RPA and BPM, two complementary approaches
This article was originally published on the Sia Partners CIO Blog
Author: Christophe Altibarmakian, Martin Coté, Guillaume Shahbaig
The automation of business processes in companies has given rise to two kinds of technology for optimizing those processes in the information system: BPM (Business Process Management) and RPA (Robotic Process Automation).
Though BPM has been around for over 20 years now and has been used to industrialize many processes often supported by implementing tools such as ERP systems, the recently introduced RPA can deliver an even higher level of automation, especially for lower value added tasks by robotizing their execution.
BPM: managing and optimizing business processes
Presentation and objectives
BPM is a true operational discipline that optimizes and consolidates the management of a company’s business processes. A BPM approach uses a variety of methods and techniques in order to:
identify the business processes managed by the company;
model and formalize those processes;
measure and analyze indicators for determining if the processes meet the company’s needs (current or future);
optimize and improve the efficiency of the processes.
Though BPM is thus an independent business approach, technological solutions are often used so it can integrate with the information system and automate tasks while assuring the quality of the processes.
A BPM software suite, often called BPMS, generally contains the following functions:
a graphical interface (or portal) enabling interaction with users;
process modeling via a formalism (e.g. BPMN);
a rules engine for finely configuring process sequences through a set of flows and conditions;
APIs (programming interfaces) to facilitate integration with the information system’s other components (software, databases, etc.);
a group of monitoring and reporting systems to track and facilitate continuous process improvement.
BPM tools are especially useful when a company needs to extensively streamline how its processes are organized, something a brief refactoring cannot do.
Consider, for example, billing, where the average cost of processing a paper invoice is about $15 (from reception through archiving). The typical Purchase to Pay (P2P) process generates a series of documents, such as purchase orders, invoices, receiving slips, etc. Manual operation of this supplier accounting process is a real obstacle to efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Automating the accounting system cuts the invoice processing cost in half, makes the teams more productive and more responsive, and offer greater control overs exchanges.
To do that, a BPMS tool will act as an orchestrator of the different systems and help facilitate exchanges among stakeholders. All the actions performed by the different parties as they process invoices can only be tracked effectively using a BPMS tool.
RPA: automating repetitive tasks
Presentation and objectives
RPA can automatically reproduce how a human operator behaves on his computer, using a software robot. This robot can be configured from a set of simple instructions provided by a human or directly from the recording of the collaborator’s activities to be ultimately reproduced. Once configured, the robot can run in two separate modes:
attended mode, where the human operator and robot share the computer so the employee’s tasks can be performed more easily without, however, automating a complete process;
unattended mode, where the robot runs completely independently on a server and potentially nonstop (24/24).
Because of its advanced capabilities for interacting with a computer’s various components (keyboard, mouse, files, applications, etc.), a RPA robot can effectively and efficiently handle any low value added repetitive task involving the reading and capture of information or interact with multiple applications.
That makes it possible to free up employees to focus on tasks that require thinking and problem solving. Humans also intervene in the event of errors (exceptions), when the robot has been unable to carry out an assigned activity satisfactorily.
RPA tools also integrate with other automation technologies such as OCR (Optical Character Recognition) or NLP (Natural Language Processing) to push the robots’ limits.
The main goals of an RPA implementation are thus to:
automate repetitive, low value added tasks;
place those tasks under the control of a computer so as to reduce errors (especially in data entry);
free up human operators to focus on more complex, more interesting and higher value added tasks;
provide operational benefits for functions the IT department has no time to automate.
RPA is especially suitable for the mass processing of simple operations currently performed by humans. The manipulation of files or data whose structure and content vary only slightly is a classic case.
To return to the example of an invoice management process using a BPM tool, RPA can be used to fully automate some processes (such as the extraction of invoices from a mailbox, their integration into a queue where they are recorded and indexed with the ERP system, etc.) and to prevent human intervention in easy to automate tasks (order/invoice correlation based on order number, customer address, etc.).
Classic use cases for an Information Technology department include, for example:
automatic analysis of security logs to extract from them cases of intrusion that require investigation;
automatic processing of password changes and print queue restarts in help centers;
identification of orphaned user accounts so they can be deactivated.
The chart below lists the key differences between BPM/BPMS and RPA.
BPM and RPA complementarity
It is quite possible to use RPA as an operational component of a process executed using the company’s BPM approach and solutions. Because it can simulate user interactions, it is possible to rapidly advance the processes by multiplying the number of robots, thus preventing bottlenecks.
Using BPM and RPA concurrently leverages the benefits of each approach and, ultimately:
automates recurring, non value added activities by replacing human activity;
focuses human activities on high value added tasks;
exhaustively maps all the processes and their interactions;
capitalizes on the data generated by the tasks of each process so they can be integrated into the decision analysis;
makes the reports on the processes more exhaustive and relevant;
continuously optimizes each business process.
The synergies generated by the simultaneous use of BPM and RPA thus help:
streamline all the business processes so they are more flexible and fit with the company’s strategy;
increase operational capability for processing large numbers of transactions;
refocus the company on its internal processes, which are a major driver of growth and transformation.
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