The Evolution of Business Process Automation Technologies

We are so busy in our day-to-day lives that most of us never stop to think about or appreciate the technology that makes our jobs possible.  When we do, we generally view modern technology like digital process automation to be a relatively recent development.  Yet the foundation of automation dates back thousands of years.   Ancient Greek engineers developed automated systems propelled by compressed air, steam, and hydraulics.  

In the 1800s a mathematician named Charles Babbage developed a large steam-powered calculator.  And throughout the 20th century, scientists and engineers made major strides towards automation and process improvement.  The most significant of these innovations generally fall into three phases. The first came in the 1980s with the development of enterprise systems and effective manufacturing process methodologies like Lean and Six Sigma.

The second came about at the conclusion of the 20th century with the widespread adoption of business process management systems. These tools served to improve operational efficiency while overcoming the integration challenges of earlier enterprise systems. The third phase, digital process automation, has come about in the last decade and has allowed organizations to provide superior customer experiences, as well as automate complex business processes. 

Enterprise Applications (1980’s to Current)

Enterprise systems are software solutions used for specific functions of business management. These include things like marketing, accounting, human resource management, project management, and manufacturing. These legacy systems became popular during the 1960s. Much like the technology of the time, these programs offered limited functionality and had no ability to integrate with other solutions.

In the 1970s, material requirements planning (MRP) systems were created to increase productivity by ensuring that adequate materials were on hand while also estimating inventory levels to meet consumer demand. In the 1980s, manufacturing resources planning (MRP II) systems were designed to optimize manufacturing processes. Both MRP and MRP II systems served as the precursor to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, a term coined by analyst firm Gartner in 1990.

ERP systems could handle a variety of back office processes like human resources and accounting, as well as front office processes. Yet with ERP solutions organizations could not focus on improving the efficiency of their business processes. For that, more sophisticated integration and planning tools were needed.

Business Process Management (BPM) (Late 1990’s to Current)

While modern business process management (BPM) software got its start at the turn of the 21st century, its roots can be traced back even further. In the 1980s, FileNet, a software company later acquired by IBM, developed the first digital workflow management system. This solution was designed to route scanned documents through a specific and predefined process. FileNet’s system is viewed by many as the precursor to contemporary business process management software.

Yet there were many other important developments in the 1980s and 1990s that helped shape modern BPM systems. In 1986, a team at Motorola developed and trademarked a new method for process improvement called Six Sigma. Six Sigma strategies are designed to improve the quality of an output by identifying and removing potential defects. Employing a set of quality management principles, the completion of a project follows a set of predefined and measurable steps.  

While Six Sigma was similar to Statistical Process Control (SPC), a method developed in the 1920s for the early detection of potential defects in the manufacturing process, it helped to move quality management principles into the mainstream. Another significant methodology that emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s was Lean manufacturing. This was a production method derived from Toyota’s decades old operating model called “The Toyota Way”. Like Six Sigma, Lean largely focused on reducing waste to boost productivity and quality.

In the early 1990s Michael Hammer and James A. Campy published Reengineering the Corporation: A manifesto for Business Revolution. This led to many large organizations implementing business process improvement initiatives. One of these was General Electric. In 1995, Jack Welch, the CEO of GE, implemented Six Sigma methodologies into the operation of the company. Welch’s initiatives included Six Sigma training for managers and the practical application of the principles in completing a Six Sigma project. Just 5 years after implementing Six Sigma, GE reported savings of some $12 billion.

Despite the many benefits of Six Sigma and Lean, their use is largely limited beyond quality improvement. The rapid advancement and adoption of technology in organizations allowed them to leverage BPM solutions to optimize their business processes. In the early 2000s, Gartner coined the term “Business Process Management Suite” to describe software applications that handle processes. These solutions offered features like process modeling and analytical capabilities.  

In 2012, Gartner again coined an important term, Intelligent Business Process Management (iBPM), to describe modern BPM solutions that could handle complex business processes while offering access to analytical data and insights.

Digital Process Automation (DPA) (2010 to Present)

As more and more organizations realized the significant productivity and cost savings benefits of BPM software solutions, they began looking for new and improved technologies to simplify complex business processes. This led to the development of digital process automation (DPA) solutions. Digital process automation solutions allow organizations to leverage digital technology to automate one or more tasks involved in a business process. DPA achieves this by using advanced technologies like machine learning (ML), robotic process automation (RPA), and artificial intelligence (AI).

While early BPM software systems were expensive and difficult to implement, DPA makes the power of automation available to everyone by leveraging low-code platforms. With low-code platforms, users can easily automate processes to increase productivity while requiring little in the way of technical support.

Modern organizations also require greater flexibility in operations. In an economy where employees can work from anywhere and at any time, the ability to collaborate on workflows within a single workspace is crucial. With digital process automation, organizations can implement streamlined end-to-end solutions for any process including complex ones. DPA solutions also eliminate the integration challenges of enterprise solutions, allowing all components of a process to work together seamlessly.

Another factor responsible for the rise of digital process automation is the increased focus that organizations placed on the customer journey. As customer expectations increased, it was necessary to implement automated solutions to improve the experience. For instance, consider the journey of contemporary banking customers. Features like mobile and online banking, electronic check deposits, and electronic statements virtually remove the requirement to go into a local branch.

Yet when applying for a new account, many customers are disappointed to learn that they must visit a branch in person to sign documents or provide missing information. With a digital process automation solution, however, banks can automate the entire onboarding process. Customers can apply for a new account using their computers or mobile devices. They can upload supporting documentation directly into a web-based portal. Banks can field support questions and offer assistance through RPA driven chatbots that are always on and always available. And all correspondence with a customer is streamlined, including sending automated messages like account approval notifications.

In addition to improved customer experiences, enhanced team collaboration, and the elimination of integration challenges, DPA solutions offer organizations many other benefits. Organizations can improve productivity by identifying and removing redundancies like manually entering data into multiple systems. They are provided with increased flexibility in operations allowing pivots in business strategy when needed. And enhanced data capture features boost compliance while giving organizations the ability to draw valuable analytical insights.  

Digital process automation solutions will continue to evolve and offer users exciting new features. Contact ProcessMaker today to learn about how you can start using industry leading digital process automation tools to transform your organization. 

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