Business Process Automation:
Building a Bulletproof Information System

August 6, 2015
Are you sure in your automation process?

"I'm so tired of performing this task over and over again. I feel like a machine and this endless torture starting to freak me out."

- Overheard in the office

What's it about?

- Need to automate a process?
- Have no idea how to do it properly?
- Too many customers want your attention, but you, of course, have other things to deal with?
I’m very happy to offer you an immersive material, that will help you to escape common pitfalls and build a robust automation system.

Understanding The Problem

Before diving into the depths of the Internet, spending countless hours on forums, ask yourself a simple question: "Do I really need to do this?"

For example, if in your organization employees regularly work with some kind of legal papers, and every employee keeps them where he wants - on the hard drive, flash, Dropbox, etc. And you want it all to be stored in one place, be accessible online and managed by the more or less decent software.

Or you may work in the government institution, where people deal with a huge number of documents that need to be approved, reviewed, etc. And maybe you are an entrepreneur who wants to organize his customer base. These are the signs that you'll really benefit from the implementation of the automation complex, or electronic document management.

The Burden of Paper

1930 office workers doing their job

Just imagine this picture: A regular day at the office. The secretary writes something in the journal - her job is to track all incoming and outgoing letters on paper. In the other corner of the room, the boss hastily writes his comments directly on the document. The control department sets the due dates and creates so-called "runners" - small sheets of paper with the task that must be done etc. Pretty bleak picture isn't it? It's like that show "The Office" only in 1930.

Yes, we all must agree that paper documents won't go anywhere at least for 10 years from now, but we need to think how we can reduce the amount of time that we spend on them. Implementing Paperless office especially important when the document never leaves the doors of your company.

Using Spreadsheet To Track Clients

spreadsheet is not the best way to track clients

Your manager keeps your client base in an Excel spreadsheet. Seems better than the "paper" variant, but totally kills collaboration. If something happens with the file (somebody accidentally deleted it, or it has been encrypted by a virus) that can be a total disaster. Another aspect of the problem is that someone can easily steal the file, and then without any remorse sell it to your competitors.

Your documents are just a bunch of files on the hard drive, network "shares", DropBox and other places. The search is extremely difficult, convenience - uncertain, security and reliability is also questionable.

The Discipline Lacks a Central Focus

If you give the tasks for your employees via email, verbally, or by phone, after some time people forget about them, or saying that "I didn't get the letter". It's almost impossible to put together their assignments and reports. You need to have a personal approach to each of the employees.

The Loss of an Important Employee Can Shatter the Whole Company

It's entirely possible that if an important employee leaves, no one will be able to replace him, or know where and how he kept notes about important issues and things. Business processes are not documented, the data is stored in different locations. The loss of a couple of important employees can be devastating to your organization and jeopardize its very existence.

Summary: Before making efforts to automate something, define the area for work. Do not try to grasp it all at once, just select one thing that isn't the most difficult one, and try to automate it at first. The implementation process is not instantaneous, but psychologically it's more rewarding to realize that you have done something right.

Let's Get Acquainted With Our Team

To achieve a great results, you need to gather a team of people who will help you to do this. Their number should not be too large, and each of them needs to have a certain role. Let's look at some of these roles.

The Boss

The Boss is the main character in the company

"The Boss" - the key figure in our play. He pays for everything. Even if you'll choose a free automation program, he pays for your work time. It is possible that this man heard or read somewhere about the need for business automation, document management systems, and decided to implement this kind of thing in his company.

"Boss" in the end will be the one to sign the purchase contract, so be sure that you have reached him first. If you have no connection with those who pay for the purchase of software, hardware and other things - the whole process is doomed.

If you're the "Boss", reading this article now, - it's awesome! You'll have to jumpstart the whole process from scratch - gather all the people involved, define the task ("We need to implement an automation complex, something like CRM or ERP"), set the due dates, etc.

Keep in mind though, that "The Boss" should be ready for financial costs, because a good director knows that nothing is happening for free.

