If you have looked into achieving the goals of digital transformation for your organization, you may have come across the concept of ZBO, or zero back office. Recent Forrester research on ZBO, which quotes our founder, drives his point that “Leaders have to allow the assimilation of the business partners and trading partners so that digital transformation can be as ZBO as possible.”
We explore this in greater detail in our discussion below as we explain the goals and benefits of zero back office and how to bring it to your organization.
Zero back office calls for implementation of process automation technologies that minimize manual involvement in automatable tasks. These tasks may have previously relied on manual work for various reasons:
- The organization has simply not yet made an investment in preparing for or implementing automation.
- The tasks rely heavily on application of institutional knowledge that experienced staff possess.
- The organization has not faced the challenges of overcoming siloed operations to implement solutions that will need to draw on or feed into processes across the organization.
Zero back office is the culmination of efforts that overcome these potential hurdles to optimize the way technology supports and optimizes production at an organization. Its goals are to help businesses shed legacy systems laden with technical debt and manual processes that render them unable to compete against industry disruptors. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize efficiency through process automation.
As our process automation solution is uniquely positioned to address manual tasks handled by insurance underwriters, we will use the insurance back office as an example in this post. However, it should be noted the zero back office is a concept of interest across many industries due to the growing potentials of process automation.
The core benefits of process automation
We have mentioned process automation a couple of times and it is important to define its benefits since they are closely aligned with the efficiency goals of zero back office. Process automation has the ability to automate tasks that feed into processes that accomplish business goals or produce products for the business.
For our insurance example, we help underwriters automate many of the decisions that flow into approvals or denials for applications for coverage. The ultimate decision of whether to insure an applicant and under what conditions is the product of underwriting processes. Automating these decisions helps underwriters focus more on special cases and applications that require extra attention and a human touch. It also helps to promote more consistent application decisions and provides a transparent means to track how an application was handled in case of disputes. Overall, process automation has the potential to:
- Optimize how human resources work and focus on tasks that require a human presence.
- Reduce costs and expand books of business for organizations by handling processes faster and more consistently.
- Improve the consumer experience and outcomes for customers by providing quicker turnarounds and meeting expectations for always-on services.
By removing humans from processes better left to automation, they can occupy roles that more urgently require human interaction and communication. Aiming for zero back office with process automation enables organizations to seamlessly augment human work with automation. It also recognizes that automation will be a differentiator in how certain organizations rise above their competition and work to make the most of it via comprehensive organizational change.
To realize the benefits of zero back office, implementing process automation is key.
Preparing for process automation
Preparations must first be made to give any implemented process automation system the information it needs to run tasks and make decisions that complement the organization. As we have discussed in previous blog posts, we recommend an incremental approach to digital transformation. This is to not only make changes easier to adopt and manage across the organization but also to put the pillars in place for sustained modernization.
Knowledge management makes automation behave like you
To prepare for process automation, knowledge management takes center stage.
As we discussed earlier, one of the obstacles to automation is reliance on employees who leverage institutional knowledge to work through manual tasks that could otherwise be automated. For example, an experienced underwriter may draw on years of experience with the insurer’s thresholds for risk and knowledge of approval qualifications to process applications. Knowledge management works to expose institutional knowledge and make it available to systems that can enable automation and artificial intelligence. This step requires not an immediate investment in a technology product but an investment in organizational cooperation to adequately uncover and demystify the key organizational knowledge that will be used by process automation technologies.
Learn more about building a knowledge management discipline at your organization. Download our free Knowledge Management Handbook.
Import data from outside applications with API management
The assimilation of business partners and third-party data providers into a process automation system is made possible by a solid API management strategy and is what was described by our founder in Forrester’s research.
Most business processes draw on both knowledge from within the organization and on data from outside. For example, the application used to accept and transmit online insurance applications will need to be integrated with any process automation system put into play. Additionally, for the system to make accurate decisions that reflect all of the sources a human underwriter would have used to rate an application, third party applications will need to be integrated, such as to retrieve motor vehicle records.
These integrations are all made possible by API management with APIs serving as the connections between discrete applications. APIs will allow a process automation system to communicate with other sources of data in a standards-based, secure and compliant manner.
Choosing a process automation technology
After establishing a knowledge management discipline at your organization, uncovering institutionalized knowledge, and putting together a solid API strategy that will help you source outside information needed to run processes automatically, the next step is to consider the process automation solution that is right for your business.
Again, we recommend an incremental approach for any organization attempting to modernize. The process automation solution your organization chooses should be flexible from the start and implemented over the course of many iterations to decrease risk and increase opportunities to change or add functions. We recommend that you choose an approach that decomposes your applications into microservices for improved agility moving forward.
When choosing a product or vendor to go with, we suggest asking these questions:
Will you need any customization?
- If so, will you need to rely on the vendor to implement any customization or can you do it yourself? Ultimately, you will need to decide who will be in control of your destiny: you or your vendor.
- Does it provide an API interface that will support integrations with new or existing applications?
- Overall, where do you see your organization five years from now and how would you stack up with your competitors?
What is more important: an attractive user interface or a robust execution/process engine?
- Do you prefer flexibility in functionality or a fixed set of predefined features?
- The product may look good from a UI perspective, but does it support a modern software architecture that can run in the cloud or on premise using a containerized infrastructure to help you scale automatically?
How does the product help you manage the risks of adoption?
- Does the product provide the ability to “kick the tires” before you make a significant investment?
- Does the product provide the ability to start small and gradually increase functionality and complexity?
- How quickly will you start seeing results to inform your decision to fully commit?
- Do you make a one-time investment or will this be a yearly expense?
If you aim for sustainable, long-term benefits, our experts suggest shopping for solutions with this wish list in mind:
- Ability to start small. You should prefer to make a small or zero upfront investment with the option to abandon the solution if it is not a good fit.
- Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. You need to be able to customize your solution and add your organization’s distinct rule sets that give you that edge in the market.
- Control to make the changes you need on your own terms. You should be able to make changes and updates without the need for a vendor to act on your behalf every time.
- Support for a modern software architecture. The technology should be able to run on almost any environment, whether that be a laptop, an on-premise server, or a hybrid multi-cloud enterprise containerized infrastructure.
- Extensibility with an open-source platform. Products built on open source technologies will help prevent costly vendor lock-in. They also support flexible configurations using declarative human-readable languages like YAML that enable deployment automation.
We designed our solution for insurance providers with much of this wish list in mind so that insurers can break away from some of the common constraints of off-the-shelf products and enjoy the benefits of process automation on their own terms. We have also designed similar process automation solutions for other industries such as healthcare and financial services as they strive toward achieving the goals of zero back office.
Zero back office is not just a trend. It is a move toward organizational change and adoption of future-facing technologies that will keep the organizations that embrace it ahead of the pack. To make zero back office a reality for your organization, look toward preparing for process automation first.
Want to discuss more on where to start? Reach out to us any time.