5 things to look for when choosing a Business Process Automation Platform
If your business is starting on the journey of process automation or are re-evaluating the business process automation (BPA) toolset you have currently implemented, then there are not only a lot of vendor offerings available to evaluate, but there are many different aspects of their offerings that need to be considered.
When evaluating a BPA platform, the obvious place to start is with the technical features you require to build your solutions. Can I quickly build web forms and workflows with no code? Can I easily integrate with my line of business systems?
These are of course very important considerations – you will need to choose a platform that allows you to technically achieve what you are planning to do.
But there is another set of questions that you also need to consider when choosing a platform that relates to:
- Governance – can I control who can build and run my solutions?
- Analytics – what insights can I get into my processes, to help me improve them?
- Development – how quickly can I build solutions and modify them?
- Deployment – how simple is to move solutions through different environments (dev/test/prod)?
- Growth and scale – will the platform support a growing number of solutions and an increasing number of running processes?
- Process Intelligence – can I build intelligent processes that automate repetitive and routine tasks?
These questions all relate to the ability to not just build but also manage your processes, which is where a Business Process Management (BPM) platform comes in. Consider the analogy of running your business finances using an Excel spreadsheet against a commercial finance software package.
Excel provides you with the flexibility to do just about anything in terms of storing data, performing calculations and generating reports, but would you choose to run your business on it? How would you control who can edit and view the spreadsheet? How would you back it up to ensure you didn’t lose data? How would you make changes and test that they work? How will it work if many people need to use it at the same time? You can probably find workarounds for these questions, but instinctively you understand that a proper finance software solution will give you a greater level of confidence in managing your finances than a spreadsheet will. Excel is a great tool, but it has its limits and is not suitable for all use cases.
In a similar way there are many tools available to automate parts of your business that can technically do what you require but may not offer the full set of features that a BPM platform offers. Let’s have a look at each of these features in a bit more depth.
The platform you select will not only need to provide the tools to automate your business processes but should also give you the tools to manage these processes. This is often an overlooked, but critical component to consider when looking a process automation platform.
What do I mean by managing your processes? Process management encompasses a number of areas:
- Security – can I control who can build, deploy and run your workflows and forms?
- Auditing/Tracking – can I see who performed actions and when (such as a request approval) for each workflow? Can I see where what stage a workflow is at now and who it is assigned to?
- Reassigning tasks – can I easily redirect a task to another user if the currently assigned user is away or has changed positions?
- Out of Office – can users (or administrator) set their Out of Office status and direct tasks to other users when they are not at work?
- Workflow Versioning – can I deploy new versions of workflows and keep existing processes running on their version?
- Starting and stopping workflows – can I stop workflows that are not needed anymore, and I can I start new workflows manually if needed?
- Error Handling – can I deal with workflows that are in an error state and retry them?
Without proper governance of your automation solutions, you can quickly lose control of them and find that users lose confidence in them. Giving administrators the tools to manage and report on workflows means that you can react to changing situations (e.g. a user leaves the business, or goes on leave, with incomplete tasks) and business requirements.
Having control over who can build and deploy apps also stops uncontrolled app sprawl in your business. If savvy business users can build an app using tools available to anyone, then they can bypass the IT department and start using and sharing these apps without any oversight or management. Anyone who has witnessed situations where Access databases developed by business users have suddenly become business critical applications will understand the risks inherent in allowing this to happen.
Being able to report on your automated business processes can give you valuable insight into those processes and may allow you to make better, data-driven decisions.
Some things you may want to understand about your automated processes are things such as:
- User performance – who is actioning tasks, how long does it take them?
- Process metrics – how many processes are currently running, how may run over a period of time, and how long did it take for those processes to complete?
- Specific process information – where is a current workflow at and what has happened to date?
- Reporting dashboards – combining workflow and business data to get richer insight into your processes.
Having process analytics at your fingertips can provide you with the means to plan for things like anticipated higher work-loads, or enable you to re-engineer processes to provide faster approvals.
Development & Deployment
Developing new solutions, or updating existing ones, should involve testing not only by the developers but also the business users. Developers cannot get everything right the first time, and requirements constantly evolve and change. Testing is a necessary part of the development lifecycle to ensure the released solution meets the business requirements and is (nearly) bug-free. To facilitate this, it is ideal to have a testing environment separate from your development one that allows business users to conduct their testing while developers can continue working (and possibly break things!). Of course, you also need a production environment where the solution will be eventually released and used in anger. When looking at different vendors solutions, consider how easy it is to set these environments up, and what licensing implications there are.
Having separate environments from production to do development and testing is handy (some would say essential), but you also need to consider how seamless it is to move your automation solutions between these environments. How quick and easy is to package up your solution in your development environment and move it your testing or production environment? Do you need to worry about configuration files to ensure your production system is not pointing to development data, or vice-versa? Can you set different permissions and variables in the different environments, so users can test multiple scenarios (and not accidentally send task emails to the CEO)? If you need to make a small change can this be deployed rapidly?
Growth and Scale
The process automation journey in your business may start off with a small project that then drives further process automation adoption throughout the rest of the business, or it may the start of a large program of work driven by the executive team. Either way, your platform needs to be able to cater for the growth and scale of your solutions. Can you easily deploy more and more solutions, and can the platform scale to cater for increased usage of those solutions? There may be licensing and infrastructure issues to consider here – what might seem a “cheap” option initially could become more expensive than anticipated as more solutions are deployed and usage increases (a combination of more users and more usage of the solutions by those users).
An emerging trend in the process automation space is “Intelligent Process Automation” (IPA). McKinsey1 define IPA as:
“an emerging set of new technologies that combines fundamental process redesign with robotic process automation and machine learning. It is a suite of business-process improvements and next-generation tools that assists the knowledge worker by removing repetitive, replicable, and routine tasks. “
IPA essentially means taking the repetitive tasks carried out by people as part of the daily work – such as invoice processing – and teaching a robot to do the same task, only faster and more accurately. The benefits of this are obvious – improved efficiency, lower cost and better customer experiences.
Consider whether your process automation platform offers this type of intelligent process automation, or does it allow you to integrate with a platform that does?
Automating your business processes is a desirable pursuit for a number of reasons, including cost reduction, increased compliance and better user experience. However, if you just concentrate on the technical side of process automation, that is building an app that technically meets your requirements, and ignore the management side of process automation, then you are missing half the picture.
If you are automating processes that are business critical and used by many users, then you need to have control over those apps, to allow you to manage the development process and then govern and report and report on those apps.
This is where a Business Process Management (BPM) platform like K2 comes in. K2 has the technical tools to allow you to quickly and easily build apps to automate your processes and has the features you need to effectively manage your apps.
When evaluating business process automation platforms, ask yourself this question: does this platform also give me the features I need to manage by processes?
Solution Architect, K2