Why the Key to Productivity is Business Process Automation

Post Date: 09/20/2021
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Information workers are constantly striving to increase speed, reduce costs, and improve the overall quality of the solutions they provide. Everything we do in the office on a daily basis has opportunities for improving productivity. From the perspective of the overly-connected, always-online, digitally-over-stimulated information worker, the user experience can become impacted by every additional click or swipe when we need to submit a form, update a task in the project plan, or apply the required metadata fields to a document before attaching it to a workflow. The more time it takes to click send or submit something, the more frustrated we become. All of those extra steps add up and have a direct impact on our productivity.

When we’re at the office around people and are able to communicate and collaborate on the work that we’re doing and the processes that we rely on, it’s easy to stop in at a peer’s cubicle or your manager’s office door and discuss opportunities for improving that collaboration.

However, most information workers these days are working remotely. We’re not in an office, we’re not surrounded by team members, and most of the interactions that we have with our coworkers are asynchronous; we’re working with people in other time zones and other countries, all of which can make collaboration slow and at times frustrating. Getting work done is not just about finding the right person and having a conversation, but it’s often about balancing schedules and finding the right moments to get work done.

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Automation Is for the “Last Mile”

Within the telecommunications industry, the “last mile” is a phrase used to describe the final leg of the telecommunications network where the customer physically connects to the network. It usually refers to the connection from the pole on the street to your house.

A great example of this is neighborhoods that have brand-new fiber connections, bringing exponential speed improvements to broadband networks. What most people don’t understand are the limitations of that “last mile” of their connection to these new technologies. While there may be a fiber connection to the pole on your street, there may be copper wire from the pole to your home…which is infinitely slower than fiber. The fastest speed you can get for your Internet connectivity is based on the limits of your slowest physical component – in this case, the copper wire.

The same can be true for Information Workers looking to collaborate with other people. You’ve probably heard the expression “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” In other words, the weakest link in the chain determines the overall strength of the chain. Likewise, the last mile of your connectivity often determines the overall speed and performance of your connection.

Another example within our modern environments, platforms such as SharePoint and Microsoft Teams provide powerful solutions with which your teams can collaborate synchronously (in real-time, such as when jointly authoring or editing a document while on a conference call or in a web meeting) or asynchronously (at different times, such as when participating in a workflow or a threaded discussion with people that are in other time zones).

While both communication methods are able to connect people together, most business processes are designed without taking these differences (asynchronous versus synchronous) into account. Automations that benefit one mode of communication may not fit the other. Organizations should consider that “last mile” experience and design their business process automation with these differences in mind.

business process automation

When looking at the business transformation of your communication and collaboration activities, you need to think about how much was designed for that last mile. In other words, how much of your business was designed for the end user experience rather than just to meet your functional requirements? Much has been written about workflow and business process automation, but there is still plenty of opportunity to improve the human element of these business processes.

Microsoft provides an excellent planning resource for organizations beginning their digital transformation journey, outlining the four elements of a successful strategy as part of their I.D.E.A. framework:

  • Inspire. In this initial phase, an organization creates a collective vision for the business, outlining and prioritizing product and service ideas and objectives with a focus on identifying and understanding key customer experiences.
  • Design. In this phase, an organization gathers data and conducts detailed business and technical assessments, identifies specific design outcomes, and sets expectations for what can be achieved with business transformation.
  • Empower. Understanding that change cannot happen without involvement from all stakeholders, this phase focuses on sharing plans, prototyping solutions, and iterating designs based on stakeholder feedback.
  • Achieve. This final phase focuses on finalizing plans and executing the strategy, including ongoing management of communications, expectations, and change management activities.

Regardless of the methodology followed, the key to long-term transformation success – as shown in Microsoft’s framework – is transparency and communication, and focusing on the needs of end users. While most transformation efforts include major technology investments, at the end of the day, success has more to do with the “boots on the ground” end user experiences – and how quickly organizations can iterate on their feedback to adjust, improve, and refine.

business process automation

Automating Common Activities

One of the most common monthly business activities is expense reporting. For those who frequently travel, such as sales and marketing personnel, this task can consume a significant amount of time to compile, report, and get approval on expenses. Automation of this kind through a workflow might seem straightforward, but by focusing on the user experience from expense creation and capture through the delivery of the reimbursement check, there are at least four key areas where productivity can be improved through automation:

  • What data is captured. Within most business processes some degree of manual input and classification is expected, such as the input of expense data. Automating the classification and indexing of expenses is one of the best ways to improve productivity for your end users depending on your capture method. The use of OCR or optical character recognition software can automate much of the indexing burden for your end users regardless of the level of automation. Streamlining what data needs to be / should be captured manually versus automatically should be a priority, reducing the burden on the end user.
  • How data is captured. Through better capture, there are several ways that expense reports can be improved. Each expense line can be created and captured within SharePoint, through forms, or by using the Power Platform to capture and store data. From paper-based to entirely digital, with a quick mobile scan of a form or the individual receipts, it’s important to first understand how your end users accomplish these tasks today and then to look for ways to improve upon common business practices rather than introduce an entirely new way of doing things.
  • How data is made visible. Through reporting, providing a clearly defined expense reimbursement workflow with status updates, real-time alerts, and business intelligence around expenses is a great opportunity for improving the user experience and overall fiscal awareness. The more visible you make a business process, the more likely end users will adhere to the process and provide feedback on it.
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  • How business processes are automated. Whether built out-of-the-box (using Power Automate) or through third-party software, whenever you find routine activities (such as expense report approvals) there is an opportunity to streamline via the use of business process automation with the end user in mind. While your detailed, complex business processes can be simplified and optimized, organizations often optimize their automation design to benefit the business rather than consider the impact to the end user. With “last mile” design thinking, the focus shifts to the end user experience, which ultimately has a greater positive impact on the business.

With the ongoing success and maturity of SharePoint, Microsoft Teams, and the overall Microsoft 365 platform, and as more organizations move common business activities like expense reporting into a digital format, the need for end user-focused automation has become a major strategy. These are fundamental last mile activities that can positively impact the end user experience, improving adoption engagement across the board.

Of course, the expense report example is just one of many solutions that can be automated. The possibilities are endless, from contract negotiations to claim reports, and from company profile management in HR to work activity updates in the project management office. Microsoft 365 can be an incredibly powerful platform for change if deployed thoughtfully and with the end user in mind, helping your organization to meet your ever-changing business requirements and allowing you to increase speed, reduce costs, and improve quality.

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An Office Apps & Services MVP and Microsoft Regional Director, Christian Buckley is an internationally recognized author and speaker and runs the community-focused CollabTalk blog, podcast, and tweetjam series.

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