Every business leader knows there’s a difference between busy work and productive work. The first tends to be a repetitive time-sink that requires little thought or talent. The latter produces a meaningful outcome that profits the company and is satisfying for workers.

Most of us would rather spend our days on the second rather than the first. Your employees feel that way, too. In fact, engagement drives true productivity. Business process automation (BPA) is the means with which companies transfer busy work to machines and empower staff to flex their creativity and problem-solving skills.

BPA is a software category but may also include mechanical technologies, such as robotics. The goal is to complete repetitive physical or digital processes and actions with minimal to no intervention from humans. BPA may be purchased and used as a standalone software package, or it can be integrated or embedded in other software as a feature. Often it is a subset of business process management (BPM) suites, which in turn can be a component of infrastructure management.

You may hear the terms “BPA” and “BPM” used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. BPA focuses on how automation can simplify and streamline business processes, while BPM, which may or may not include automation, uses a variety of methods to discover, model, analyze, change and optimize end-to-end business processes.

However, BPA is evolving, and the term is morphing to reflect significant changes along the way. For example, robotic process automation (RPA) is a form of BPA that uses AI to complete more complex, multi-step workflows, often across a variety of applications. For example, market research firm IDC calls BPM with AI capabilities “intelligent process automation,” or IPA.

Why Automate Business Processes?

In short, all businesses want to do more with less. BPA makes it possible to perform more work with fewer people and to free up time in the workday to create new products and innovative services and generate more profit.

BPA also adds money- and time-saving efficiencies, reduces human errors, and often better leverages company resources and assets.

5 Benefits of BPA

There are many ways businesses benefit from strategic use of BPA. The five most common are:

1. Increased productivity

Small-business owners, and workers in businesses of any size, can focus on doing what they do best and trust machines to do the rest. Work is completed faster and with few to no errors. When robotics systems take on tasks that previously caused injuries, like falls or strains, employee wellbeing increases.

2. Assisted communications

With BPA, communications can be routed to a preferred channel, or a customer service rep could, for example, follow a conversation across channels. Additionally, a rep could pull in supporting data from a variety of applications to make communications more productive. A manager might use BPA to track activities so all parties know where they are in a project or process that they’re working on.

3. Increased process visibility

Whenever you automate a process, you have the opportunity to look closely at the flow and decide which steps are worth keeping and what could be done to improve the procedure. The resulting, more streamlined processes will further speed up production.

4. Reduced costs

Studies consistently show that adding automation is considerably less expensive than paying a person to do the same work. Further, automation leads to both economies of scale and a greater economy of scope; that is, the ability to produce a wider variety of products. As business leaders know, both can lead to more favorable unit margins and greater profitability.

5. Increased operational efficiency

Analyst firm Forrester suggests that automation can cut operating costs by 90% and says use of intelligent automation will release $134 billion in labor value by 2022. Bottom line, more visibility into processes will lead to increased innovation.

Further, automation enables shorter lead times, quicker delivery and more efficient use of stock and cash, according to Economics Help.

9 Key Areas of Your Business to Automate

While most businesses can identify repetitive work that could be automated to make operations run more efficiently, there are some areas where experts say companies can gain immediate benefits. Those include:

1. Marketing

Marketing automation coordinates marketing messages and orchestrates their timely delivery over designated channels. Marketing automation drives an average 14.5% increase in sales productivity and a 12.2% reduction in marketing overhead, according to invesp.

Marketing automation can be utilized across multiple channels, including email marketing, short message service (SMS), paid search, display and social advertisements. It can also be used for upselling recommendations on mobile and online purchases.

2. Finance

The nature of finance functions is highly structured and consists mainly of working with numeric values. Further, the data is often transferred between reports and departments to keep the company on secure financial footing. Those combined attributes make finance an area well suited to automation.

Creation of any finance report can be partially or fully automated. One example is accounts payable (AP) automation. An AP process that is often automated is invoicing. Doing so can reduce costs, increase efficiency and reduce errors. Invoice processes can be integrated with other processes such as supply chain data or shipment receipts.

3. Sales

Many processes used in outside and inside sales can be partially or fully automated. But the goal is the same: To close more sales in a typical workday than was possible without the speed and efficiencies of automation.

