In any organization there are several business processes occurring at the same time. Business processes can be found in any division of a company including finance, accounting, procurement, sales, and operations. For example, when procuring a piece of equipment for manufacturing, the requisition is first created by the concerned engineer, which is then approved by the production manager, after which the requisition is routed to the finance department for approval, and if sufficient funds are indeed available, the requisition is routed to the procurement department which places the order for the equipment. In a large company there may be hundreds of business processes.

Now for this process, if we follow the typical paper-based practice, there will be specific forms for each step that need to be completed mostly manually, then sent to the concerned approval authority for physical inspection and approval; at the end of the process there will be several documents collected in a physical file. However, if at any time later we need to search for this file or for a document within this file, say due to audit requirements, then the filing cabinet, filing room, or even the storage warehouse may need to be physically searched for this specific file and document, a process that can take several minutes if not hours or days!

Modern technology has allowed parts of business processes, called workflows, if not the entire process itself, to be completely automated. So for the above example, the requisition note will be raised in a user-interface on a computer, perhaps even on a browser, and the note will be sent to the approval authority already configured in the process’s settings; the approving officer will be able to view the requisition on their computer screen and make the decision – if approved, the process moves to the next stage and if denied the process goes back to the initiator for further action on their part. In this way, the automated business process significantly reduces paperwork and provides the current status of all processes and workflows at users’ fingertips.

Automation of workflows and processes provides several advantages: status of the process is always known to all stakeholders in the process, objections at any step may be immediately known and properly addressed, multiple approvals may be simultaneously requested, multiple parallel workflows may be triggered, parallel workflows may be ended at one step, different sets of users may be assigned rights for different steps, the set of documents that are involved in the workflow may be viewed at any time, actions taken by different users are recorded for future audit, and perhaps most importantly, searching any process or workflow will now take merely seconds.

Several software are available for automating workflows and processes. Previously they were mostly on-prem deployed requiring extensive manual configuration by several business analysts from the vendor organization that could be quite expensive. Nowadays, with SaaS, the cost of business process automation software has been reduced by following the pay-as-you-go model and allowing the processes to be operated from a browser or even an app on a mobile device. An emerging development has been the rise of low-code or no-code configuration ability that allows the customer to self-create the workflows and the forms needed to complete the workflows, a paradigm shift that preserves privacy and security while at the same time reduces the TCO. In the future, rapid advances in data analytics and artificial intelligence may pave the way for integrating software robots in workflows and processes that automatically take required actions based on past history and expected behavior of the corresponding human agents. By accumulating historical records, data analytics can identify patterns which can then be used to train machine learning models that will in turn drive intelligent decision-making bots to take appropriate actions in a specific step of a workflow. This development will remove to a great extent accidental errors in business processes and considerably improve productivity and digitalization in the workplace.

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About Author

Dr. S. Narayanan is the co-founder and CTO of dMACQ Software Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, India, a company that develops Document Management Systems and Business Process Management Systems. He is also an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Tyler. His interests include software engineering, cybersecurity, and mentoring.

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