In this sad-sack economy, CIOs are keeping a keen eye on fiscal responsibility. They have to make every attempt to reduce the time and expense of ongoing operations.
Particularly when an expensive workflow is very repeatable, it's a no-brainer to improve the business process through automation: With it, CIOs can achieve a major direct and indirect cost savings. And direct savings also are an easy sell: Organizations love saving cold, hard cash. But indirect savings can be just as powerful, particularly in verticals where profit isn't a motive (education, for example). In an organization with a mission-driven bottom line, as opposed to a profit-driven one, any staff time or direct money saved can be reinvested and put toward the organization's mission.
Improving business processes with low-hanging fruit
Let's start with an easy process to improve: the simple forms that are the bane of many a workflow. Very often I've heard people say, "I'd really like to get this form online to make it easier to access." (In fact, I hear that a lot.) The user conceptualizes taking a paper form and turning it into a PDF form that a recipient can fill out and email back. I laud attempts to improve basic functions; however, my next question is, "Why stop there?" There are so many opportunities to improve the process further:
- Think automation. Why use the PDF format and why treat one form as a single, one-off project? Instead, build a platform using such tools as SharePoint and InfoPath. Because they're designed to work together, you can further streamline the process by placing the form behind a login so that common form fields can be populated automatically. You've just reduced some frustration because users don't have to provide repetitive information.
- Integrate whenever possible. Integrate the automated form so that the data can be input directly into a database, if possible. I'm the first to admit that integration can be hard, but once it's mastered, the sky's the limit from an efficiency perspective. At the beginning, it could be difficult to achieve 100% integration, but that's the goal.
- Focus on workflow. Forms usually are routed to different people for various authorizations or processes. Use workflow capabilities to take the heavy lifting out of the process. Even better, make it possible for users to gain at-a-glance status information about each form so they can answer questions as they arise without having to try to track people down.
When it's possible, create a solution as opposed to solving a problem. When it comes to process management, establish a common baseline to ease your efforts.
Guiding principles for improving business processes
When work starts on a process improvement, the first step is to gather all the process stakeholders and map the process from start to finish. Even at this stage, you could see an opportunity for improvement.
Here's one of my favorite examples of the importance of process mapping: We had all the stakeholders in a room, and one person said to another, "And then I spent about 1.5 days per month preparing the information to send to you." The other person's reply? "I don't even use that report!" Right off the bat, without a single line of code, we saved the organization some time. Be ready for all of the "process secrets" that will be revealed, and make sure to document them thoroughly!
Now it's time to see whether your process even makes sense. Don't just take the piece of paper and automate the process -- reconceptualize it: If you didn't have a current process, how would you design it? That's the plan you need to put into place. Obviously, be certain to ensure that there aren't uncorrectable second-order consequences if you toss an old process and institute a new one, but you should discover that during process mapping. From there, test early and test often. Try to include feedback from the people who will have to use the process, such as a customer advisory group. Lacking that, create your newly refined process and then deploy!
Obviously, improving business processes through automation and reimagining is easier said than done, but the payoff can be incredible. What's more, simply by undertaking the effort, you could uncover hidden value and opportunity that can pay off big on the bottom line.
This was first published in November 2011