Examples of sales force automation include lead generation, customer contact messaging, proposal development, contract management, sales quota and commissions management and transaction detail tracking.

4. Product Development

Example use cases include research and development (R&D) projects, software development and new-product development. In all cases, automation increases the productivity and efficiency of highly skilled employees and enables them to produce results faster without cutting corners or increasing risks. For example, automakers are already heavy users of BPA. Now, industry groups are calling for more use of automation in R&D for electric and autonomous vehicles.

5. Product

Automation can be used to detect product flaws on the production floor and adjust manufacturing robotics to correct the defect in following units on the production line.

Similarly, IoT sensor data, or human repair technicians’ notes, can be analyzed and the insights used to either correct a recurring flaw or automatically dispatch a worker to replace a faulty part before a major piece of equipment fails. Scenarios such as these reduce expensive and reputation-damaging product recalls. They also keep customer satisfaction ratings and brand loyalty scores high.

6. Supply chain

Many of the business processes involved in ordering, receiving, paying for, warehousing and otherwise managing the supply chain can be partially or completely automated, even when a process involves more than one software application.

For example,purchase orders can be automatically filled out and sent to a preapproved vendor when office supplies drop below a certain threshold. Raw materials can be automatically reordered by manufacturers to ensure an adequate supply for production schedules. And a drug store can be automatically replenished with prescription medicines on a “just-in-time basis” to match current demand and limit risks of theft and fraud.

Such automation—powered by supply chain visibility—translates to fewer disruptions, increased customer satisfaction and lower costs.

7. Customer service

Automation can go far in improving customer satisfaction while also cutting costs. For example, chatbots on ecommerce websites can quickly and inexpensively answer lower-tier customer queries, saving human service reps for more complex problems.

When a customer does need human support, purchase history and product data can be automatically fed into call center scripts so that agents can provide more relevant answers.

With IoT, firmware upgrades and security patches can be rolled out automatically for everything from smart street lights to fleet management systems. As with product support, problem detection followed by automated repairs can prevent disruptions in service and reduce the number of customer calls.

8. IT

Companies become more competitive when IT acts more like a conductor in IT orchestration than a shade-tree mechanic. So it’s great news that information technology processes from infrastructure and cloud management to IT optimization and security patching are automated these days. That frees IT staff to work on innovation and tinkering with the mix of IT services to help their companies meet customer demand and adapt to market changes.

One money-saving use of IT automation: Cloud management platforms that help control cloud computing costs, performance and security. These platforms often include predictive analytics tools that can forecast future needs and identify and decommission unused resources without human intervention.

9. General Business Functions

By automating as many of your company’s processes as possible, including finance, HR and expense management, you can increase the insights provided to business leaders and minimize inefficiencies, errors and compliance issues.

Example of use cases throughout the business include: sales forecasting; customer churn prevention; employee onboarding, payroll and scheduling; business travel planning; and order fulfillment and inventory management.

Finally, automation is not just for large enterprises. Small businesses can also benefit by, for example, increasing upsell or cross-sell opportunities by automatically providing recommendations to customers.

9 Ways to Automate Your Business

There are a number of options when it comes to automating various processes in your company. Often, some form of BPA is a feature or function included in commercial software. Sometimes it’s a standalone product, and sometimes it’s one of a series of modules in a larger software suite. Other times, automation is something your own or third-party developers craft specifically for your company.

But however you choose to use BPA, here are keys to make it work for you:

1. Automation tools

There are many tools on the market to automate business processes. Generally, they are categorized by the purpose of the process they are intended to automate, the amount of coding or IT skill required to use them and whether they are general process or cognitive (AI) tools.

Categories of general-process, no-coding-required automation tools include social media, workflow and project management, ecommerce and marketing.

Most companies should look for automation tools that don’t require coding skills. Make sure the interface is usable by non-techies. Also ensure that processes are transparent, such that your team can dictate and understand how the system intends to accomplish a task. Bots should be easy to direct and manage.

2. AI and machine learning

Let’s use accounts payable (AP) as an example of how machine learning and AI can automate business processes.

