Intelligent Process Automation: What It Is & How to Implement It


Market upheavals of the last few years coupled with the persistence of high inflation rates have driven businesses worldwide to seek every possible means of streamlining operations. The time for survival mode has passed; in order to compete in just about any industry, organizations must resume growth.  

No-code BPA (business process automation) platforms have been invaluable to companies looking to improve efficiency by automating data management and repetitive tasks, improving customer experiences, and integrating tech stacks.

A fundamental component of many BPAs is artificial intelligence (AI), or the carrying out of human tasks by machines. This AI element collects and analyzes huge amounts of data very quickly in order to find processes to automate, thereby helping establish business automation strategies. 

Recent AI breakthroughs in the realm of business workflows are once again changing the game. The result? Intelligent process automation (IPA). 

What is intelligent process automation (IPA)?

Intelligent process automation software tools interweave AI, automation, and customer data to mimic human thought. Their purpose is to minimize human involvement in complex tasks that involve decision-making and coordination between multiple activities. In their efforts to relieve workers of repetitive tasks, reduce error-prone data, and improve customer satisfaction, IPA users get huge results. 

Differences between IPA and traditional automation

You may be thinking, “This sounds like any automation solution.” It isn’t. A few key differences distinguish the two operating models.

IPA goes beyond BPA functionality by employing several technologies (more on these later) to recognize patterns and make decisions autonomously. They can be taught to not only find inconsistencies and errors in data but correct them, as well. 

According to a McKinsey report, “Traditional levers of rule-based automation are augmented with decision-making capabilities thanks to advances in deep learning and cognitive technology.” For a function-by-function comparison of IPA to traditional process automation, refer to the following table. 

Traditional process automation (BPA/BPM)Intelligent process automation (IPA)
Designed to increase the speed and accuracy of processesDesigned to radically improve efficiency, reduce risk, and improve customer response time
Decreases repetitive tasks via rules, conditionals, and pre-set automationsDecreases repetitive tasks via automations, continually search for repetitions/silos, and autonomously dissolves them 
Increases end-to-end visibility to keep data consistent and error-freeIncreases end-to-end visibility, recognizes and reveals data patterns to find errors and automatically correct them
Automated customer service via portals, alerts, and email templatesBot-based, simplified interactions with humans/customers

IPA’s impact on customer experience

Customers want fast, effective solutions to their issues. Businesses implement IPA with the awareness that many of these issues are common and easily solved. Hence, the solutions they provide are often in the form of AI-based chatbots and knowledge bases.

This is a double win for customers because:

  • Common issues get quick solutions, and, subsequently, 
  • Team members have more one-on-one time to spend with customers who have genuinely complex dilemmas.

Intelligent process automation (IPA) vs. robotic process automation (RPA)

Robotic process automation (RPA) software grants users the ability to build bots that perform rule-based actions previously performed by humans. 

It is a sequential link between BPA and IPA; it furthers BPA’s mission to eliminate repetitive tasks and serves as an important software component of IPA. 

The term “RPA” is sometimes used interchangeably with IPA, but they are not the same thing. Several elements distinguish them, one of the biggest of which lies in their data analysis capabilities: RPA can only use structured data, which strictly limits its functions, while IPA uses both structured and unstructured data.

Structured data is quantifiable, factual, and organized data (in fact, it is often stored in spreadsheets and other types of searchable tables). Most structured data is in text and number format, compiled for one specific purpose. Its organized configuration makes it very easy to use and interpret, but that use is limited to its designated purpose. 

Unstructured data is uncatalogued data in native formats like images and word-processing files. The vast majority of existing data is unstructured (80-90%, according to most estimates), and, until the recent past, has been challenging to manage and analyze. AI technology’s ability to detect patterns and form insights based upon them allows users to harness the previously untapped power of unstructured data.

By definition, this is a workflow game-changer.

