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Digital process automation: what it is, how to do it

Last updated on 
February 7, 2020

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The success of our species ulitimately lies in our propensity for building tools. And in business, this competitve advantages is no different – the right tools can provide superior efficiency, intelligence and agility to act on new opportunities faster. Digital transformation in a word is “software”.

But tooling up is a double-edged sword. Loading more tools onto your business can introduce a ton of new low-value tasks into your workflows. Heavy training requirements and restrictive subscription models can result in tools costing more than they ultimately deliver. And unless you have clear documentation and an information sharing plan from the beginning, work can get lost in frustrating silos.

It’s precisely why more companies are embracing digital process automation. Here’s everything you know to know about it, including how to implement it for yourself.

What is digital process automation?

In a sentence, digital process automation is the practice of automating the thousands of manual processes that prop up your company. It means taking all the work that happens across spreadsheets, business systems or on paper, and putting them in an intelligent, accessible center.

Digital process automation can touch practically every part of your business’ operation – from running inventory checks or detecting fraud, to everyday task management, logging hours and accounting. Every company has time drains which automation can help unblock, effectively reducing all the unproductive, repetitive and cumbersome parts of your digital workflows. But it’s also about being agile and running a leaner business, so you can get back to customers quicker and serve them more effectively.

In business, adapting quickly and efficiently gives businesses a serious edge. Technology is advancing so rapidly that digital process automation is just the evolutionary next step. And while the road to full automation can seem impossibly long, the returns are absolutely worth it. Besides, there are shortcuts!

The perks of digital process automation

  • Time saving. We can automate things to get where we want faster, or we can set up one-click processes for our most regular actions. In practical everyday terms, that could mean pulling disparate databases into one auto-updating reporting system, or automating time sheet creation to free people up for more productive work.
  • Quicker responses. Automation cuts down the time it takes you to pull together reports and audits across all your manual processes, which means you can respond to customer and stakeholder requests quicker. Aside from being able to service more people in less time, faster and more perceptive communication makes your business look capable and accountable.
  • Enhanced productivity. By cutting out pesky low-value tasks, you free up time for meaningful work – as well as the cognitive space for focusing deeply on difficult tasks. If you use automation to track your workflow, you can also unearth your own productive patterns and address unproductive behaviors.
  • Lower costs. Automation pays for itself by helping you spend fewer billable hours and resources on low-value, repetitive work. But automation tailored towards accounting can also help you keep a proactive eye on your profitability – making overlooked costs visible and breaking down exactly how you spend across different projects.
  • Increased accuracy. While people are prone to error, automation is highly precise. Automation can capture all important data without overlooking anything or misreading. It also eliminates situations where files are lost or steps are slipped.

How to implement digital process automation

While the benefits of digital process automation are clear, how do you actually go about it? Forrester have put together some useful reports detailing deep and wide digital process automation, but by means of a general overview, there are essentially two main routes you can follow.

The “deep” approach

As the most thorough route to automation, this approach requires investing in heavy-weight progams which fulfill a whole suite of operational requirements – think IBM, Pega and OpenText. By trying to automate entire processes, they require serious redevelopment – often as a combined effort of your in-house technical teams and developers from the software you’re looking to integrate. But the promise is a holistic one: these tools should help you document, digitize, enhance and automate entire processes seamlessly.

Requiring the most commitment, this holistic approach is also the most high-risk. Research suggests that only 30% of digital transformations succeed, and of these, only 16% actually enhance performance. Radical digital transformations involve a lot of hard work and research. They often require a complete overhaul of your digital infrastructure. You need an extremely high level of technical expertise, training and a very strong digital culture, to ensure people actually embrace the change.

The gradual approach

If you don’t have a Google or Apple sized budget – or you just don’t want to take the risk – then the localized approach is certainly a safer bet. Instead of committing to a massive overhaul of your entire system, you can experiment with automation in smaller, more specific areas using low-code development tools. They essentially help automate specific processes within your business – not every process in one go.

There’s a huge market of out-the-box AI tools to satisfy this approach. They tend to do one job very well – automating specific parts of your workflow or operation. Thankfully, you can usually figure out their value pretty quickly, since most ready-made automation tools let you try before you buy. If these tools don’t add any benefit, just stop using them; if they do, see how you can customize them further and consult the software’s roadmap to understand what they’re prioritizing.

Because you’re not changing anything dramatically with this gradual approach, you don’t need a long onboarding process. Out-the-box automation tools depend on their ease-of-use to survive, so there’s a much smaller learning curve involved too; you won’t need serial training and refresher sessions. And by introducing lightweight automated tools regularly, your team will get more familiar with the idea of AI, helping to strengthen a digital culture that is open to technological change.

New to automation? Check out the 5 essential low-code tools to get started

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