What is business process automation?

Business process automation improves operational output and increases customer satisfaction.

Although process automation may feel like a new approach to business, it’s actually been around for quite some time. The advent of the industrial revolution in the 19th century incorporated automatic processes to improve factory productivity. Later, the 1930s and 40s saw automatic feedback controllers employed in assembly-line settings. Through the 1980s and onward, robotic systems began to change production methods across a range of industries.

However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that process automation began to develop into the IT powerhouse it is today. As a vast array of new tools and software applications becomes more widely available, process automation is becoming integral to modern business.

But what exactly is business process automation?

In basic terms, business process automation (BPA) describes the use of advanced technologies to automate repetitive tasks associated with processes and workflow, resulting in improved efficiency, reduced costs, and increased employee and customer satisfaction.

Today, approximately 97% of enterprise IT decision makers agree that business process automation is vital. Additionally, it’s predicted that in the next 24 months, business process automation will grow by 58%.

Given the widespread availability of automation solutions and the increasing number of processes used throughout modern businesses, the term business process automation may feel somewhat vague. This is because process automation’s possible applications are limited only by the capabilities of your chosen tools. Here, we showcase several process automation use cases:

Purchase orders

Creating purchase order requests is both time consuming and repetitive. At the same time, it often involves multiple approval levels, and relies upon highly accurate information. Business process automation helps eliminate errors in order requests, and streamlines the authorization process for faster approval and more reliable results.

Employee onboarding

The employee onboarding process is different for every organization, but almost all of them include a variety of essential tasks and information forms. Process automation helps those involved move quickly from one task to the next, ensuring that everyone has access to the right information and clear visibility into the status of the onboarding process.

User account provisioning

As new employees join and current employee responsibilities grow and adapt, ensuring that everyone has access to the right systems and resources can become a strenuous undertaking. Automating the account-provisioning processes secures the right privileges for the right employees, keeping relevant individuals updated at all times.

Report generation and distribution

Automated reporting solutions interact with monitoring and analytics tools to automatically compile and deliver vital reports. This not only frees up employees’ time for other tasks, but also cuts down on report creation time and human errors. Reports can be created and distributed within minutes, rather than the hours the same talk might demand from a human worker.

Spreadsheet management

As with creating reports, manually entering data into spreadsheets can be a laborious, tedious process. BPA can handle the time-consuming formatting, copy and pasting, and more, so that your spreadsheets are accurate and ready when you need them.

Event-log monitoring

You can implement automation to help keep a more watchful eye on your event logs. Automation can alert the relevant parties when issues are encountered, and can even be used to automatically resolve certain problems or errors.

These are only some of the possibilities that business process automation brings to your organization.

Business process automation makes things easier for workers—it frees up staff for other, non-automatable tasks while also allowing them to accomplish and produce more. It creates effective, efficient processes while also significantly reducing the possibility of errors. Altogether, this will help your businesses save money and allow you to put greater focus on providing exceptional customer service.


As previously stated, business process automation can be used across a variety of tasks in essentially any department or system. That said, some processes benefit more from automation than others. When determining which business processes to automate, consider the following factors:

  • Volume of tasks
    How complex is the sequence of tasks required? Processes that include a high number of manual tasks can benefit greatly from automation, by taking responsibility for those tasks out of human hands.
  • Number of people involved
    If a process includes a large number of different employees at different levels, then BPA can help keep everything flowing. Automating certain responsibilities and potentially freeing up individuals from mundane processes, improving efficiency and speed.
  • Time sensitivity
    Business automation’s ability to streamline tasks can make a big difference when dealing with impending deadlines. Automating key steps leads to faster turnaround times.
  • Impact on other processes
    When a process is interconnected with other processes or systems, there is a lot riding on its accuracy. Automation can help ensure that the right data is being passed along, so that dependent processes have the information they need to function optimally.
  • Need for visibility
    When a process is interconnected with other processes or systems, there is a lot riding on its accuracy. Automation can help ensure that the right data is being passed along, so that dependent processes have the information they need to function optimally.
  • Demand for compliance
    Laws and regulations should always be taken seriously. Process automation can help your business keep pace with regulatory change, so that you don’t face penalties down the line.