For a clear picture of other differences between RPA and IPA, consider that every function RPA provides is available in IPA solutions. IPA learns from the results of those functions, however, and provide new insights based upon them:

Robotic process automation (RPA)Intelligent process automation (IPA)
Designed to improve efficiency and perform repetitive, manual human tasksDesigned to radically improve efficiency, reduce risk, and improve customer response time
Uses rule-based bots to decrease repetitive tasksUses AI to automate data flow between  rule-based bots and humans, thereby connecting them
Uses structured data onlyUses structured and unstructured data
Furthers BPA’s mission to eliminate repetitive tasks Uses machine learning AI technology to make autonomous decisions
Serves as an important software component of IPA Continuously learns from past data to deliver insight for better decision making

Benefits of IPA for businesses

The automation in IPA models is largely a product of AI, which means that the human actions of BPA processes (setting metrics and continually monitoring for results, for example) can be phased out. 

Let’s explore a few ways IPA harnesses the reduced need for human supervision to improve business processes.

Digital transformation

Intelligent process automation platforms can be a good fit for companies looking to make a digital transformation. Traditional BPA platforms have specialized in this for years, connecting people to systems and saving time with human-created automations. 

This suits the needs of lots of businesses. Those with gigantic tech stacks, a large volume of active customers, and massive amounts of data, however, may seek to employ IPA’s continuous, AI-created automations with decision-making capabilities to eliminate even more repetitive human tasks and serve an “auto-pilot” role in operations. 

From HR functions like employee reviews to IT’s handling of request tickets, IPA performs, learns from, and streamlines tasks by finding discrepancies. AI technology can quickly automate any process with drastically reduced (and sometimes zero) human intervention.

Increased efficiency and productivity

AI software not only learns, but makes inferences based on those learnings. Once employees become familiar with these capabilities in the platform, they can create bots to carry out specific tasks of their own choosing.

Eliminating manual work from employees’ desks allows them to perform the complex work at which they excel. They’re also freed up to help triage both internal and customer issues (saving more time and resources in both the long and short term), and learn new systems for success and career growth. 

Cost savings and ROI

When leveraged correctly, IPA can produce significant savings for businesses on several fronts, including: 

  1. Fewer errors in processes lead to a company-wide uptick in quality,
  2. Businesses gain the flexibility to weather market challenges like the pandemic and economic downturn,
  3. Efficient operations can end overtime work and its associated costs, and
  4. Automating IT tasks mitigates those costs and eliminates the need for third-party IT services.

Improved accuracy and quality

A possible downturn in quality and QA practices is among the most frequent excuses individuals give for delaying technological updates (deviating from current processes can diminish quality, they reason). This is well-intentioned, but inaccurate. By eliminating human errors due to factors like distraction, fatigue, and inherent biases, AI technology is far more precise and consistent than the human brain and body. 

Enhanced employee engagement and satisfaction

If the so-called Great Resignation of recent years has revealed anything, it’s that employees from every sector of work are burned out, leading to a notable shift in values. Many people have decided that tedious tasks aren’t worth the time spent away from their families and lives. 

With a shift to intelligent process automation, companies decrease (and, in many cases, eliminate) repetitive activities like data entry, sending emails, paperwork, and crushing deadlines associated with all of these. Workers get the satisfaction of using their expertise, and the time to expand their skill set to bring new value to the organization, and consistently-met deadlines. 

A newly recharged, automated workplace can go far in lifting employees from drudgery to genuine enthusiasm for their work.

How intelligent process automation works

The core power behind intelligent process automation is, of course, AI. But that technology is synthesized with additional systems — systems you may already be familiar with — to bring workflows to life.

