Differences between process automation, BPM and RPA

Although the terms are used interchangeably in many scenarios, the differences between process automation, BPM and RPA are significant. This article summarizes them, presenting concrete examples of what each means and what each is used for. Of course, we will also present scenarios where all terms are related and play together.

BPM: the conceptual umbrella

BPM stands for Business Process Management (What is BPM?) and is a discipline. This means that it is not a particular technology, but an area of knowledge that encompasses both technologies and methodologies. For this reason, we can see the term BPM as a conceptual umbrella that encompasses various technologies, best practices, and notations.

BPM is a discipline, which encompasses technologies and methodologies oriented to the continuous improvement of business processes.

A concrete example of a BPM initiative

Let’s imagine a Bank which wants to significantly improve its business process to grant loans to its customers distributed throughout the country, ensuring uniform levels of service and attention. Now frame this project in the BPM discipline. Some of the tasks they will perform are:

  1. They will use a process survey methodology with users. This will generate meetings, the right questions will be asked, and there will be reviews and adjustment cycles.
  2. As a result of the previous stage, a graphic diagram will be generated, called a “process model”, in a specific notation for this purpose: BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation).
  3. This diagram will be introduced in a specific software for the execution of this process, which assigns tasks to users and evaluates business rules: a BPM Suite.
  4. The BPM Suite may require certain elements to be programmed, such as the loan application form and business rules. However, you could use a “no-code/low-code” tool, allowing a configuration without coding.
  5. When the loan is approved, information must be sent from the application form (part of the BPM Suite) to the Bank’s core system. This is done using a robotic process (RPA), which extracts the data from the form and enters it into the Bank’s system, without needing human intervention.
  6. Once hundreds of loans have been requested, Business Intelligence (BI) technology can be used to measure process performance indicators (KPIs).
  7. The continuous process improvement methodology suggests analyzing these KPIs, detecting opportunities for improvement (such as identifying the process bottleneck), and introducing improvements. To do this, the process diagram will be analyzed, and the process will return to stage 1, to define, together with the users, what changes to introduce and restart the virtuous cycle.

Process automation: the heart of BPM

As we saw in the previous example, BPM involves disciplines and technologies. However, one of these technologies is the heart of BPM: the automation of the process itself (What is Process Automation?). This involves digitizing the process (taking it out of paper support) and automating tasks. Avoiding, for example, that a person manually writes on an Excel spreadsheet or sends a message every time the process moves to the next stage.

Automating a process means replacing tasks previously done manually with software components that perform them according to rules and conditions. However, it does not mean eliminating human participation in the process at all. Instead, it means not manually completing tasks that can be automated.

Automating a business process means that humans will participate in tasks where they actually add value. And repetitive tasks with less added value will be automated.

RPA – replacing manual tasks

Robotic Process Automation, or simply RPA, is specific automation software, which can be framed under the BPM discipline or can be autonomous. The fundamental idea in RPA is that software replicates the actions that a human being would do in a computer system. And most importantly, this replication of the interaction can be configured without programming and without relying on APIs.

Continuing with the example of the bank loan: let’s imagine that when the loan is approved, the money must be credited to the client’s account, and the debt must be registered in their core system. That is, we have two different systems: on the one hand, the BPM Suite, where the process was automated, and the loan was approved. On the other hand, the bank’s core system, where the transactions will be recorded. To send the information from the BPM Suite to the core system, we see at least 3 alternatives:

  • The programmatic one implies that the bank’s core system exposes an API, which will be invoked by the BPM Suite to send all the data of the approved loan.
  • The most traditional one, which does not require programming, is human beings who “copy and paste” the information from the BPM Suite to the core system.
  • Use a Robot (RPA), which simulates the action of a human being, copying and pasting the information from the user interface of the BPM Suite to the user interface of the bank’s core system.

In the RPA framework, each robot (which is just a software program) operates in the user interface (UI) of the applications, just as a human would. The power of RPA is that it is possible to concatenate many actions and perform them much faster than a human being, all day long, with fewer errors.

A robot (RPA) can perfectly complete a specific task, which is part of a longer business process, in which humans are also involved and systems are integrated via APIs.

Differences between process automation, BPM and RPA

Let’s see how the concepts play together, but in different ways and at different times. Continuing with the example, let’s contrast some tasks before and after their automation. We will see that the concepts of BPM, process automation, and RPA collaborate to improve the business process of analyzing and granting loans in a bank:

Before automatingAfter automating
Different processes and approval cycles in each branch, with different service level agreements.Single process, defined for all branches, with uniform service level agreements in all branches.
Paper loan application form to be submitted at the branch, or in PDF and sent by mail.Digital form, provided by the BPM Suite, where the process is initiated and executed.
The client calls the bank to inquire about his loan, and an account executive must find out what stage he is in. Time-consuming, mediocre service.The process automatically notifies the client by e-mail each time the loan application advances in the process. Better service, lower operating costs.
The risk analyst accesses another system to obtain the client’s credit profile, standing with the bank and loan history. It is time-consuming and error-prone.The BPM Suite connects via WebServices to external systems and obtains and presents to the risk analyst in one place the customer’s credit profile, position, and history.
Upon loan approval, an operator manually uploads the information to the Bank’s core system. This is a repetitive, low-value-added, expensive andA Robot (RPA) extracts the relevant information from the user interface of the BPM Suite and pastes it into the bank’s core system, in less time and without errors.
Manual collection of information on the number of loans, approval times, and times at each stage.BI integrated into the process presents relevant information about the process for its analysis and continuous improvement (volume of work and time consumed).

In short…

Although the terms are sometimes confused, there are substantial differences between process automation, BPM, and RPA. BPM is a discipline, which includes technologies and methodologies, and focuses on the continuous improvement of business processes. In this context, BPM can incorporate process automation as a specific tool in a BPM Suite. Using a robot (RPA) to automate some tasks of that process is another valid and very efficient option in some scenarios. RPA can operate autonomously or as part of a larger process improvement initiative. On the other hand, automating a process with a BPM Suite only makes sense as part of the BPM discipline. BPM Suites that automate business processes without programming are called no-code, and Flokzu is one of the global leaders in this category.