The Basics of Business Automation

4 min read

Explore what business automation is, why it matters and how you can put it to work in your organization.

Over the decades, automation has touched almost every industry — from ATMs to assembly lines to healthcare systems. But artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are taking automation to a whole new level. This so-called “intelligent automation” is changing the way humans and machines interact, so businesses can increase efficiency, drive revenue and thrive in challenging markets.

In fact, research shows tremendous bottom-line benefits from automation. The IBM Institute for Business Value estimates that automation supported by AI will generate billions of dollars in labor value in 2022 alone.

This article explores the changing landscape of business automation, why it matters now and what to consider when using automation within your own organization.

What is business automation?

Business automation is a term for the use of technology applications that perform repetitive tasks, freeing up employees for higher value work. This includes business process automation (BPA), robotic process automation (RPA) and AI-powered automation.

Years ago, automation required massive mainframes and a team of experts to maintain them. Today, cloud-based automation platforms put the functionality within reach of companies of all sizes. Some types of business automation include the following:

  • Basic automation: Basic automation takes simple, rudimentary tasks and automates them. Using little to no coding, basic automation tools digitize repetitive tasks — helping to eliminate errors and accelerate the pace of transactional work. Business process management (BPM) and RPA are examples of basic automation.
  • Process automation: Process automation manages business processes for uniformity and transparency. Often handled by dedicated software, process automation can increase productivity and efficiency — while also delivering valuable business insights. Process mining and workflow automation are examples of process automation.
  • Advanced automation: Advanced automation brings together humans and machines to integrate multiple systems across the organization. Supporting more complex processes, advanced automation relies on unstructured data coupled with machine learning, natural language processing and analysis. It promotes knowledge management and decision support for specialized work.
  • Intelligent automation: Driven by AI, intelligent automation means that machines can “learn” and make decisions based on situations they have encountered and analyzed. For example, in customer service, virtual assistants powered by AI can reduce costs while enabling smarter interactions between customers and human agents. The result is a better customer service experience.

Why is business automation important?

Whether you’re running a small business or a large enterprise, automation is an excellent way to streamline operations and drive business growth. Automation tools are designed to replace human labor with machine labor so you can put those human resources to work elsewhere in the business.

To realize the full potential of automation, businesses need to consistently utilize proven automation software and best practices across all workflows — from creating faster, digital customer experiences to simplifying internal processes. However, not all solutions contain the full range of technology needed to automate end-to-end operations. This can lead to many point solutions, higher costs and an inability to scale.

Benefits of business automation

Business automation is critical for a rapidly changing world. For example, predicting which customer behaviors will persist post-pandemic — from wildly fluctuating demand to heightened health and safety precautions — can be tricky. But one area you can control is how you manage the experiences you create for your customers. Automation, especially automation combined with AI, can help you fix or refine these experiences, resulting in higher sales, better use of resources and greater customer satisfaction.

One of the best ways to do this is through an automation platform that helps you do the following:

  • Discover processes: Pinpoint inefficiencies or hotspots in your operations to help determine where automated processes can provide the greatest impact. This involves process mining and modeling.
  • Apply intelligence: Use the data from automating your operations with machine learning and AI to recommend actions and free up people for more strategic tasks.
  • Augment your workforce: Build RPA tools and deploy digital workers to collaborate with humans wherever a higher level of productivity can be achieved or when backup is needed.
  • Automate core operations: Apply core automation capabilities — document processing, workflow orchestration, decision management and content services — to key operational areas to meet business needs.

Common uses of business automation

Business automation is well-suited for streamlining processes across just about every area of an organization:   

  • Marketing activities: With email marketing automation, companies can use software to send out emails to a client distribution list on a predefined schedule, reducing the costs of running the campaigns manually. Marketing efforts can be tied into a customer relationship management (CRM) system and even do things like target customers with automated messages via social media.
  • Human resources: Human resource management systems can automate a wide range of HR tasks, including job application processing, interview scheduling, employment offers, onboarding, payroll management and benefits administration. Using analytics, these systems can also provide insights into workforce productivity.
  • Sales processes: Sales automation tools like Salesforce and other Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tools enable sales teams to spend less time logging their deal-related activity and more time making the phone calls that close deals. The tools can automate repetitive tasks throughout the sales process, whether it’s qualifying leads based on their buyer journey, assigning prospects to the right rep or creating data-backed sales forecasts.
  • Finance and accounting: By automating financial planning and accounting functions, companies can free up time for important tasks like analysis, strategy and collaboration with stakeholders. In accounts payable (AP) management, for example, data capture is automated, invoices are automatically matched to documents and approvals are automatically routed. This reduces data errors and helps prevent fraud through background controls. 

Business automation and IBM

IBM provides a single platform for both business and IT automation, helping organizations worldwide to automate both effectively. For example, a global reinsurer in Switzerland used IBM software to automate its quarterly closing tasks and saved $40,000 USD per quarter.

IBM Cloud Pak for Business Automation is the powerful tool behind it all. The automation platform provides AI-generated recommendations, analytics to measure impact and user-friendly low-code tooling to help organizations reduce the amount of time spent on manual processes and decrease customer wait times. With IBM Cloud Pak for Business Automation, you can eliminate repetitive tasks and reallocate your resources toward higher-value work.

To learn more about AI-powered automation from IBM, explore the Buyer's Guide to Intelligent Business Automation and subscribe to our Business Automation Insider Newsletter.

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