Targeting in on RPA
By Kevin Beddingfield, BPM Architect & Managing Director
RPA or Robotic Process Automation is the latest technical acronym that should be interwoven with long-time acronyms like BPM or BPMS, which is Business Process Management and Business Process Management Software, respectively. With all of these “Process” based acronyms floating around, it may get confusing to know which means what. Not to worry. ClearCadence is here to shed some light on the situation.
Business Process Management - BPM
Let us start with BPM. If you were looking at our group of BP acronyms as a target, BPM would be the outer ring of that target; the one that encompasses all the other rings. Business Process Management is the discipline of modeling, measuring, and optimizing business activities. This optimization should support the company’s overall strategic goals and business changes and be constantly reviewed and tweaked. Processes should be reviewed every day by everyone in the company. To that end, you can consider BPM as the “disruption of process,” meaning that you should never be satisfied that the process is perfect. There is no implementation date for BPM. No “go live date.” It is an ongoing strategy and methodology that changes and shifts frequently.
It should also be noted that BPM does not require software. Understanding your business processes should be documented, modeled, and understood by knowing what the work is, who is doing the work, and what is the quickest and most efficient way to get the work done.
Business Process Improvement - BPI &
Business Process Reengineering - BPR
There are other acronymic terms that start off with “BP” like BPI, or Business Process Improvement, which is finding one part of the overall process and tweaking it with either technology or more efficient procedures. There’s also BPR or Business Process Re-engineering which, like BPI, takes an inefficient process and improves it, but this would be rebuilding the process from the ground up.
These two methods are the second ring of the target since they are a tighter focus than BPM and they can be plotted without the use of technology. When technology is needed, however, that leads us down to the next ring in our target.
Business Process Management Software/Systems - BPMS
The software or BPMS (Business Process Management Software or Systems) is the third ring on that target. Once you understand and have improved processes, the next step is to figure out what technology is best for you to deliver your BPM strategy. There are plenty of business process management systems and software to choose from. A BPMS could be a collection of software solutions from different companies or it could be contained in a single suite of BPM applications from a single vendor. At its core, BPMS is a set of tools or technology to deliver that BPM strategy you worked so hard on.
BPMS can have many different technology approaches. Just a few of the more common examples are:
Workflows that provide structure or unstructured methods to move work from point A to point B.
Form tools to create user-friendly interfaces that provide not only the containers for the data but can assist the user in completing their tasks.
Integration points that interact with databases, web-services, or APIs into third-party systems to help enhance the work going through the process.
So BPMS provides that technological foundation to start putting your work processes…your BPM strategy…into action. The above represents the broader targets in that strategy but what about those specific and often repetitive tasks that occur in the process every day?
Business Process Automation - BPA
This is where we shrink down to the next ring in the target: BPA or Business Process Automation. We have our BPM strategy, and that strategy utilizes our BPMS. Now we utilize BPA to attack the micro-activities that need to occur. These activities include but are by no means limited to:
Indexing a set of data onto each new work item in a process.
Generating correspondence to indicate receipt of new work.
Updating a data warehouse to indicate the type of work received, when it was received, and who worked on it.
Further, BPA can then generate and distribute reports of this data to a set of end users.
Deciding which work items can be worked by which roles in your department and provide automatic escalation when needed.
Providing conditional rules based on actions or data to distribute work down different paths.
As you build out your business process within your BPMS, each activity or task you build within it is considered a BPA, automating each step in the process. You will most always have a step where a user needs to interact with the work item, but even within that task you could have some form of BPA – like retrieving a list of values to put into a drop-down box on the form. Or, structuring some fields to be invisible until certain conditions on the form are met (like selecting “Yes” to a question on a form that then requires additional information to be filled out).
Robotic Process Automation - RPA
To take that one step further, as in our original analogy, hitting the bullseye would be RPA…the first of our acronyms NOT to start with a B! RPA is robotic process automation where an application (or robot…or ‘bot’ as its often called) completes a definitive set of instructions. The fact that all the instructions are done by the bot separates it from standard BPA which typically involves a combination of human and automated activities.
RPA is primarily used to automate repetitive activities that normally requires a human to perform. Activities like copying data from one source and pasting into another source or moving files from one network directory to another. In the early days of mainframe emulators or even within Microsoft Excel, these were referred to as recording “macros”. Essentially, if there are logical steps to performing a task, you could record those tasks within a macro to be executed repeatedly.
With RPA, there are software platforms such as UiPath and Microsoft Power Automate that take those macros to the next level. A series of functions can be created and executed as a repetitive process without needing user involvement. Often a structured workflow provided within a BPMS/BPA can be used to call out to one or more RPAs as needed. This is referred to as RPA orchestration.
RPA does have its limitations, however. Since it requires each set of actions to be performed the same way every time, any variation within the source systems or data or anything out of the norm can throw RPA off and cause problems.
In our opinion, and of those of other BPM professionals, RPA should only be used when there is not an option for a direct API. Yes, APIs require more coding than RPA solutions but there is more flexibility in using APIs.
What happens when a necessary system is not available when the automated activity is called? Depending on the RPA, the automation could stop there and remain stuck until the system is made available. With APIs, this could be captured and handled as an error. From there, an API could handle the task in a variety of ways:
The task could be sent to a holding queue to try again after a specific period of time,
An email could be generated indicating the down system,
Additional logging could be done to capture more specifics on why the system could not be reached.
There are many options that are not available within an RPA solution are available within code using APIs. Therefore, RPA should not be considered a “be all, end all” solution for automating work. It should be done in conjunction with an overall BPM strategy. Lay out the overall process workflow within a BPMS and utilize activities within a BPA to call out to an RPA to perform certain functions.
Consider the Whole Target, Not Just the Center
Just like in games involving a target like archery and darts, you can score by hitting the target in other spots besides just the bullseye. Hitting the outer area is a score on getting your BPM strategy in place. When you select the BPMS for implementing that BPM strategy, you are getting closer to the center and scoring more points. Hitting just outside of the bullseye is using BPA to implement technology that assists an end user to complete their task is an even bigger score. And when you hit that bullseye is when you utilize RPA and completely automate a task or set of tasks.
It should be noted that some projects do not require hitting a bullseye and can be successful by just getting to the outer ring of the bullseye. Some companies can win if they hit the outer ring of the entire target – i.e., implement a BPM strategy.
In other words, to win at managing your processes, sometimes all you have to do is hit the target. Contact us to discuss your BPM needs.
Kevin Beddingfield is the Managing Director at ClearCadence and a long-time BPM architect with a specific focus on automating business processes - from training on BPM concepts to designing, developing and implementing end-to-end BPM solutions for Fortune 1000 clients.
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