Accounts Payable
Why midsize companies need business process automation—and 4 best practices for implementation

Why midsize companies need business process automation—and 4 best practices for implementation

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Interest in business process automation (BPA) is exploding: According to a recent IDC report, the artificial intelligence (AI) market is expected to break the $500 billion mark in 2023 while a recent study on the state of process automation reported that 97% of IT decision-makers believe process automation is a crucial component of digital transformation.

What is business process automation?

BPA is the technology-enabled automation of complex business processes, helping streamline manual, repetitive tasks. From processing job applications for HR to event log monitoring for IT to accounts payable automation for finance teams, businesses are increasingly depending on automation to modernize processes and help them maintain a competitive edge.

However, some businesses are better-positioned than others to fully embrace the possibilities of automation. Bigger organizations are often saddled with red tape and hierarchical hoops, while smaller companies have less liquid capital to spend on new technology. It’s midsize companies who are best-positioned to integrate automation into their everyday workflows and reap the benefits of business process automation.

While companies may feel apprehensive about embracing change in the current business environment, here are four major reasons why ambitious midsize players should evaluate automation:

Automation begets innovation (and happier employees)

Relieving employees of burdensome back-office tasks does more than save a few minutes or remove bottlenecks. Delegating certain tasks to automation opens the door to increased productivity as employees reclaim lost time and have a chance to focus on work that really matters, and that will have greater business impact.

For example, automating your accounts payable process means your employees spend less time chasing down approval signatures and stuffing envelopes, and more time looking at your cash flow, taking advantage of early payment benefits, and evaluating where the company can save money in the long run.

The result is engaged employees who develop innovative solutions and actively help to build the future of the business. Removing the frustration of time-consuming, manual tasks also helps reduce turnover and keeps employees engaged at work.  At the end of the day, deploying automation isn’t all that innovative, but it allows employees to focus on the long-term health of your organization.

Faster processes enable agile decision-making

Successful modern organizations are defined by their ability to adapt quickly and effectively to new situations. Recent volatility in business conditions has proven just how crucial agility can be, and midsize leaders will continue to see it as a true competitive differentiator. Business process automation is a force multiplier for agile decision-making.

Advanced BPA software and machine learning platforms can identify discrepancies with incredible speed, allowing employees to solve problems or prevent future upsets in real time.

For example, if a vendor delivers snacks or beverages to company offices once a month and accidentally charges several hundred dollars more on one occasion, business process automation software can immediately flag that the monthly payment pattern has changed.

A human reviewing invoices and payments might take several days or weeks to pick up on this discrepancy and remedy it. Replacing antiquated systems with business automation reduces the risk of waiting too long to uncover and deal with issues.

Digital transformation cuts waste—of time

In the age of climate change and ubiquitous consumerism, “waste” has taken on multiple meanings. There is the waste we send to dumps and recycling centers, but midsize companies also need to focus on wasted time and energy. Technology investments can help tackle inefficiencies while saving money and giving back to the planet.

The time savings of automation quickly add up. A prime example is the bill review approval process. Automating this process dramatically cuts down on processing time and makes the whole process faster and more efficient. The ROI of automation is clear, especially for midsize companies that tend to develop backlogs due to complicated policies with many different approvers.

If your AP personnel are still chasing down approval signatures for each invoice, they’re wasting valuable time and money, bogging down your payroll on tasks that can be easily automated.

Switching to automated workflows can also decrease your company’s environmental footprint and reduce operating costs. According to The Paperless Project, American businesses spend over $120 billion per year on paper forms alone, almost half of which end up outdated or in the trash within days. Embracing digital transformation reduces the need for expensive hard-copy documents, ink, and toner, which saves both time and resources.

Automation helps midsize businesses to reduce waste, both in an environmental and operational sense.

Less human work means less human error

Automating workflows that were previously performed as manual tasks doesn’t just save time and optimize employee productivity, it also helps to reduce human error.

Automating simple repetitive tasks like data entry can protect against errors. For example, take an AP automation tool that reduces the need to manually convert invoices to bills. This automation eliminates the need to re-enter the same payments over and over to transfer data to accounting software.

Every keystroke introduces the possibility of an error, so cutting this manual work out of your process ensures that all of your data stays correct every step of the way, from bill receipt, to payment, to synching with your ERP or accounting system.

Streamlining processes also helps employees avoid getting caught in an endless loop of number crunching and playing catch-up that can lead to long hours, tired eyes, and careless mistakes.

4 best practices for implementing workflow automation

Midsize business leaders are in the ideal position to foster innovation, decrease unnecessary waste, and tackle problems sooner with added efficiency. But with today’s complex business processes, deployment can overwhelm anyone, from new employees to senior executives.

Long-term success with business process automation begins long before a new software tool or app is rolled out—it starts with establishing a clear vision and building a culture of adaptability that can withstand change.

These four steps can help your company embrace advanced technology and lean into the future of work.

