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Speed Approvals, Improve Compliance, Save Money: Harness the Power of Workflow Automation

By Rob Wilson, CTO, NeoSystems Corp.

Rob Wilson, CTO, NeoSystems Corp.

Many compa­nies struggle with inconsist­ent cash flow, timely billing and prompt pay­ments. Inefficiencies in such processes can hinder business growth. As an on­shore business process outsourcing firm, NeoSystems’ clients range from start-ups to well established enterprises. To improve efficiency and productivity, companies can convert manual processes into secure, automated workflows, which save time, reduces costs, improves compliance and streamlines audits.

Workflow automation simultaneously delivers consistent policy execution and improves audit readiness. Every back office function—from contract management to accounting to HR to IT—can benefit from automation.

Accelerate and Track Approvals

Automating workflows saves time. Unfortunately, even today some enterprises still use email to route approvals, or worse they manually distribute physical documents. On average, workers spend 28 percent of their time reading and answering email. (International Data Corporation; McKinsey Global Institute Analysis). If you could significantly cut email time, imagine how that would positively affect employee productivity and work-life balance.

Automation changes the way approvers work. Instead of hunting through a cluttered email box, they simply open the workflow tool. A list of tasks to complete awaits them—with supporting documentation attached and available for review. Approvers simply click a button to accept or reject. When NeoSystems automated our billing process, we cut approval time for issuing client bills from an average of 15 days to less than a day.

"​Workflow automation simultaneously delivers consistent policy execution and improves audit readiness"

Lower Costs, Save Valuable Time

Time is money. Eliminating time-consuming tasks decreases workloads enabling companies to reduce headcount or refocus employees on more strategic tasks.

Consider accounts payable (AP). Payment requests flood the AP inbox. Enterprises can automate AP workflows to enable vendors to submit invoices directly to approving managers, eliminating the need for a clerk to open and route invoices. Vendors can also use the portal to inquire about payment status avoiding the need for staff to service their requests. Late fees and interest charges drop to zero because the invoice isn’t buried on someone’s desk. Any process requiring routing is a potential money saver.

Consistent Policy Execution

With workflow automation, you’re assured processes happen the same way, every time, for everyone. Such consistency maintains internal controls and supports quality management.

Let’s look at monthly fixed billing. Using automated workflows, businesses can send all billing tasks— simultaneously—to every accounts payable or accounts receivable specialist in their company, even those at satellite offices. The workflow tool enforces deadlines by automatically sending reminders and generating a list of noncompliance. With automation, monthly fixed billing is consistent. The cycle starts on the same day for everyone; reminders are pre-scheduled; and any compliance period is enforced.

Approval limits are another area where consistency is key to compliance. Policies that require routing to higher approval authorities are built into the workflow.

Improve Audit Readiness

Workflow automation helps maintain audit readiness and improve compliance through efficiency, consistency and documentation. Your enterprise has clearly defined internal controls; with workflow automation you know controls are followed every time; and you can prove it.

Workflow tools offer visualization capabilities enabling companies to graphically map process flows. Visualization helps auditors quickly understand your business, as they have a map illustrating approval processes. Auditors can also request process details showing each step, every participant, documentation, and all date and time stamps, thus preserving the corporate audit trail.

Many companies struggle with SOX compliance. By tightly integrating workflow automation with ERP systems, companies can define and enforce their separation of duties controls.

Send Proactive Alerts

With proactive alerting capabilities, workflow tools keep processes moving. How? They automatically alert approvers and remind them when they forget. Or, when an approver is on vacation, they can escalate approvals or put them on hold—without manual intervention.

Quickly Trace Approvals

Automation also enables companies to trace multiple iterations of an approval. Documentation, including forms and attachments, is available for each step. Such traceability supports root-cause analysis of error-prone processing. It pinpoints bottlenecks and shows where an item is in the process at all times, enabling efficient follow-up or opportunities for process improvements.

Improve Document Security

Enterprises can also use workflow tools to protect proprietary information. Documents reside on a secure server rather than in email. To view documents, users must log into the tool. There’s no risk of accidentally emailing files to the wrong person or exposing confidential information through email hacks.

Workflow Automation: Five Tips for Success

If your enterprise is ready to realize the time and money-saving benefits of workflow automation, follow these tips for a successful start:

1. Pick a process that keeps you up at night. What process takes too long? Where do you lack visibility? Many managers have one troublesome area. Start there.
2. Keep it simple. When automating processes, look for efficiencies. Often problem processes are too complex. Can you reduce the number of people the process touches? Eliminate steps.
3. Include change management. Many people hate change. Clearly communicate the new process and expected improvements, train users, and document and share results.
4. Accept the 90 percent solution. If a process always has Steps 1, 2 and 3, then automate that part of the process. If something else happens rarely, don’t try to automate every exception.
5. Don’t ignore the low-hanging fruit. Don’t overlook processes you can automate rapidly, because they are not problems. Automate simple things. You can build the process quickly and see immediate return. Create a generic approval process for things like leave requests, engineering drawings, tuition reimbursements, etc. This can be a two- or three-step process. You attach your request to the form, select an approver, and the workflow tool documents the approval. Such processes are simple to implement, teach employees to use the tool and inspire automation in other areas.

Automating manual business processes fundamentally changes the way people work. Managers make approvals with documentation at their fingertips. It’s easy to implement and generates a rapid return on investment. Employees save time; enterprises save money; processes are auditable and compliant; and documents are secure. Every function across your enterprise can benefit from workflow automation.

Common Obstacles to Automation

As you automate workflows, watch for these obstacles. Devise mitigation strategies before you begin.

• Entrenched Institutional Knowledge. Employees have ingrained work methods. Some will raise the exceptions that automation can’t easily accommodate. Include those people early. Often, the change haters will have the best ideas on how to improve the process. Convert the naysayers into champions.
• Scope Creep. Be specific in what you are targeting and don’t allow uncontrolled increase in scope. Tackle the main idea first. Later add tangential processes that you may uncover.
• Data Quality. As you integrate automated workflows with accounting, human capital management and other ERPs, you may encounter data gaps or discover you’re not fully using data fields. Improving data inputs will drive efficiencies in automated processes.