Business Process Automation Featured Article

BPA is Great, But What to Automate?

December 16, 2009

Due to the downturn in the economy, organizations are looking for every way possible to streamline operations, gain new efficiencies and find additional cost savings. Some of them are accomplishing all three through the deployment of business process automation solutions – software that is used to automate routine “people-centric” processes that have traditionally been handled manually.


There are a lot of industries where manual or “paper-based” processes are still prevalent, such as insurance, education and healthcare. How many times have you walked into a doctor’s office and seen stacks and stacks of file cabinets packed with folders, each stuffed with patient records? For every document that goes into those folders, there is a manual process – a procedure – that sometimes involves days, weeks or even months of manual labor on the part of a receptionist, doctor’s assistant or other back office worker.

How do managers track all of this work – including how quickly it gets done, or how accurately it gets done? In some cases the only way to ensure that forms are being processed quickly and accurately is to actually go back through the paper trail -- which simply takes too much time. This is why so many back office operations are rife with latency: It’s not to say that back office workers are slow or lazy, it’s just that they worked for years in a culture where “work gets done when it gets done,” and since there’s really no efficient way to police the speed or efficiency of these processes, managers, too, have fallen into a pattern of complacency.

But with today’s business process automation software – such as Interactive Intelligence’s (News - Alert) soon-to-be-released Interaction Process Automation – back office workers complete routine tasks within a more structured, dare say more “mechanical” framework that ensures those tasks are being carried out quickly and efficiently.

In a very basic sense, it is like taking those routine processes and putting them on an “assembly line” in a warehouse or distribution center: Each form or document arrives at the back-office worker’s desk and drops off the end of one “conveyor belt” – whereupon it is filled out and completed, using the software – and then placed on the next “conveyor belt” which carries it on to the next step in the process – whether it is additional processing by another worker or department, or simply the proper “archiving” of the document into the proper “folder” (in this case the medium being data storage, as opposed to file cabinets with printed documents).

However in this case the company phone system serves as the framework for carrying out all processes. IPA is actually a module that plugs into Interactive Intelligence's Customer Interaction Center phone system. So, in essence, the 'conveyors' represent the routing schemes that are programmed into the CIC system. The new offering will include support for documents in a wide range of formats -- in addition to the multimedia contacts (phone, email, IM, conferencing, etc.) the CIC platform supports currently.

So, much the same way a contact center agent can route a call or other contact to any designated end-point throughout an organization, based on pre-defined rules, any worker (or automated system) in any department can use IPA to automatically route documents to any other end point on the network. What’s more, the same automated re-routing and failover mechanisms found in the contact center platform still apply: For example, if a worker is unavailable to handle a task, at any given time (as indicated through their presence), the system will automatically re-route that task onto the next available employee who is qualified to handle it.

Such systems provide for greater transparency into business processes. For example, with IPA a manager can track all the routine processes being handled by a particular department, or individual, in real time, thus allowing them to monitor and assess employee performance in a wide range of back office operations. This new level of transparency – which cannot be delivered through traditional manual processes – brings a new level of accountability to all back office workers.

And what’s to say that business process automation has to be limited to the back office? Perhaps sales organizations will want to track how quickly their reps are processing paperwork in the field – or perhaps a company can use the software to track the performance of certain mid-level managers who engage in daily, routine processes? This is the beauty of today’s business process automation solutions – is that they can be applied to a wide range of processes within a wide range of industries. Some software vendors are offering solutions geared for specific processes – while others, such as Interactive Intelligence, are offering solutions that are flexible enough to be applied to a wide range of processes. Either way, the big question is, how does one decide which processes to automate?

In some regards, the answer to this question depends on the type of organization, and more specifically the types of processes it undertakes. And it can become somewhat philosophical in nature. Some experts in the business process automation field will tell you that it only makes sense to automate a process if it can be automated fully, “end-to-end.” Other experts contend that that it’s still beneficial to partly automate certain processes, if that’s all that can be done – in other words, any amount of automation that can be implemented along the process “chain” will deliver incremental benefit to the organization.

A new white paper from Interactive Intelligence, “A Practical Guide to Automating Key Business Processes,” aims to help organizations in deciding whether BPA is right for them, which processes should be automated and, perhaps most importantly, which BPA solution will best meet their needs. The white paper suggests organizations make these decisions based on five broad considerations:

--Defining and aligning clear business objectives
--Involving the right people
--Automating the right processes
--Using the right technology
--Supporting “quick win” as well as continuous improvement initiatives

“Among processes ripe for BPA are ‘vertical’ industry-specific processes such as insurance claims processing, healthcare patient scheduling, or financial services loan originations, as well as ‘horizontal’ processes in virtually any company, such as new employee on-boarding, lead management, or IT equipment purchasing,” the white paper states. “In general, BPA is well-suited for virtually any multi-step, people-centric process, especially those processes that are highly manual; repetitive; based on defined steps; utilized across multiple departments or teams; and dependent upon individuals who must handle work tasks and communicate with one another and/or the customer.”

The white paper suggests that organizations implement the BPA initiatives gradually, taking a phased approach, automating only those processes that make the most sense in the beginning, and measuring the results, before moving on to automate other processes that are maybe a little less obvious.

“Because BPA can have such a significant impact on process efficiencies, organizations may opt to initiate BPA implementations that focus on a mission-critical business process in its entirety,” the white paper states. “The trade-off is: the more complex the process, the more complex, costly and time-consuming the implementation…”

To download a free copy of this informative white paper, click here.

Patrick Barnard is a senior Web editor for TMCnet, covering call and contact center technologies. He also compiles and regularly contributes to TMCnet e-Newsletters in the areas of robotics, IT, M2M, OCS and customer interaction solutions. To read more of Patrick's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Patrick Barnard

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