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Top 3 Process Automation Challenges (and How to Solve Them)

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Read more about author Jakob Freund.

Now is about the time of year when people start rethinking their New Year’s resolutions. Regardless of how great the outcome would have been, perhaps their goals were too ambitious or vague to be reachable. The same holds true for major digital transformation efforts, including process automation. 

In a recent survey, nine out of 10 IT decision-makers said process automation helped drive business growth over the past year. In fact, more than 90% described process automation as vital for digital transformation. One in three said thney are achieving 100% or better one-year ROI from process automation. Nearly 90% of respondents planned to increase investments in process automation over the next two years, with 46% planning significant increases.

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Yet, in spite of these tremendous outcomes, just 12% of respondents said they’ve been implementing process automation as planned this year. What’s holding them back? It turns out, these teams are facing some of the age-old reasons why goals fall short. Let’s look at some of these top challenges, and how to solve them.

1. They don’t know where to start.

Three-quarters of IT leaders said that one of the biggest issues with process automation was knowing where to start. An overwhelming amount of processes to automate or too many stakeholder opinions can lead to analysis paralysis. The same holds true for those overly vague New Year’s resolutions that never come to fruition, like “getting healthy.” 

A common characteristic of goal-setting in IT (and in life) is to make the goal specific, time-bound, and measurable. That’s where an automation proof of concept comes into play. A PoC is a prototype application for a specific automation use case that’s typically created and showcased within the span of a few weeks. The result of a PoC is meant to serve the purpose of showing whether or not an automation project will work within your scenario. 

Usually, a small team (fewer than five people) should be able to complete a PoC within the span of a week or two. The PoC should verify a certain approach or tool, showcase an example that gets internal stakeholders to buy into a larger automation effort and work through granular questions before kicking off a larger project.

2. They’re contending with legacy technology.

Of the 86% of companies that haven’t undertaken more process automation, 35% said legacy systems were preventing them from moving forward. Think decades-old COBOL systems that are still in production. Often, ripping and replacing these legacy systems is disruptive. Not to mention, it can cost thousands (if not millions) of dollars and take years to complete. 

An often-overlooked fact is that you don’t have to rip and replace your entire legacy tech stack to start a process automation effort. A gradual transformation, on the other hand, can solve automation problems with minimal to no disruption. 

For example, you could take manual tasks run by customer service representatives and automate some of them with robotic process automation (RPA) bots. That’s step one in the gradual transformation. Step two might be orchestrating these RPA bots to tie together into actual business processes that may include multiple bots, other IT systems, or supervisor approvals. Step three might be to sunset one of these bots and replace it with a robust microservices-based application that can easily plug into the existing end-to-end process.

3. They’re facing IT and business alignment issues.

The next biggest issue more than a quarter of IT leaders faced was gaining business alignment on process automation goals. Often, it can seem as if business and tech stakeholders are speaking different languages, or have an entirely different set of priorities. How do you reach a consensus on such complex issues?

Fortunately, easy-to-understand standards like Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) can help get line-of-business and IT leaders on the same page. BPMN uses flowchart diagrams to describe how business processes and workflows are executed, step by step. These diagrams often include both the people and technology involved within process workflows, making them easy to comprehend for both technical and business stakeholders.

Using tools like BPMN can help drive alignment on the order of priority for processes, and serve as the technical underpinnings for kicking off a process automation workflow. It’s a win-win for all parties involved.

Like the ever-moving target of New Year’s resolutions, many process automation goals start out overly ambitious. But, you don’t need to rip and replace your entire legacy tech stack to get started. Kicking off with a proof of concept, mapping out the most important processes using BPMN, and gradually transforming your processes one step at a time is the key to success. Specific, measurable, and time-bound goals can help teams overcome the biggest barriers to process automation and start achieving results.

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