1. Establish your purpose, process, and key requirements

While it can be tempting to jump on any shiny new technology that promises life-changing results, the most successful automation-enabled companies start by taking a few steps back. Thinking about how your business operations will sustain and support automation technology prior to installation can save time and money in the long run.

Start by setting up key requirements to determine if the automation solution fits your use cases.

  • Will this product actually help your employees and business operate more efficiently? 
  • What pain points or problems is it solving? 
  • Could it distract from other problems that need to be addressed first? 

In asking these questions, consider how business process automation will fit into existing workflows.

If deploying a new tool means seriously disrupting other necessary systems, it might not be a good fit. Define what business automation will solve for your specific use case instead of pursuing automation for the sake of it.

Delegate a leader to handle transitions

To ensure that this planning stage is given enough attention and that the implementation goes smoothly, delegate a supervisory employee to handle the transition. 

This could mean looking beyond job descriptions to find business process automation and business process management (bpm) skills that might be hiding beneath an employee’s current responsibilities. If there is no one on your team who has preexisting automation experience, consider hiring a consultant or recruiting new talent.

This designated transition leader should be an active participant in your conversations about the purpose and process behind automation technology. Setting reasonable expectations is a crucial step in the process because it will help clearly communicate why business process automation will be beneficial—both in its impact on the day-to-day work of employees as well as its long-term impact on future business success.

2. Engage employees, get buy-in, and identify “change champions”

A seamless transition to automation requires almost universal employee buy-in. Begin by securing support from senior leaders who can act as advocates for the transformation.

Key decision-makers should understand the motivation behind automation—to streamline manual processes so employees can focus on higher-value tasks that drive business growth—and the resources required to make it successful. Be transparent with the new process map so that there are no surprises further down the line.

Once senior leaders share your vision for automation, turn to the rest of the organization to inspire change from all levels. Employees are your best asset, so show them what’s possible with automation. Explain how automation improves their day-to-day jobs, how they can be prepared for the future, and how your company will support them.

Create space for questions and feedback so employees can have a stake in the conversation instead of feeling like change is being imposed on them from above. It can be valuable to offer forums and one-on-one conversations, particularly for those who are most skeptical about automation.

Identifying change champions

Once an automation plan is in place, identify change champions within the company who can help encourage colleagues to embrace automation and help with the onboarding process.

You might even offer certifications to these early adopters. Those experiencing pain points within current workflows will have the most to gain from automation and may be more willing to jump on board. Just remember to loop  managers in so everyone is on the same page.

Successfully rolling out a new automation system requires building the right team to sustain it. Ideally, this team should come from multiple job functions so the group has a holistic view of what’s happening in every corner of the business.

3. Implement a digital culture

Employee onboarding opportunities can equip your team with the skills they need to stay successful. Remember that successful training for digital skills is more than just learning how to use a new user interface, download a template, or access customer support, it is also about new thought processes and implementing a digital culture.

Continuing to support training for soft skills—such as problem-solving, teamwork, and public speaking—is equally important. The ability to work with data and technology should be an ongoing skill and activity—not just for when you’re giving an important presentation to stakeholders or engaging new clients. Talent development should be a consistent priority within your organization.

4. Make support and maintenance plans

Your initial automation rollout plan accounts for the very beginning stages of implementing a new tool, but support, maintenance, and retirement plans should also be put in place to account for the entire lifecycle.

First, identify the necessary resources to keep automated processes moving smoothly.

Define exactly who will be responsible for overseeing any program updates or problems, how much time it will take each month, and what happens when something goes wrong. Think about how many people will be using the system, as well as the logistics of scaling it up or down.

Any plans you put in place should be flexible because your company will inevitably change over time. Look for features that make it easy to add and remove users as the department scales. Low-code platforms will make life easier down the road.

Some key features are essential to help with future transitions, so be on the lookout for providers that enable these options. Automation platforms that allow you to bulk replace approvers make it easy to pivot when an employee moves on or takes a vacation. The ability to utilize single sign-on can help onboard employees more efficiently.

Purchase orders make it easier to scale your operations as you work with more vendors and suppliers, so ensure that your existing systems have the ability to sync PO numbers across the board. You should also determine how well software tools integrate with your existing ERP and CRM systems.

Throughout the automation system’s lifespan, closely monitor its usage and track its benefits to determine whether the desired outcomes are being met or if something needs to be adjusted.

Transform your business through business process automation

Businesses looking to gain and maintain a competitive edge have discovered that automation can be a gamechanger. Automation has a long list of benefits, from efficiency gains to fewer errors to easier audits, but it can also be challenging to implement.

Midsize companies are liquid enough to fund automation and nimble enough to navigate the organizational friction that typically accompanies digital transformation. In other words, they are in prime position–when they adopt the right principles—to nail the shift to business process automation and experience all the advantages that come along with it.

To learn more about how AP automation can help your company reach new heights, read BILL's Ultimate Guide to AP Automation.

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