Communications Enabling Business Process Automation
April 13, 2009
Interactive Intelligence (News - Alert) has always been at the leading edge when it comes to serving the enterprise and contact center markets.
Recently I spoke with the company’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, Joe Staples, about several new initiatives under way at the Indianapolis-based firm. (The podcast is available online.)
One of the key areas that we talked about was the work Interactive Intelligence is doing with regard to what they’re calling Communications-Based Process Automation or CBPA. According to Staples, the company will offer a solution designed to take the functionality that handles interactions in a contact center that has been built into CIC over the last decade, and apply those tools to the automation of business processes, the idea being to offer organizations the ability to move beyond simple unified communications (UC) and to leverage technology to have a quantifiable effect on their business.
Curious to learn more about this initiative, I reached out to Staples again for a deeper look at business process automation.
GG: How do you define Business Process Automation (BPA)?
JS: A quick Google (News - Alert) search can find you a number of definitions for BPA, but this one seemed most appropriate: The replacement of a manual business process with an automated one, usually through the use of advanced technologies. There is a key difference, though, in how Interactive Intelligence is approaching Business Process Automation and how others have approached it — with advanced communications technologies at the core, driving the automation of those business processes.
As mentioned, other vendors have been doing BPA for years. However, these systems had three strikes against them right from the beginning. First, they’re complex. They generally require extensive training and third-party implementation services. That is, don’t expect your process experts to just learn the tools and use them. Second, they’re expensive — not just the tools themselves, but the system integrators who need to come along to do the consulting, analysis, design, and development. Third, they don’t involve people. You see, these current tools have no effective way of involving people because they have nothing to do with the organization’s communications systems. At best (and it’s not very good), they can inundate people with e-mail.
So, by using a communications platform built around the advanced technologies required to automate contact center processes, organizations can now take on enterprise business processes in much the same way. This approach actually includes the communication elements as part of the automation process — not just through simple event-based notifications of when tasks are initiated or completed, but through intelligently managing, queuing, alerting, recording, and monitoring to ensure business processes flow smoothly.
GG: What are the key benefits?
JS: Before trying to articulate the benefits of the communications-based approach toward process automation, let’s make it clear that we’re not talking about taking communications technology, adapting it for process automation, and using it separately. That approach would leave us with separate systems — communications technologies for use in the contact center and the adapted technology for use in process automation. That would certainly provide some benefit, but to really achieve the Nirvana we’re after, we need to extend communications technology so that it can encompass process automation. In other words, the communications system becomes the process automation platform for the company.
At first this may seem too wild to believe. The phone system runs the business? But if you think about it, it starts to make sense — especially if by “phone system” you mean an all-in-one IP communications platform complete with sophisticated contact center technology. What one system does every single employee in the organization have access to from anywhere in the world? That’s right, the communications system. If we could really base process automation on the communications system, we could instantly make it available anywhere at any time to every employee. Just think of the possibilities:
The facilities used to queue up calls for delivery to the next available agent could provide the orderly delivery of process work to the right people in the organization. For example, an insurance company could queue up insurance applications for the next available underwriter. Call center queuing already incorporates concepts such as service levels with features such as being able to take a call back if an agent doesn’t pick up within a certain period of time so it can be routed to another agent. The exact same mechanism could be employed for work assignment in process automation.
By definition, an advanced IP communications system includes the notion of presence. In other words, it keeps track of the availability of every person in the organization. It knows who’s on the phone, who’s on vacation, who’s available at a remote location, etc… A communications-based process automation system can make use of this information when it decides how to deliver process work. In our insurance company example, only underwriters currently available would be considered — not those already busy or out of the office.
Contact center systems make it possible to assign skills to agents and to make use of these skills when routing calls and other interactions. For example, a call coming into a technical support line can be routed to a Spanish-speaking agent if it’s determined that the caller speaks that language. Skills management and skills-based routing figure prominently in a communications-based process automation system. In our insurance application example, different underwriters might be licensed in different countries, states, or provinces. The geographic coverage of an underwriter becomes a skill that can be taken into consideration when assigning new applications.
The “screen pop” capabilities of contact center systems could be used to integrate a variety of commercial and homegrown CRM and ERP applications (e.g., Siebel, PeopleSoft, SAP, Microsoft (News - Alert) Dynamics) etc., into process automation. For example, a business user assigned a task could find a particular application (e.g., Great Plains) popped on the screen and pre-filled with the correct information whenever he or she clicks on an assigned task.
