neighboring processes and the organization as a whole. When it comes to implementation, ERP software can help companies automate processes across the organization.
1. Identify areas in need of functional improvement.
Methodically identifying areas in need of improvement is often the first step in developing a business process automation strategy. The alternative approach — simply stumbling upon areas ripe for automation — may sometimes yield good results, but it’s inadequate as the basis of a strategy for improving operations.
Identifying areas for automation involves reviewing and evaluating current business processes to determine which are inefficient, redundant or prone to errors. The two main ways to accomplish this are by analyzing data and talking to people. Smart businesses use both methods. Data analytics can show where bottlenecks exist, where errors occur most frequently and where you’re spending more money than you expect. Talking to people can tell you why those problems exist. It can also reveal other processes that are good candidates for improvement but aren’t highlighted as problems in the data analysis — either because you’re not tracking the right metrics or because you have an opportunity to improve from good to excellent.
For example, data analysis might show that directly after your busiest months, it takes longer to get paid for the jobs you completed. The analytics point to the need for accounting automation, which can accelerate billing and other financial tasks. But when you talk to the employees responsible for billing, you realize that automating customer relationship management (CRM) could be even more valuable. CRM software with automated capabilities could speed up client communications and reduce the time your client services team spends tracking data and keeping up with paperwork. That frees them to form deeper client relationships and better understand client needs, generating improved customer loyalty and increased sales. By talking to your team, you can identify an opportunity to create a truly excellent operation rather than simply achieving modest improvements.
2. Find repetitive tasks.
Once you’ve identified areas in need of functional improvement, the next step is to identify which of those areas to target for automation. Technology is better at some kinds of tasks than others, and it’s important to focus on the areas where technology has an advantage over humans. The greatest efficiency gains are usually achieved by automating the most repetitive tasks. Frequently repeated tasks are good candidates because implementing automation is almost always more time-consuming and expensive than performing a task manually once or even a few times. Furthermore, the less inherent variation within a task, the easier it usually is to automate because the technology has to manage fewer possible scenarios.
Take a sales department that uses email to interact with customers. Two of the most common types of outgoing messages are purchase confirmations and responses to customer questions. The purchase confirmations are much easier to automate because the messages are very similar — only a few details differ between transactions. In contrast, inbound questions may require many different answers that are hard to plan for in advance. Although companies can use technology, such as artificial intelligence-based chatbots, to respond to common questions, automating these responses is a much more complex task.
3. Prioritize areas to automate.
Identifying tasks that are good BPA candidates can generate a huge list of possibilities, and it’s not always obvious where to start. Ultimately, the decision should be based on what will make the biggest difference to your business.
If you’re new to BPA, you may want to start with tasks that are relatively easy to automate. Implementing automation can be time-consuming and requires skill and expertise. Not every automation is successful or works in the way that its designers envisioned. Starting with simpler problems and then working your way up to increasingly difficult challenges can build both competency and confidence.
Some companies prioritize areas to automate by picking a specific business goal and focusing on projects that make the biggest contribution to that goal. While cost-cutting is a common goal, BPA can also be an excellent way to help companies scale to support business growth.
Companies sometimes focus on particular business units or groups. This makes sense especially if those groups have very different needs — for example, regulated industries, such as healthcare and financial services, where disparate business functions and customer interactions are subject to different rules and requirements.
Another approach is to prioritize BPA activities by process type. It may be more efficient to focus on automating a single type of process across the company than to continually switch between very different processes. Rollouts of automation may be faster, cheaper and higher-quality if you don’t try to implement too many different types of changes.
Keep in mind that the best approach will be what’s best for your business. Some businesses face particularly urgent problems — and the urgency should override any other considerations.
"Starting with simpler problems and then working your way up to increasingly difficult challenges can build both competency and confidence."
4. Create a holistic plan.
When designing a major change to a business process, it’s important to create a holistic plan that encompasses not only the task that you’re automating, but also the broader impact on the surrounding business processes and the entire company. Important aspects to consider include:
- Look at the entire process, not just the part that’s easy to automate. Make sure the improvements to the overall process are big enough to justify the investment in automation. Also, it often makes sense to avoid multiple changes to the same process in quick succession when you could perform a more complete overhaul all at once. Imagine you’re doing a companywide push to automate as much outbound email as possible, but your long-term plan also includes a CRM upgrade with enhanced automation. To minimize disruption, it may make sense to implement both those changes at the same time. Think about digging up a road to replace a burst water pipe, repaving the road and then digging it up again six months later for scheduled sewer upgrades – wouldn’t it have been better to just dig up the road once and do both tasks at the same time?
- Consider the upstream, downstream and adjacent business processes. For example, if you’re using software to automate calculations, will the software be able to handle the emailed inputs that people formerly processed manually? By the same token, what happens with the output of the automated process? Does anyone need to explain or interpret it?
- Think about how the whole company works. Focusing solely on automating individual processes runs the risk of ignoring transformational possibilities for your organization. For example, one key benefit of automation is that it can free up staff hours. When making purely data-driven decisions about which processes to automate, it’s easy to overlook the broader benefit of what the staff can achieve with those additional hours. Those long-term benefits can easily outweigh the impact of any short-term efficiency gains. If automating a process frees a team to spend more time designing products that could represent the future of your business, then you might give top priority to automating that process.
