Business process management (BPM) or robotic process automation (RPA)? Choosing one or the other depends on the challenge. Most often, the right answer is “both.” Many businesses that start their digital transformation with RPA or BPM end up adding the other to their automation toolkit as they discover the value of using them in combination.
These two technologies share a common goal: optimize business processes and increase workforce productivity and efficiency to help deliver a great customer experience. Yet how each accomplishes this is what makes them different and highly compatible.
BPM allows orchestration of end-to-end business processes that include human and robot workers. Typically, BPM deployments involve process re-engineering of the business process first. A complex process such as mortgage lending or insurance claims processing would immediately become faster, more streamlined, and easier to execute for both employees and customers. Yet BPM requires that legacy systems must be maintained as part of the process because they act as key systems of record. As a result, workers often remain involved in the labor-intensive task of manually accessing those systems to search and retrieve or enter business data.
That’s where RPA comes into play. RPA closes the gaps between a mostly automated and digitized business process and the manual tasks that inevitably must be performed to keep the systems of record up to date. Consider the act of manually copying and reformatting data between existing systems – let’s call it “swivel chair automation.” This manual work falls outside the scope of BPM and represents a high-value use case for automation.
Again, using a complex process like a mortgage loan or insurance claim that is mostly automated, it is easy to see how software robots can fill the gaps. For example, they can check a customer’s identity with various web and internal sources, and then deliver a report to a human. Or when a process is finished, a robot can deliver and reconcile the information with all involved systems of record. The point is that ideal RPA deployments cover the entirety of the new and emerging workforce, including robots and employees working side by side.
Two types of robots working with BPM
Software robots fall into two broad categories in which they fill gaps and automate previously manual tasks. The first category is called “unattended RPA,” in which robots easily automate repetitive tasks without human intervention. For example, a robot might log into various web portals and retrieve invoice information, delivering it to an ERP system for payment.
Alternatively, “attended RPA” scenarios mean that robots automate only a portion of a task and the human worker remains involved. For example, a human might decide when the robot should execute a task, such as retrieving customer information from a system of record for the human to evaluate. Or perhaps the human directs the robot by choosing the customer for handling.
Profound value between humans and robots
A recent Forrester report calls automation “one of the most profound and disruptive forces in human history,” adding that “companies that master automation will dominate their industries.” Note they are not distinguishing between BPM and RPA in this statement – both create long-term enterprise impact used in the right application. It’s a shift to a new digital and smart workforce, with robots proving to have the attributes that define excellent coworkers. For example, qualities like promptly returning emails and phone calls, being on time for meetings and working at least as hard as everyone else are key to making yourself popular in the workplace.
Every team likes a valuable player, and it is these professional qualities that have helped the human workforce embrace its robot associates. Enterprise leaders may have initially worried that robots would replace good people doing good work, yet the opposite is proving to be true. Robots are like that one hard-working employee who always raises a hand for the most boring, time-consuming, mind-numbing jobs … and then gets them done in record time, accurately and with a smile.
While there will always be talk about robots replacing humans, a more likely future counts on humans and robots working together as a more intelligent workforce. Bots excel at the critical but repetitive grunt work; humans excel at jobs that require emotional intelligence and discernment. Together, they amplify each other’s value and allow the enterprise to shift the type and amount of work that people can do.
Why do robots make good coworkers?
Performing repetitive tasks is a drag – not only on your team, but on the entire department and even the business. Gathering data, compiling the data into a single document, making a decision around that information, and then inputting parts or all of the data and the decision into another system – this is boring, error-prone, and tedious work, which in turn can create a negative customer experience. In contrast, RPA automates these expensive, error-prone manual tasks and helps organizations increase capacity by 35-50 percent, slash processing times by 30-50 percent, eliminate costly errors, and deliver 100 percent data accuracy … all with a 6-12 month ROI. And now your human team can leverage its knowledge and skills for more critical tasks or exceptions, resulting in better customer service.
Robots also remove risk. RPA automates time-consuming compliance tasks — like verifications, regulatory updates, reporting and notifications — so they are 100 percent correct every time. By performing more exhaustive checks than humans, in near-real time, robots make the risk assessment process much more comprehensive. When there is an issue or exception, robots engage their human coworkers to do what they do best: apply personal experience, skill, judgment, and discretion to mitigate risk even further.
Creating a great customer experience that scales is hard to do by hand. When organizations such as Apple and Amazon continue to raise customer expectations with fast responses and instant access, organizations saddled with legacy technology, siloed processes, and reduced headcount have a difficult path to competing effectively. Robots can rescue customer service in several ways – first, by streamlining manual tasks and verifications, ensuring processes with impact on customers are significantly faster and less prone to error. As collaborators, robots excel at creating communication pathways that didn’t exist before — between systems, portals, and people. They eliminate replies like “Sorry you have to provide the information again, but your data is housed in another department” and “I’ll have to call you back after I look up your records.” Lastly, robots can do the heavy lifting on routine customer requests, which eliminates the wait and frees your staff to focus on the more complex problems.
Focus on process automation
Enterprises are now approaching opportunities with a clearer picture of what RPA is really good at – handling repetitive, structured processes that drain workers’ productivity. When combined with advanced cognitive technologies used for understanding context, content, and sentiment – robots can perform much more sophisticated work and organizations can enable employees to spend more time on higher value work (e.g., exceptions and decisions).
Because RPA is already proven to enable compliant, repeatable processes, CIOs can get early wins and fast time to value, and never touch advanced learning technology such as artificial intelligence (AI). For example, a large energy solutions provider is using RPA for simple automated tasks such as starting or stopping service via requests initiated by the consumer. The company’s chat feature relies on live chatbots rather than humans, an example of enterprises experimenting with automation and where it fits into operations. Online conversations happen with the consumer, while RPA bots work behind the scenes to execute the service request. If the bot is unable to help the customer, the customer might need to complete a more detailed service request or the conversation may be handed over to a call center rep. RPA appears to be at its relative beginning, laying the groundwork not only for digital transformation, but a new generation of intelligent applications that go beyond automating repetitive tasks, such as artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled robots.
RPA and BPM: more valuable together
With all this potential, why not just build everything with RPA? True enterprise BPM comes with a rich set of capabilities not available in RPA, but that many process automation initiatives require such as no-code workflow engines, capacity and work queue/workload management, event management, easy-to-design business rules, collaboration tools, and more.
When an RPA bot is finished with its work, it returns the results back to the BPM platform to maintain full control of the entire process. Employees can easily review information and complete their work, but repetitive manual tasks that collect information are eliminated so the human workforce can concentrate on more important work where their knowledge is required. And since BPM and RPA execute processes the same way each time and leave a full audit trail, humans can scrutinize and optimize those processes, and mitigate risk.
This adds value as enterprises often struggle with prioritizing “important” work over “urgent” work. It’s a real challenge, as big, long-term, company-wide priorities fall squarely into the “important but less urgent’ category. After all, if you are busy keeping the ship afloat, you don’t have time to innovate. Robots can step in; driving innovation and growing profits begins with the nuts-and-bolts of discovering and eliminating inefficiencies, then finding opportunities to disrupt the prevailing business model in a staid or commoditized market.
Intelligent automation requires strategy, demanding attention to current and future needs as well as a combination of RPA and BPM. RPA is an ideal technology to “eliminate and innovate” because it’s incredibly fast to get up and running, and it connects to and works alongside your current technologies without the need for complex programming. RPA and BPM together give you the power to ensure that your processes are highly automated and well-managed from beginning to the end – whether your challenge relates to process, task or document automation.