Managing hundreds of thousands of contact center agents distributed around the globe is a daunting task. Technology has been developed over the past decade that provides supervisors both high-level and granular views of what’s going on. Graphical supervisory interfaces in sophisticated contact center suites allow supervisors with one click to listen to an agent’s call, whisper into the agent’s ear in order to act as “coach,” record a call, etc. Extending this capability to process automation gives managers the same degree of insight into work that’s being done in an organization. A manager can easily determine where the holdup is in processing a loan or fulfilling a request for information.
Demand forecasting and agent scheduling techniques that allow contact centers to make sure that they have sufficient personnel to handle the expected load could be applied to process automation. Imagine being able to quantify the effort required in your human resources department instead of just having to guess.
Overall, the ability to systematize and automate business processes has the potential to provide you more information than you’ve ever had before. When the VP of Human Resources says he or she needs more people, how do you know that’s the case? How many employee requests are processed per HR worker? How long do they take? How do you know when it’s time to add a new person in HR? These questions are impossible to answer without being able to apply quantitative analysis. However, when most HR tasks flow through defined processes that can be inspected, supervised, and reported on, everything changes. The possibilities for increased efficiency are huge.
GG: How is that different from Communications Enabled Business Processes (CEBP)?
JS: CEBP is just what it says — processes that are communications-enabled. When you dig into this subject more deeply, you find that it’s really nothing more than allowing applications to use communications systems to kick off notifications. A customer’s database record indicates a balance due greater than a defined threshold? CEBP can generate a phone call. To be fair, CEBP can make use of presence information so that the phone call goes to the first person in a list who’s marked as available (not on the phone, etc.) This is a step up from e-mail notifications, but not by a whole lot. Certainly it falls well short of the comprehensive process automation engine we’ve hypothesized so far.
So if CEBP is too lightweight, exactly what do we need in order to provide comprehensive process automation of the sort that organizations can actually use? Logic would suggest that what we’re really talking about is communications-based process automation (CBPA). Let’s parse that phrase and see what it means. Obviously the core of what we’re after is process automation. In contrast to CEBP, we’re not talking about just enabling existing processes (or applications) to generate phone calls or e-mails when something interesting happens. Instead, CBPA centers on how we automate processes in the first place. It proposes that we use well established communications notions that have been in use for decades as the foundation for process automation. You see, call centers have leveraged concepts such as queuing, skills-based routing, presence, recording, real-time supervision, and many others for years in order to systematize the handling of millions of telephone calls
Imagine being able to apply these advanced technologies to process automation. Business processes involve work that, just like customer calls, needs to be queued and intelligently routed to the right person. Supervisors need to be able to track in real time what’s going on and who’s doing what. And many processes take place in regulated industries and public companies subject to various compliance mandates. Being able to record each step in a process even to the level of screen activity is just as necessary as in a contact center.
Now hopefully it’s clear why communications-enabling existing processes is different from automating processes using communications-based technologies. The former is a nice but incremental improvement. The latter is revolutionary. It involves taking an entirely new approach toward process automation.
GG: What about unified communications? Doesn’t that achieve the efficiencies that BPA promises?
JS: Let’s not miss the big picture here — CBPA is the ultimate goal of Unified Communications (News - Alert) as part of automating business processes through communications. We aren’t excluding UC from the mix, but rather bringing UC to the customers who are looking to realize its true benefits, and real ROI.
GG: How is Interactive Intelligence positioned in this market?
JS: At this time, Interactive Intelligence provides the only known solution on the market that offers true CBPA and not just CEBP.
GG: What products or solutions do you offer your customers to help them realize their BPA goals?
JS: Interactive Intelligence has been shipping communication solutions since 1997. Over those 12 years, our customers have realized the benefits of an all-in-one architecture to help them automate their contact center through powerful facilities for the managing, queuing, alerting, recording, and monitoring of interactions. We are extending our existing capabilities to create a complete solution for process automation. These new capabilities will bring these same benefits into the rest of the enterprise for automating business processes, and allow organizations to automate virtually any business process in any industry.
GG: Is the market ready for these types of solutions?
JS: From our market research, customers are hungry for these types of solutions, particularly now in this down economy. Looking for ways to save money, streamline processes, improve customer service, all with the sole intent of becoming more profitable, is at the core of why customers are clamoring for solutions like CBPA.
GG: What sets Interactive Intelligence apart from the competition in this space?
JS: There are currently no known vendors who provide this level of communications-based process automation on the market today. In addition, Interactive Intelligence is positioned to better address the needs of this market because of the elegance of its all-in-one architecture and experience within the contact center.
GG: What are your thoughts regarding the future of this space?
JS: In general, BPA seems to be one of the hottest topics surrounding enterprises, particularly as a result of today’s economic climate. So, it seems only natural to believe that solutions that address the needs of this market will continue to be in high demand.