Components of IPA

IPA consists of three powerful interacting technologies: AI, BPM, and RPA.

components of intelligent process automation
  1. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a groundbreaking software category that mimics human intelligence in order to perform tasks and make decisions based on its learning capabilities. It includes a few key parts of its own, all of which IPA leverages to automate business processes.
  2. Machine learning is a machine’s ability to solve problems by mimicking the human brain. It allows AI to perform autonomous actions and reactions based on data (including results from previous actions and reactions) it has gathered. 
  3. Machine vision simulates human visual perception based on images captured by a system camera. It analyzes those images and extracts data from them.
  4. Computer vision is analogous to machine vision; they both use lenses and image sensors to capture image data. Computer vision takes this concept to the next level by making inferences from that data and creating automations based on them.
  5. Robotic process automation (RPA) is the “workhorse” element of IPA. On its own, it has no intelligence, but it automates very effectively. So effectively, in fact, that coupled with the perception and learning capacities of AI, its repeated bursts of activity facilitate a previously unheard-of continuous loop of intelligent automation.  
  6. Business process automation (BPA) is the third and final component of IPA. On its own, BPA is a powerful workflow tool that serves as an ideal solution for many businesses looking to make better use of fewer resources. AI has played a part in some BPA systems for a few years, quickly analyzing massive amounts of data. 

The ever-increasing interest in AI has many people wondering, “Can incorporating BPA technology with RPA and AI make it that much better?” 

The answer is a resounding yes. BPA’s role in IPA is that of an orchestra conductor, synchronizing multiple platforms, databases, users, and bots… continuously! What does that mean for your business? Keep reading. 

Intelligent process automation in action: examples and use cases

We’ve examined IPA on a theoretical level, but let’s dive into what it does when put into practice.

Finance and procurement

Automations carried out by IPA can alter every part of an AP or procurement professional’s day. Here are just a few examples:

  • Sourcing high-quality vendors faster. IPA’s pattern recognition function and learning capabilities find the right vendors for each job using up-to-the-second data analysis.
  • Decreased negotiation complexities. Continuous purchasing data analysis provided by IPA ensures that the best price and most recent, relevant terms and conditions are readily available.
  • Relief of the tedium and error risk in invoice processing. IPA’s templates, coupled with analysis bots, completely automate the tasks of receiving, entering, creating, and sending invoices. Remove human error from the equation and give employees the chance to seek out new vendors and research new methods and technology to expand your business.

HR and people ops

Human resources (HR) departments lend themselves to API improvements particularly well. API can transform the process of:

  • Recruitment. Any question of a candidate’s experience or aptitude can be answered immediately once the IPA software has access to their resume and portfolio.
  • Employee engagement. Tailored employee journeys and surveys keep employees satisfied with their direction. IPA’s learning capabilities shift along with each employee’s growth and indicate skill gaps.
  • Diversity and inclusion. IPA can remove hiring biases and increase diversity by providing reliable data for choosing the best-qualified external and internal candidates for any position. 

IT and development

IPA has unlimited potential to streamline and improve IT processes in just about every industry by: 

  • Drastically reducing the number of incoming tickets. IPA’s powerful pattern recognition, coupled with self-help portals and chatbots, directs urgent needs up the chain while empowering employees to find quick, easy solutions to common issues. 
  • Improving data backup and recovery. Smart automation’s unstoppable rule-based bots can ensure an organization’s continual, complete data analysis and backups, along with lightning-fast recovery. 
  • Increasing security. Preventing data breaches and cyber-attacks requires an offensive – not a defensive – approach. The bots of smart process automation join forces with their learning capabilities to continuously scan for and learn about new threats. Data leak patches are not enough; prevent those leaks before they happen. 

Customer service and experience

Does your help desk need help? Any customer support environment can be transformed by AI-based smart process automation. Here’s how: 

  • Extended help desk hours. Cutbacks due to the current labor shortage has resulted in reduced support hours for many companies. Chatbots work 24 hours per day, which not only triples productivity, but effectively extends business hours. You may leave at 5 pm, but your third-shift and international customers don’t. Frequent questions get fast answers at any time of day, and complex issues go directly to specialists with timed alerts to resolve them first thing the following day.
  • Better incident prioritization and routing. Because IPAs learn as they go, they predict where, exactly, to send incident reports. Companies can stop subjecting their customers to long phone menus and complicated drop-down field choices. In fact, AI fills in many of those fields automatically. 
  • Knowledge curation. We’ve seen how far search functions have come over the last 10 years. AI has taken even those advances into warp speed, however, by not only seeing a search term, but the searcher’s intention behind it and delivering specific, accurate results. 