Machine learning systems look at lots of data and learn from it. In the case of AP, a company might feed all its digitized invoices into the system with the goal of teaching it to know what’s “normal.” The more AP data the system must study, the better it will spot anomalies that might indicate fraud or a supplier that’s raised prices such that it impacts profitability.

The difference between ML, which looks at existing data and learns how to spot outliers, and AI is that artificial intelligence ups the ante by adding context. For example, a true AI-enabled AP system might be able to query internal and external data sources to know the average price of gasoline in New York in September, the expected average MPG of your fleet of delivery vehicles and how many miles were covered to service customers. With that data, you could automate approval of invoices for September fuel purchases if the amounts fall within expected parameters.

Strive to understand the type of insights a given system will surface and whether those findings are worthwhile considering the cost of the system. In terms of automation, the goal is to reduce to the greatest extent possible the need for manual intervention and monitoring.

3. Create processes/find repetition

One of the easiest ways for small businesses to begin to eliminate repetition and adopt streamlined processes is to switch to commercial software, which has optimized processes pre-automated for you.

It’s not necessary to create something from scratch when popular software offers the processes you seek, honed by experts and decades of experience and often available in a convenient software-as-a-service model.

If you do need to create processes, perhaps because you need to customize connections between disparate systems, you can use tools like Zapier and IFTTT to connect platforms and eliminate repetitive tasks from your workflows.

4. Streamline communication and task management

This is all about project management. Automation can eliminate duplication of effort among production teams, now often operating from multiple locations, including those working from home. As we’ve discussed, automation is about offloading time-consuming and repetitive tasks from a human to a machine—and not many project tasks are more repetitive than assigning job tickets and sending regular status updates.

So, for example, a project manager could specify that when a graphic proof is checked into a document management system, a ticket is automatically generated to have an approver take a look. That saves an artist from having to manually request a review, or worse, send an email.

Or take ERP. Any business with more than a few employees benefits from a tighter connection between its operational and financial data and functions. And the more automated those links, the better. That’s the idea behind cloud-based enterprise resource planning.

5. Make document sharing easier

Sharing documents is essential to an efficient business. BPA and especially RPA can automatically retrieve entire documents, or data from specific fields across many documents, and share it with team members or other applications. This saves time, of course, but you’ll also minimize non-compliance issues from errors and oversights of key rules inside of documents.

Look for ways to easily share documents in a variety of dashboards when considering business intelligence (BI), sales automation, teleconferencing, batch email and other business software.

6. Integrate apps and devices

Some systems use application programming interfaces (APIs), which are essentially universal connectors to integrate software. Other tools are available that will automatically sync data across devices to keep information current and easily accessible. An example of that is an email provider that syncs your email on your work desktop, tablet and phone. Often, advanced syncing and integration will illuminate and eliminate some repetitions in business processes.

7. Track correspondence

A big win here is managing customer relationships. When a company can track all correspondence—marketing emails, invoices, upsell offers, service inquiries—and schedule automated responses, it will earn kudos for having excellent service. An advanced CRM can even automate creation of a personalized and interactive customer portal and report back on how many hours a service pro has spent on that account.

8. Set automation targets

We recommend developing a BPA plan to avoid overlooking a process that should be automated, taking on too much too fast or creating gaps or overlaps in automation throughout your business.

Start by automating the easiest and most obvious processes first—the so-called “low-hanging fruit.” Or go by the PITA rule and automate first those processes that are the most frustrating for you and your staff.

Then steadily move up the chain and review each business process for its potential for automation, freeing people to work on more important things.

9. Create a culture of automation in the office

Culture is more likely to derail an automation initiative than technology. Executives need to reassure staff that automating business processes is meant to make their work easier—not to replace them. When people understand that their jobs aren’t at risk, they’re more likely to adopt new processes and even help identify needed improvements in traditional processes.

In any case, to be successful, you’ll need everyone’s cooperation. Resistance may be futile, but it is also often destructive. Work on people matters early on in your automation plans.

How NetSuite Can Automate Your Business

NetSuite helps automate the business process for transaction approval, lead nurturing, and managing records or any transaction in your business that needs a set of activities to follow through.