Business process automation is not something that you’re going to have to build from the ground up; a number of process-automation tools exist to help you make the transition to effective automation. However, to get the most out of your process-automation solution, you will need to be deliberate and thorough in your approach. The following are several best-practices for business process automation:

  • Before you begin implementing automation, take a detailed look at the processes you are considering. Chart the tasks that are involved, any deadlines or time constraints, and make note of who is responsible for the completion of these tasks.
  • Clearly establish the goals you have for your automated processes. These goals may include reduced person hours, improved consistency, reduced costs or overhead, improved operational stability, etc. The important thing here is to be clear in the goals and incorporate quantifiable metrics. This will help you better direct your automation efforts, and allow you to accurately evaluate their effectiveness.

  • Measure your results, but be aware that sometimes the benefits of BPA take longer to manifest. An accelerated and agile approach will allow you to make course correction when necessary, and a long-term outlook will give your automation solution time to pay back your investment.

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel; ready-made tools can help you get the most out of business process automation. Where pre-built tools may be lacking, consider looking for solutions on user forums. Using available tools will help keep your investment down.

  • Train your employees on how to get the most out of your process-automation solution. Remember that full adoption may be difficult, particularly if your teams are used to a different way of doing things. Make sure to educate your people on how process automation will benefit them, and give them time to adjust.

When it comes time to implement business process automation for your organization, you have three basic options:

  • Build a custom process automation solution from scratch
  • Use point-to-point integrations to automate only specific parts of your business processes
  • Use ready-made business process automation platforms

A custom solution designed in house will give you greater freedom in determining the functionality of your automations, but it may also end up costing you significantly more in terms of IT hours—both to build and to maintain. Fully custom process-automation solutions are usually used by organizations with complex legacy systems that are incapable of connecting to modern systems through APIs.

Point-to-point integrations cost less than custom process automation and allow you to pick and choose specific areas for automation, but often result in disorganized solutions that are difficult to understand, maintain, or repair. Additionally, this kind of BPA comes with no user-guide; should the person responsible for setting it up decide to leave your organization, you may have no way to keep it functioning in the long term.

Investing in process-automation tools offers a reliable, cost-effective solution that still allows for customization. And, with tutorials, training, and support from the tool provider, implementing your automation solution is often an easy, painless process.

The right business process automation solution can bring a number of advantages to your organization. These include the following:

  • Improved productivity
  • Increased process transparency
  • Effective, real-time monitoring
  • Better turn-around time
  • Reduced costs associated with manual tasks
  • Better use of employee resources

As you consider different BPA-tool options, recognize that not every solution provides the same functionality. Here are some criteria to help you choose an effective BPA tool:

  • Ease of use
    BPA tools shouldn’t demand expert users. Be sure that the tool you choose is easy enough that your employees will be able to use it with some minor training.
  • Analytics and reporting
    Built-in analytics and reporting options will allow you to track important KPIs, so that you can identify where business process problems are occurring, identify and prioritize automation candidates, and evaluate how effective your automation solutions are.
  • Integration
    Automating processes often means working closely with a range of software and applications. Choose a tool that can integrate effectively without any major workarounds.
  • Mobile-functionality
    As more and more users are incorporating mobile devices into their regular business technologies, your BPA should follow suit by offering reliable mobile functionality. If the tool is only accessible on desktop computers, then full adoption may be difficult.
  • Up-front pricing
    BPA solutions are designed to provide a positive return on your investment, but you’ll still need to be able to accurately budget for them. Research your options to make sure that there are no hidden costs that might throw off that budget, and review different licencing options to make sure that you are selecting the right one for your needs.
  • Scalability
    A tool that works for your business right now might not be capable of handling the increased complexity and workload of your business five years from now. Choose a BPA that has the capacity to scale and grow with your business.
  • Visual-process modeling
    If your process-automation tool requires an in-depth knowledge of coding and software design, then there’s a good chance that your developers will be the only ones using it. Low-code options that rely on visual-process modeling take some of the burden off of your IT department, by using graphical interfaces to allow non-coders to create working automations. Learn more about using a low-code approach to business process automation on the Now Platform App Engine.

BPA provides significant benefits to organizations by simplifying systems and workflows, resulting in reduced costs, improved accuracy, increased visibility, and better allocation of employee resources. Take the next steps towards optimizing your business processes, with ServiceNow.

Dive deep into Business Process Automation with the Now Platform

See for yourself what ServiceNow can do for your business.

Loading spinner