5. Establish clear roles.
It’s essential to establish clear roles for the people involved in implementing, maintaining and working with the automated process. You can’t assume that if one task is performed by a robot, every other step in the process will remain the same. Humans will need to be responsible for making sure that things are done properly and that no steps or exceptions are overlooked. You’ll need to assign responsibilities for managing the automation technology’s inputs, overseeing results, handling exceptions and errors and dealing with the output.
Take the example of a company that’s automating its invoicing process. A good accounting system can eliminate lots of manual labor by automatically generating invoices, adding up the charges in each invoice and adding customer contact details. But humans still need to generate the billing and customer information, and they may need to examine the bills before they’re sent to customers. A division of responsibilities for managing the new automated billing system might look something like this:
- The sales team is responsible for recording orders and making sure customer data is up to date in the CRM system.
- An invoicing specialist is responsible for telling the automated system when to generate invoices, checking them for accuracy and approving them before the system automatically sends them to the customer.
- The sales manager is responsible for setting the rules and procedures that the automated system will use when generating invoices.
- The IT department is responsible for providing technical support for the new system and ensuring it’s always up and running during regular business hours.
As this example shows, adding technology tends to mean more responsibilities for IT groups. It makes sense to involve them early in the planning process and make sure they have enough resources to help every other department succeed. It’s all too easy to get enthusiastic about rolling out automation while leaving technology teams understaffed and frustrated.
Check out our NetSuite KES A/R Toolkit which provides invoice email capabilities, automated collections, transaction approvals, and consolidated invoicing.
6. Create SOPs.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) define the steps and procedures involved in a specific task or process. SOPs make it easier for people to move into new roles and fill in for each other. They also facilitate the use of automation tools by providing a clear description of the steps that need to be automated.
Large organizations recognize that SOPs are indispensable for achieving consistent process replication and results. Big companies have regular employee turnover and they need to be able to replicate procedures across many teams and locations. But smaller businesses often don’t realize the value of SOPs quickly enough. That’s understandable because a startup doesn’t want to be constrained by a lot of rules or take time to document things that everyone on the team already knows. But once hiring ramps up and the company starts to experience some turnover, relying too heavily on institutional memory can cause consistency and efficiency problems — and without clearly defined procedures, it will be harder to remedy those problems through automation.
7. Don’t forget business process management.
Business process management (BPM) is a generalized, structured approach to improving frequently executed processes within an organization. While BPM doesn’t necessarily require automation, it often involves automating processes. In fact, business process automation is a powerful and growing aspect of business process management. The BPM techniques and tools used to codify, document and improve human processes can be applied to automated processes.
8. Train users.
Training users is a best practice when automating business processes, but some companies don’t think about training until it’s too late. Employees will need to be trained on the new technology — but they will also need to be trained on the new process. Companies are more likely to recognize the need for technology training because new technology typically requires know-how to use it. But business process automation often involves changing procedures and responsibilities, even for people who may not directly interact with the new technology. So, employees may need training to learn the new procedures.
One tricky aspect of training, in addition to the challenge of making it interesting, is timing. You can’t start training people too early, before the new processes are fully defined, but you can’t wait until after the old process has been completely replaced. Sometimes, making time for adequate training will require pushing back the deployment timeline. But that’s better than dealing with a constant stream of emergencies because your employees are learning the new automated system on the fly.
9. Create a backup plan.
What happens if the automation doesn’t work as expected? And what happens if you’re using a supplier’s software solution and the supplier suddenly changes the way it works or even goes out of business? How about if changes to another workflow alter the inputs to your automated process in ways that the process wasn’t designed to handle?
The solution to these problems is to have a backup plan. This plan can be as simple as ensuring that you have the option of reverting to the old, non-automated way of doing things. It’s essential to have a plan in place. Business process automation can be extremely valuable — even transformational — but no one can guarantee a 100% success rate for every deployment.
10. Leverage ERP software.
For many companies, ERP software plays an integral role in BPA and enables them to create even more value from automation. NetSuite ERP includes built-in automation capabilities that help save time and money, reduce errors, improve consistency and better track activities. Businesses can use a single integrated platform to automate many areas of the business, from sales and finance to manufacturing.
ERP software adds another dimension to the value gained from BPA because it integrates the company’s data across processes, geographies and functional areas. This integration means that data created by one process can be more easily used to improve another area of the business. For example, automated reporting and tracking can create invaluable data for diagnostic and predictive business analytics, while at the same time helping to prevent repeated errors and fraud. It becomes much easier to detect anomalies, such as differing levels of performance among business groups. These differences may mean that an employee needs help — or they may highlight an emerging best practice that’s worth copying across the company.
"NetSuite ERP includes built-in automation capabilities that help save time and money, reduce errors, improve consistency and better track activities."
Business process automation, the practice of using technology to perform repetitive business tasks, can provide many benefits, including reduced cost, accelerated processes and fewer errors. Automating processes means employees spend less time on repetitive menial tasks, so they can focus on higher-level work that delivers greater value to the organization. But not every process is a good candidate for automation, and poorly implemented BPA initiatives can fail to deliver the desired result. By applying best practices to selecting candidate processes and planning and executing automation efforts, companies can maximize the impact and success rate of their BPA initiatives.
Our NetSuite consulting team works with clients to evaluate and improve their business processes through NetSuite's automation tools and our KES NetSuite Extensions.
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This article was written by David Luther, Digital Content Strategist at Oracle NetSuite, and was originally posted to the Oracle NetSuite Blog on May 25, 2023.