The Programmer

Without a programmer all your automation efforts will fail

A programmer is the the guy who can help you setup the system, "repair" the computer, makes sure that everyone in the company has the Internet access. Yes, most likely he should be called "Sysadmin", but the "Programmer" sounds more cool, and most importantly, understandable for everyone.

In our play, his role is the most difficult - he must learn the system inside out, understand all it's quirks and features, communicate with the product developers. This role requires active and intelligent person. Try not to assign for this role people, who themselves need "programmer's" assistance and avoid lazy and unmotivated folks.

Special attention needs to be devoted to studying business processes. You can not just install the system and say "My work here is done, now you're on your own". A programmer would have to spend a lot of time and effort to fully understand it and assist his colleagues to work with it.

The Manager

manager will help you to influence people who don't want any automation

No matter how the "programmer" would want to do everything by himself, he needs assistance from the colleague, who is able to strongly influence others. On the one hand, he knows the workflow, on the other hand, he can get everyone to learn and use something new.

The "Boss" just doesn't have time for this kind of work. He only sets the main direction. Someone else needs to take care of the ongoing issues and make people do things. And that someone can be, for example, a top manager or the head of department. The main thing - it has to be the person with authority, who can make sure that the process is moving forward. Therefore, our "manager" is a link between the "boss", "programmer" and the rest of the staff.

What Software Do I Need?

Ok, at this point you've already realized the problems in your company, and found out what things you need to automate, it is time to start looking for a suitable software product. Here you will have a wide choice. I suggest you to make a comparative table of the candidates and list the criteria, quality and functionality to make it easier to evaluate them.

Paid Or Free?

Many people prefer to use only free automation systems. At first glance, it's understandable: "Why pay when you can use something for free?" But everything has its price: you have to consider your learning curve. If you buy an automation platform, there's usually someone who can help you to setup and use it correctly. If you incline towards a free option - you can count only on yourself. What about support? If something goes wrong, what then?

free automation software usually has bad support and full of bugs Paid vs Free automation software. What's your choice?

When selecting the software, note how quickly their team responds to your questions, answers them on the support forum. What is their release cycle? Continuous, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually? The faster the release schedule, the more responsive the software team is to the needs of their end-users and the quicker they release new features and improvements. What's up with the upgrade process? And most importantly - do they have a technical support contract?

Summary: Compare the risks of using free or commercial automation programs. Find out the cost of technical support. Do not hesitate and ask your questions on the forum, or by phone.

Demo version and presentations

You may notice that the majority of enterprise-level software companies do not offer you to "see" how their product looks. You can't download the trial or free version, no screenshots or videos whatsoever. One thing they offer is a "callback" service, and if you'll reach some consensus by phone, then their manager will come to your place with a presentation.

Always ask for a "live" presentation (downloadable version or online demo)

Honestly, good presentation and personal contact - that's a perfect variant. This kind of approach often helps to clarify many things. Alternatively, this approach also says that the company is afraid that without their assistance you won't be able to install and configure the system.

Summary: Always test the software you're about to buy. From the installation, and to the almost full automation. Good companies will offer you a long trial period (for example, up to six months), and if you're lucky - maybe a free version. If the best that you can download from the site - a PowerPoint presentation, you may as well start looking for something else.

Modeling Business Processes

Now, you have successfully downloaded and installed a trial or free version of some automation system. What should you do next? Obviously, you will need to examine more thoroughly the area of automation and that's your company workflows.

Get into a habit of documenting everything, you'll need it later Get into a habit of documenting main points, otherwise you can easily forget everything.

The Devil Is in the Details

I have serious doubts that boss or manager will fully understand how the software works, it's the programmer, who needs to wrap his head around each and every detail of the automation software. Of all people, why he? you may ask. There is a reason for that. Because the technical mindset allows him to abstract and analyze things. Of course, it would have been is rather silly to implement the automation system without complete knowledge of the business workflows.

