Nintex Art 0917by Alain Gentilhomme, Nintex

Across industries and geographies, enterprises have multiple choices available for process automation. How do you make the right choice? Sometimes the goal is to solve for efficiency. After all, a business can’t succeed long-term if it puts up with needlessly inefficient processes, and process automation is a powerful and proven tool for driving operational efficiency. But efficiency alone is no longer a differentiator. It’s necessary for success, but not sufficient.

These days, two key priorities for almost every enterprise must be innovation and agility. These, in turn, require similar conditions to take root and grow, the most important of which are autonomy and flexibility.  

Autonomy, in the context of process automation, refers to the ability for business decision-makers (BDMs) to automate their own key processes without requiring the help of IT. Empowering BDMs is crucial for three reasons.  

First, BDMs are closest to the action. They know their processes best, they know the friction points and they know where the greatest performance gains can be found. Second, they are closest to their customers, and they can turn that customer knowledge into end-to-end automated processes that streamline the conversion of leads into closed business.  

Third, many IT departments are not ideally positioned to help BDMs. They don’t know the friction points or the customers as well as BDMs do. And, in any case, IT departments are often backlogged and don’t have much time for new projects, especially those that involve only a team or department and not the whole enterprise.  

So, a key criterion when choosing a business process automation solution is whether it empowers people to quickly and easily automate their own processes. 

A second core condition for enabling innovation and agility is flexibility. In other words, it’s not enough for it to be easy to automate a business process; it must also be easy to change the resulting workflow so it can be continuously improved. You should be able to automate a process today, run it for a while, assess its performance, and tweak it to run even better. Your automation tools should provide the flexibility to iterate like this as often and as frequently as you wish. 

Some in IT might be nervous about granting such autonomy to non-experts, but the risk is minimal in a modern, well-architected workflow solution that lets business users and analysts interact with systems in a secure and controlled fashion through well-defined APIs.  

If it’s clear what capabilities to seek in a process automation solution, it is also straightforward to describe what types of solutions to avoid: those that require IT to implement or change; those that can only automate existing processes, and make it difficult to create new ones; and those that don’t support the use of APIs or well-defined services. In other words, offerings that suffer from any of these limitations can’t provide the autonomy and flexibility required to promote innovation and agility. 

There are exceptions. For example, businesses in a variety of industries – mortgage loan processing, for example -- devote significant staff to processes in which someone reads information from a scanned or faxed form and keys it into a system of record. These types of situations are suited to robotic automation technologies that remove people from processes to increase throughput and reduce errors.  

However, these processes must occur in sufficiently high volume to justify the cost of implementing robots, which often includes a large professional services component. In addition, robotic technologies are fundamentally aimed at automating existing processes (often to reduce headcount) rather than to enable new ones; and generally, they can’t be implemented or changed without the help of IT. Given these limitations, robotic solutions tend not to foster autonomy or flexibility, and therefore don’t foster the levels of innovation and agility that enterprises need today. 

The bottom line is that enterprises can choose from a range of options in process automation. To gain strategic advantage, they should look for solutions that provide more than just efficiency. They should look for tools that foster innovation and agility by letting people automate and optimize their own business processes. After all, this is what digital transformation is all about – not just automating existing processes, but becoming more customer-centric, competitive, and ultimately more profitable.  

Alain Gentilhomme is CTO of Nintex

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Workflow.