Business Process Automation is not the end goal – a recommendation for CIO’s to delivering tangible value by Business Process Alignment.
Okay, so you’ve automated your business processes. Purchase Requisitions are online and being approved in SAP ERP. Customer discounts are being processed and approved in Salesforce. New Employee appointments are being managed and approved in SuccessFactors. Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) requests are being approved through a SharePoint-based document approval workflow. No more paper! Automated workflow notification emails and tasks are being generated at an amazing rate. Job Done!
Have you checked-in with your CFO lately? Has business agility and effectiveness really improved, or are you just doing the same old thing faster? Not uncommonly, in order to expedite process automation initiatives, processes are standardised, simplified and automated. A single-source of organisational structures is being referenced and everything follows a predictable and consistent pattern. You’ve achieved an elegant technical solution, taking advantage of the process automation capabilities of your various application platforms and should be adored by senior business executives and decision makers. But somehow, they remain underwhelmed, overwhelmed and hesitant in funding your next big process automation opportunity. Why?
The difference is in process speed vs process velocity. Speed is scalar quantity referring to how fast a process is capturing requests and churning out notification emails, decision tasks, and reminders. Speed is readily achieved through process automation. Velocity is a vector quantity that measures the rate at which a process delivers its business objectives. Velocity is achieved be enabling collaborative business processes that provide executives with deep contextual insight for timely and effective decision making to support business outcomes. A high speed process can accelerate a traditional paper-based approach by instantly routing inputs and information between participants. In contrast, a high velocity process expedites this process to achieve a strategically aligned outcome in the shortest possible time. High speed processes are achieved by eliminating paper. High velocity processes require a focus on expedited decision making.
For example, a Capital Expenditure request for a new IT project may be automated and involve tasks for line of business approval, vendor quotation provision, business case attachment, budget comparison, and executive sponsorship approval for strategic alignment. A classic high speed process might look something like this: Requests are submitted, and internal contributors provide feedback. The request is exposed to potential partners and preliminary costing is obtained. The request is submitted electronically for approvals, but the initial management approvals require more supporting information which the requestor retrieves and mails back. The approval task is rerouted back to the management approver who then needs to consult existing information systems to retrieve budgetary capacity, for example. Following management approval the request is routed for executive approval, and again the requestor may be required to provide feedback on the process and approvals to date prior to the executive consulting the strategy plans to make a final decision. Alternatively, in a high velocity process, information is appended progressively as the process proceeds through the management approval layers with a focus on the ultimate executive decision. Business input is gained collaboratively in parallel accumulating all specific request justification information. The request reflects the approval log with detailed commentary, all supporting documentation, supplementary budget and strategic references to ensure that an efficient and effective executive decision can be taken on a timely basis.
Figure 1: High speed iterative process to achieve outcome
Figure 2: High-velocity strategy-aligned process optimisation
High speed is achieved by process automation.
High velocity is achieved by process alignment: ensuring collaborative process progression, retaining process feedback, accumulating supporting documentation, combining request specific and supplementary information all for the benefit of the final executive decision.
Figure 3: Process automation with feedback loops
Figure 4: Process alignment with a focus on outcomes
Why do we need ‘business processes’? Why not just ‘do things’? The core purpose of business processes is to optimise activities in an environment of constraints (resource, time and regulatory). Information is gathered and validated and then evaluated to select the most strategically aligned course from an array of opportunities. Sometimes, however, in the pursuit of process efficiencies, this strategic goal is subordinated to the immediate return provided by process automation.
Business process alignment, by contrast, is focussed on the outcome of the process. Business process alignment is achieved by ensuring organisational strategies and plans are referenced in the context of the business process. For example, through business process automation, a Purchase Requisition may be electronically routed for executive approval to speed up the approval process. Without further planning context, the responsible executive would be shooting blind in attempting to evaluate these requests, or resort to supplementary enquiries to make effective decisions. That is why an aligned business process would ensure that all the input and commentary of the various stakeholders to the purchase request is recorded, supplier quotations are accessible for comparison, the operating budget capacity for the responsible cost centre is visible and the request is mapped to priority strategies and initiatives.
Business process automation is synonymous with workflow management – automation of industrial style sequential task allocation and high-speed execution. Business process alignment is more aligned with collaboration. Aligned processes are more flexible in construction, more open for ad-hoc participation on a subscription (as opposed to allocation) basis. Aligned processes value commentary as much as data, documents as much as records, and achieve high velocity with regard to process outcomes by removing approval bottlenecks, by providing decision-makers with all the required inputs for effective decision making.
Where business process automation technology is focussed on information collection and transmission, process alignment solutions are focussed on the executive experience. For the majority of executives, email is a curse, and should be reduced, not amplified. Task lists provide executives with clearer visibility of the key decisions awaiting their input and should be preferred over email communications. Most executives travel, and mobile accessibility of their tasks is crucial to aligned process design. Executives require consistent and intuitive tools as their time is valuable, and their availability for training and support is limited. Executives should be able to action decisions effectively with a full array of outcomes including not just ‘approve’ and ‘reject’ but ‘request more information’, ‘delegate’, and ‘defer’, for example. And essentially, whilst decisions should be able to be taken and recorded anywhere, aligned process solution should ensure that the action decision is transmitted immediately or as soon as technically possible.
In conclusion, the objective of all business processes is to support effective, strategically aligned, executive decisions. Automation improves process speed, but too often just accelerates inefficient circular discussions. Aligned processes improve business velocity by ensuring that important organisational objectives are achieved sooner. This outcome is achieved by an unwavering focus on the executive user. It’s about ensuring that executives have a decision support tool that is universally accessible, easy to use, information rich, as flexible as real business and enables real-time action. Whilst automation of back-end processes is a good start, truly engage and delight your senior executives by eliminating email clutter and consolidating required decision tasks in a way that is intuitive for executives and supports effective, strategically aligned, better business decisions.
About the Author
Richard Frykberg has spent the last twenty years assisting organisations globally improve their business processes. In the early stages of his career, Richard focussed on enabling organisations to do things effectively by deploying Enterprise Resource Planning solutions. Now, as CEO of IQX Business Solutions, his focus is on enabling organisations to do things better with process improvement solutions and on doing the right things by aligning strategy with execution. The flagship solution of IQX Business Solutions is OneList Approvals – an executive decision support suite that helps executives make more strategically aligned, more informed and more timely business decisions.