Pay a visit to your colleagues. Find out who is doing what, in the context of the kind of activity that you want to automate. For example, your manager can work with documents like "Offer" or "Presentation". Director, for sure, approves and signs the contracts. Marketing department employees usually work with promotional materials.

Make some sort of an interaction chart. Document workflows can help you to do this. Using them, you can organize a perfect interaction model.

Find out how the data is being stored, and think of the good alternative. The files on the "desktop", messages in Outlook, various shared folders - all this should be kept in electronic form in a single database.

Get into a habit of always documenting things, later this can be your business process description.

  • Always communicate with your colleagues about their work in the context of what you can and want to automate.
  • Immediately make notes on the agreed points, otherwise you will easily forget everything.
  • Discuss everything with the "Boss", this will keep him involved in the process.

The Implementation of Business Processes in a Real Environment

Now we need to apply the information gathered from the work of employees in creation of a working prototype for "production-ready" system. First, you need to Model an organization structure and Create several users (your employees). Next, using the capabilities of the program try to organize their work. For example, a Document libraries can help you quickly create a shared space to store and work with documents, and the task feature - to establish executive discipline or arrange an approval process.

  • Choose the different process participants, and register them in the system. If the free version has some limited functionality, try to get a trial license from the developer.
  • Create a set of standard documents (at least one) within the system, that your employees will be working with. For now, this is sort of happening "virtually", and you're playing everybody's roles, but it will help you to understand all the nuances and details.
  • The interaction within the automation complex can be done with the Shared folders and workflows. Create workflow templates for different occasions. Try to work with them.

Preparing the Hardware

think about obtaining an actual server for the real testing of the automation system

At first, while you are learning things, you can install the program on your computer. If you want to test it with the real people, you may consider getting an actual server.

  • Find out the hardware requirements for the automation software you are interested in (EDMS, CRM, ERP)
  • It may be possible that while you're testing the system by yourself, you may not need a powerful hardware. But be sure to ask the developers about recommended hardware configuration, or you may ruin the whole impression about the product.
  • What kind of database does the system use? Keep in mind that there are some free databases from rather big manufacturers like SQL Express (MS SQL Server), and MySQL - the latter is a part of the FossLook installation, so you do not even have to think about how to install it and make it work.
  • Also, think about the database backups - it will be very unpleasant to loose all the work because of a stupid negligence.

Training Of Employees

All right, you have prepared the server, installed the software on the test machines of employees. Now we have to actually make them learn something and work with you. If you think that they will be ready and willing to test something during their work hours, you will be disappointed. This is exactly the moment where you need assistance of the "manager", and if he does not help, try asking a "Boss" for support - he'll definitely "persuade" everyone.

  • Not all employees will be happy with the implementation of a new information software. Some of them was absolutely happy before, imitating tremendous activity.
  • Involve the leadership of people so that goals are met.
  • Do not obsess with training. For example, half an hour a day for about 5 days will be sufficient for an entry-level.

Actual Work

Ok, education is over. It's time to start a "real" work. The "Boss" issues an order in the organization, which requires employees to use only the new approach to work, for example:

  • "Starting from 01.01.2016 everyone in our company uses the new document management software to work with documents."
  • "Do not use email for contracts approval."
  • "Customer base must be stored as "Correspondents and contacts" library in FossLook."

Happy Ending?

Automation system implementation can have a diverse consequences. Almost all those who will quickly learn the new program will get the most benefit out of it. Usually people who have worked honestly and conscientiously, will be happy. Business processes analysis will identify and bring to the surface all the problems of the organization. Some employees who were just sitting there as a "furniture", can be fired.

"The Boss" will realize that you can't just buy a piece of software and everything will magically start working. You actually need to spend a lot of time, shed some "blood and tears", and then the results will come. You may need a help of a professional developers possibly to order individual software solutions, or just simply to get an advice. But then, after a year or two, when you look back on the way you worked earlier, you will realize that you've done a great job after all.

Tell us about your recurring tasks, which business processes you'd like to automate, and we'll show you how to do this without any hassle.

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