"Automation" is today's most important business watchword.
For many of us, the primary driver of interest in automation is the need to reduce costs. Because reducing costs can also mean reducing labor, automation is as much about people as it is about efficiency or revenue.
For some, automation may seem like a threat since automation reduces labor input and, in some situations, may be used to replace humans entirely. That’s not the case for the kind of automations we are focused on here. In reality, the degree of impact automation has on the workforce depends on the nature of the automation, its complexity, what resources are freed by the automation, and how they are redirected.
Today there are questions and concerns about what automation means for jobs and the economy as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robots take on more of the work that used to be done by humans. At the same time, a wide range of tools and software platforms promise to squeeze every bit of efficiency and profitability out of any number of workflows and processes.
With all of this information and conversations around “automation,” it may be helpful to illustrate the different types of automations and how they relate to each other. This will also help crystallize the reasons why it’s important to focus on automations at the task level, and how task automations augment the workforce.
Business Process Automation (BPA)
Business Process Automation describes the full landscape of automation efforts within the enterprise. At its core, BPA refers to the use of technology to replicate human work, improve efficiency, reduce errors, and contain costs. BPA is one pathway toward digital transformation. Within the broader context of BPA, other more specific types of automations exist.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
According to Gartner, RPA is “a productivity tool that allows users to configure one or more scripts (which some vendors refer to as ‘bots’) to activate specific keystrokes in an automated fashion. The result is that the bots can be used to mimic or emulate selected tasks.”
RPAs mimic human actions in complex process flows, in some cases by managing data across multiple applications
Intelligent Process Automation (IPA)
McKinsey defines IPA as “an emerging set of new technologies that combines fundamental process redesign with robotic process automation and machine learning. IPA mimics activities carried out by humans and, over time, learns to do them even better.”
IPA is an extension of robotic process automation that incorporates machine learning to improve processes that it automates.
Every business process consists of at least one workflow, or a series of tasks that must be completed in order for the process to produce the desired result. Workflows can be simple or complex, and incorporate input from multiple stakeholders, data sources, and machines. Workflow automation refers to the self-initiating aspects of the workflow, or elements of the workflow that can be triggered by events or time.
Automations at the workflow level complement — but do not compete — with the people who manage the flow. Workflow automations can also be connected across applications.
Every workflow can be broken down into individual tasks. These tasks can then be evaluated for automation on a case-by-case basis. Once an automation has been created for a particular task, that automation can be replicated for other tasks and across other workflows.
Task automations deliver immediate benefits to workers because they reduce or eliminate repetitive work. They also provide immediate and long term for the enterprise by unlocking additional resources that can be redirected towards collaborative and value-creating activities.