“Do more with less,” is the mantra of consultants and the marching orders of senior executives. In today’s world of increased competition and compressed margins, companies want methods to improve efficiency. Automation is the “low-hanging fruit,” often offering “wins” for both the business and technical teams.
Gaining efficiency does not begin with automation, nor should automation be the end. Automation is a piece of a larger puzzle; that puzzle is process optimization. Too often companies look at automation as a technical project and fail to look at the larger business process and operating environment. Approaching an automation project as a standalone technology project can mitigate the value and return of that project. To capitalize on the best use of automation tools, you must understand the desired future state in terms of business processes and business systems.
Process optimization methodologies, such as Lean, TQC, and Six Sigma, seek to review the business process holistically, focusing on organizational structures, work distribution, quality, controls, knowledge and skills, sales and service, and technology investments. The review typically results in recommendations for improvements, which can include standardizing processes, aligning resources to balance with the demand, improving communication with stakeholders, and improving relevant and actionable key performance indicators (KPIs).
The best time to look at automation with technology is when reviewing the standardization of processes and alignment of resources. How much could you save by automating a piece of a given process? Could you improve the efficiency of the organization, improve the quality? How could you better align your resources to better serve your clients? And, what tools are available?
Technology is always moving, always progressing, so it is important to constantly re-evaluate the tools available and make sure you are using the best tool for the job. Here are some to consider:
Optical and Intelligent Character Recognition (OCR/ICR) – OCR / ICR engines allow businesses to apply rules or processing logic to data that is captured most typically from forms. This can help organizations perform validations of the data and automate the exception management process for items received “not in good order” (NIGO). The data can be directly integrated with other systems, stored, used for reporting, etc.
Web / Mobile – As core business applications continue to develop more robust middleware or service layers, organizations are able to leverage the Internet, mobile applications and social networks to help create portals or interfaces for their customers to interact directly. This helps push lower level work, such as data entry or capture, status updates or general information queries, outside of the organization through client “self-service,” and helps to improve the quality of information before it enters the organization.
Extract, Transform, Load (ETL) Tools – ETL tools are used to extract data from one to many sources; to standardize, aggregate, clean, or apply a set of business rules or logic to that data; and then to load the resulting data into the destination system. From an efficiency perspective, ETL tools help to minimize the ad-hoc and time consuming manual processes of collecting and re-formatting data to be used by the business and are ideal for high volume, batched data-driven activities.
Business Process Management (BPM) – BPM platforms connect disparate systems, groups, and people, and combine them into a single, cohesive process, ideally covering the end-to-end lifecycle of any given activity. Efficiencies are gained by automating the movement of work throughout the organization, directly engaging systems into a business process, improving communication across the organization, providing exception management and resolution paths, and tracking a robust set of operational data. The audit data captured can then be used to identify “bottlenecks,” as well as work volume, backlogs, efficiency and quality.
With any of these tools, there is an upfront investment of time and resources. When evaluating the success of an automation project, think of a quadrant diagram with “frequency” on the X-axis and “complexity” on the Y-axis, with the ideal scenario being low complexity and high frequency.
Automation projects can result in the resource availability to grow your business and expand service by helping your subject matter experts (SME) focus on tasks which add value to your business. The goals of process optimization and automation technologies are to facilitate business efficiency, drive quality, and “do more with less.”