The differences between BPA, RPA and IPA. Which of these process automation technologies is right for your enterprise?

The market for automation tools to support technology-driven business process transformations is primed for explosive growth. A confluence of recent developments, including the digital transformation craze that has taken hold in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing cloud computing trend that is democratizing access to tools, and increasing user adoption of data-driven intelligence in every aspect of business processes are prime catalysts. Businesses are adopting Business Process Automation (BPA), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) tools at a pace far exceeding prior technology roll-outs.

The global market of Intelligent Process Automation is estimated to grow to nearly $14B by 2023 according to a leading market survey. Most of the growth will be driven by increased demand for intelligence and automation to improve business process efficiency, across industry segments. Business Process Automation and Robotic Process Automation have been around for a while and are now morphing into Intelligent Process Automation as business needs and tool capabilities evolve. Today, almost every SME and enterprise is either using or evaluating these technologies in some way or the other. And with increasing awareness among CIOs and other business leaders, the demand for these technologies is on the rise. A business leader needs to well understand the differences in these automation technologies and the specific purpose that they serve. This will give them clarity about the technology that is most appropriate for their organization and its unique process transformation needs. Although they may sound similar, there are fundamental differences in BPA, RPA, and IPA, and depending on your business goals, one may be far better suited than the others.

What is BPA/ BPM/ BPMS?

Business process automation (BPA) is a collection of collaboration technologies to structure and co-ordinate people driven activities in a business process. A robust, versatile, and scalable Business Process Management (BPM) tool often enables:

  1. Process orchestration across stake-holders with improved efficiencies
  2. Effective cross functional engagement and communication across teams
  3. Synchronized and time bound efforts between teams
  4. Streamlined processes and integration of data across different sources

Well implemented BPM tools facilitate getting repeated activities done in an accurate, time-efficient, and resource-efficient manner, helping drive better employee efficiencies, faster process execution and better quality of work. Most enterprises use one or more BPM tools to manage their sales processes, or HR processes or finance processes. BPA technology has applicability across the organization, in every functional department.

When does an organization need BPA/ BPM?

Organizations often feel the need for BPA when there is a desire for better business orchestration of repeatable activities across the organization. Many large organizations may be facing one or more of the below challenges, necessitating the need for BPM tools:

1. Increasing number of repetitive and manual tasks

Examples: data input, follow-up emails & correspondences, document creation etc.This leads to employee dissatisfaction in performing mundane and repetitive work that is perceived as not adding significant value to the organization, nor to the employee’s growth prospects.

2. Inconsistency in data

Example: Manually fetching data and preparing reports from ERP/CRM and 3rd Party systems/portals rather than having a common tool that helps with information orchestration

Decisions based on inaccurate, mis-construed or stale data can have disastrous consequences. Inconsistency in data and in-accuracies in task execution often lead to re-work and longer process execution timelines.

3. Limited visibility and lack of real-time reporting

Example: Lack of alerts, notifications, and real time monitoring of routine tasks and activities, lack of stage-wise visibility and milestone updates from disconnected stakeholders such as 3rd party providers and vendors etc.

Without automated systems, excessive time is often spent in consolidating and preparing reports for management. Status updates become stale while the reports reach decision makers, and there is limited confidence in manually prepared reports where information becomes subjective and biased by personal preferences.

4. Increasing confusion around roles, responsibilities and access leading to process delays

Example: Routing of documents for approvals within and outside the organization may be done manually, resulting in lack of enforcement of business policies and often delayed approvals and cascading effects down the process stream. BPM tools can configure workflows with granular task break-downs, easier rule-based approval mechanisms for stakeholders involved, and a detailed log of every process transaction resulting in clear identification of process bottlenecks and scope for improvement.

What is RPA?

Robotic process automation (RPA) tools help automate any repetitive human activity. Mundane data entry and file processing tasks traditionally done by humans are now being replaced by RPA bots that can do the work much faster and with far greater accuracy.

CIOs across the world are exploring RPA technologies in many different verticals of their organizations, and most success has been demonstrated for automating specific tasks of short durations, like several document and data-entry driven processes in finance, HR and support operations, as well as in legacy system integrations. RPA initiatives work best when dealing with structured data and a huge volume of repeatable bursts of activity. Processing paper based insurance claims, triggering customer support workflows from emails, transferring data from email attachments into structured databases, transferring data from one legacy system to another basis pre-defined triggers etc are some examples of processes often automated with RPA tools.

What is IPA/ IPMS/IBPMS?

Intelligent Process Automation or IPA is an integrated approach that combines BPM functionality and RPA bot-based automation with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities, enabling end-to-end automation to tackle the last mile digital transformation challenges. IPA tools allow building applications that combine human and bot tasks, supported by analytics and decisions made by Artificial Intelligence.

Intelligent Process Automation is a holistic solution for digital transformation, combining BPM technologies to orchestrate users, tasks, systems and RPA robots to automate the repetitive and mundane data-driven activities. On top of that it facilitates the use of analytics and AI, including NLP and ML to make automated and intelligent decisions, and process orchestration to automate across systems.