4 steps to implement IPA

To make the most of IPA, you must first decide that AI-based smart process management is the best choice for your business’ efficiency needs. 

Small businesses with few employees, for example, probably won’t require the powerful analysis capabilities that IPA offers, opting for a less complex workflow management tool like an ERP or BPM. 

Once management and IT have agreed on an AI-based solution, consider the following steps as your company plans for the transition, implement the software, integrate processes, and monitor for results.

How to implement intelligent process automation (IPA)

1. Model and map the process

The first step in any digital transformation is process mapping. This is the practice of defining each step in a process, for every process your business carries out. Additionally, it must include the people involved, the desired results, and the resources needed to achieve them. 

Process maps are often written out by hand, then organized visually into a flow chart format. The graphic representation of a process is the process model

2. Implement intelligent process automation software

As you study the findings of your process map(s) and model(s), identify your business’ crucial needs vs. desired features, and confirm them among all stakeholders. (Should budget constraints enter the picture, you’ll be glad you did.) 

IPA features vary widely; if you’re looking for a place to begin your research, check out this list of a few features most IPAs should include:

Conversational AI. This technology allows instant interaction between humans and bots, the most successful of which cannot be distinguished between a human and a bot. It is the most widely used chatbot format.

Integrated Platform as a Service (iPaas). This software component that works with different apps, allowing them to integrate with one another. Going a step further, iPaas pulls data from these various apps to automate and consolidate tasks.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This is a computer’s ability to recognize text from pictures; this technology has existed for many years, but AI functions eliminate background “noise” in documents and even recognize handwriting in some cases.

Natural language processing (NLP). The AI capability to recognize both human writing and human voices, and draw conclusions from their contexts (thereby, for example, accurately reading poorly printed documents by decreasing an image’s “background noise,” and drawing conclusions from their text). 

Unattended Bots. Bots whose functions are to complete tasks autonomously in the background.

3. Process reengineering

Sweeping digital transformations come with a huge shift in the way work gets done at a business. When that shift fundamentally changes the business’ structure and alignment, it becomes what is known as process reengineering. 

Companies that embrace this concept are also committing to the philosophies of cost savings, business reorganization, and quality improvement, all of which are driven by automation.

AI makes process reengineering possible with process mining software. These powerful tools interact with ERP systems, pulling data from the past AND present — a previously unheard-of feat. Process mining’s value lies in its ability to capture up-to-the-minute ERP transaction data and use it to assess the current state of most running processes. 

The software creates logs for each step in every process that include time of, time length, stakeholders, results, and any deviations from previously recorded averages. AI not only detects issues long before they become problems, but has the capability to offer suggestions or, even better, solve them autonomously.

Beyond problem solving, this indicates that IPA can detect and set key performance indicators for any process on its own, then report suggestions for meeting/exceeding them to users. Needless to say, any business looking to trounce competitors should consider an IPA solution in the near future.

4. Monitoring

The process mining technology of IPA is a game-changer in another way: it transforms the traditional BPA monitoring phase into automatic, continuous information read-outs. 

Stakeholders don’t have to run reports — monitoring is an inherent function built into IPA. Best of all, its continuous learning capabilities means its findings are accurate to an unparalleled degree.

Integrating IPA with existing systems and technologies

Integration is a core function of IPA because it ensures that data pulled from multiple software systems is accurate. This provides a consolidated view of any process in any format you choose (log, report, dashboard, etc.) and shares insights and recommendations based upon it. 

From ERPs to AI-based smart process automation, no-code BPA solutions integrate with the operation model that works best for your organization. They offer full integrations with the apps and systems you, your employees, and customers use on a regular basis. 

Quickly-growing businesses looking to incorporate automation for faster, streamlined processes and cost savings can reap big benefits from no-code BPA. 

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