Understanding the process automation landscape

In 2015, Deutsche Telekom started to apply robotic process automation (RPA), one of many tools in the whole process automation space. Over time the company developed an army of more than 2,500 RPA “bots” in a huge success story. But they also had to learn that even if RPA has “process automation” in its name, it does not really automate processes, but tasks.

This is a common misunderstanding that is rooted in the complexity of the process automation landscape, where tool categories are multidimensional and difficult to capture. In this article I will answer the question I get asked almost every day (what is process automation?) and provide an overview of the process automation space.

For the sake of brevity, I will narrow the scope of process automation to the following:

  • Business processes and digital processes: These are the typical business processes you know from most companies (like customer onboarding, claim settlement, loan origination, order fulfillment), often spanning a couple of different systems end to end. The term “digital process” seems favorable nowadays, because the term “business process” is often considered old school.
  • Integration processes: Processes that focus on the integration of systems or services, for example to orchestrate microservices or guarantee consistency when doing remote communication.

Other process automation use cases are explicitly out of scope:

  • Processes between untrusted participants (such as separate companies): This is a potential setting for blockchain.
  • Infrastructure provisioning or IT automation (e.g. Ansible, Terraform): This is a domain on its own with specialized tools.
  • Continuous integration/continuous delivery (e.g. Jenkins, GitHub Workflows): CI/CD build pipelines are standard processes in software engineering that are automated by standard software.
  • Internet of things (e.g. Node Red): IoT use cases are often tackled with dedicated tooling that I would categorize as task automation. For simplicity, I will leave this discussion out of scope for this article.
process automation 01 Camunda

Now, there are two very different types of digital or integration processes:

  • Standard processes: Whenever your company doesn’t want to differentiate via the process you can buy commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS) like ERP, CRM, or HR systems. In this case, you typically adapt your working procedures to the software.
  • Tailor-made processes: Some processes are unique to an organization and because of that need to be tailor-made to the organization’s needs. While these processes might be the same across different organizations (e.g. customer on-boarding, order management, claim settlement), the way the organization designs and implements them is unique and that can help differentiate them in their market. This enables organizations to be more competitive, conduct their business more efficiently, reduce costs, increase revenue, and transform into a more digital business.

There is some gray area in between these two categories when you customize your standard software. But companies have become more and more cautious about doing this because of bad experiences in the past.

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