The integration between the different systems used in the company is a key value proposition of Intelligent Process Automation, preventing the duplication of data in the systems and unified user interfaces. Intelligent Process Automation can tackle processes that require judgment, intuition, creativity, persuasion and problem-solving – all skills that previously required human input and intervention. Successful intelligent process automation requires managing systems, people, and bots across channels.  Intelligent business process management systems (iBPMS) are application development platforms that enables building cohesive IPA solutions for critical business processes, often with low-code or no-code capabilities. iBPMS platforms adopt model-driven approaches to building applications, combined with business rules to tie together the systems, applications, data, people, bots, and AI decisions required to get to a business outcome. Building block based visually-driven, low-code development environments foster collaboration between business and IT teams, enabling quick development of applications, faster time to value, and reduced development costs.

Comparison Between BPA, RPA, and IPA

The primary objective of any automation initiative is to make sure that the business resources are being utilized in the best possible manner with the least possible time and money involved. Business process automation is usually the first step in any organizations automation journey. Most BPM tools will help you manage your tasks, forms, workflows, projects, documents and collaboration well.

Increasingly, to bring the best out of manual resources, RPA technology is stage-wise deployed to take away all the tedious, repetitive, and error-prone tasks from their KRAs. This allows the employees to upgrade their skills and focus on more significant tasks that would help to upscale productivity and generate more income. At the same time, the essential yet repetitive tasks can be completed by the automation software in a faster and flawless manner. This ensures a smoother operation that is capable of achieving accelerated business growth.

Traditional RPA tools are process driven and will help automate the repeatable and mundane data entry and file processing tasks, or legacy system integrations. Focusing more on cost-savings, they provide tactical short-term wins.

Intelligent process automation on the other hand addresses data driven challenges which are increasingly complex and can add way more long-term strategic value. With an underlying later of BPM components augmented with bots that can process loads of data, and learn and adapt in real time, intelligent automation can provide predictive and prescriptive analytics, drive quality and compliance, assist planning and decision making processes.

RPA may provide quick relief as a non-invasive form of integration. However, processes are not always simple, routine, repetitive and stable. They may be long running, and they often involve intelligent automated decision making and optimization. And may require more cognitive functions to mimic human capabilities.

Now, let’s walk though a simple example to elucidate the differences in these technologies.

Let’s say you recently bought your long sought after electronic appliance, but it broke down soon. You fill out a warranty claim on a website, attach supporting documents, including a purchase receipt and supporting pictures. You are expecting a technician to show up to fix your appliance.

The warranty claim would traditionally be processed by a human, who would cross validate your invoice and other details and trigger an internal process for dispatching a technician if the claim was valid. An RPA bot would be able to do this just as well, translating the invoice details with ease, applying business rules and routing data to a human to approve if the claim doesn’t fit into defined business rules. Else it can automatically trigger the internal process to dispatch the technician. Saves a lot of mundane and repetitive work, and reduces scope for errors.

Traditionally managing technicians and their scheduling and routing and task approval mechanisms may have been driven by human co-ordinators exchanging paper-based or phone/email based communications, and intuition and experience based decision making. This is an apt process to augment with a BPM tool. With rules based task assignments, accurate time tracking and automated data flow and communications regarding assignments, delays and escalations. Real-time dashboards can show technician availability, efficiency and turn-around times. There are fewer lapses, and happier customers overall. The manufacturer and distributer of these appliances may be doing periodic reviews of overall employee, team and product performances, and factor information into preparing plans for future products and growth or cost saving opportunities. Preparing and implementing these plans may traditionally be a predominantly manual activity, involving extracting and analysing data from many different data-sources, co-ordinating activities across several teams and processes, and reactive processes for deviations from plans. This is a great opportunity to introduce Intelligent Process Automation to the mix, with time-bound co-ordination of activities across teams, intelligent bots to interface with disparate systems, prepare and analyse data and assist in decision making, contextual triggers for reactive workflows for escalations and deviations from plan and more.

Which process automation technology is right for your business?

BPA, RPA and IPA all have a place in a growing organization’s digital transformation initiatives. The projected or perceived benefits need to be weighed against the cost of implementation, the effort involved in change management, and the speed and flexibility of your implementation approach.

BPA solutions often provide quick and predictable return on your investment, and are relatively cheaper and faster initiatives. Several off-the-shelf BPM SaaS solutions for common challenges can be readily adopted with low per user license costs. The overall transformation goals need to be kept in mind before implementing a medley of different SaaS solutions, since you run the risk of data that resides in silos, difficulty in co-ordination of actions across tools, and escalating license costs. Low-code BPM development platforms provide a better overall flexibility in building solutions catered to your specific needs.

RPA solutions need to be more tailored to your exact process and typically require a much deeper engagement with an implementation partner to map your process and train the RPA bots. The accuracy of the RPA bots depend on the amount of training data available, and can vary drastically from process to process. These transformation initiatives take much longer to bear fruit, and need to be judiciously applied to specific pain points in your process chain.

IPA is a growing and constantly evolving suite of technologies which adds a mix of AI/ML and other cognitive technologies and orchestration capabilities to the mix. Often IPA projects are strategic in nature and are implemented across a broader set of teams and processes. Low-code IPA development platforms and iBPMS suites are evolving in capabilities and able to tackle ever more complex processes with much faster time to value than BPM or RPA solutions alone. There is no one size fits all when it comes to process automation solutions. Speed, cost and flexibility are often significant parameters to evaluate the right solutions.

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