Workflow automation: what it is and how it can make your work easier


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This article was contributed by Sergio Suarez Jr., founder and CEO of TackleAI.

Workflow automation, also known as data automation, is the new buzzword in the tech industry, but what is it anyway? Simply put, workflow automation means getting information into a system, starting tasks to process the data, and sending it to the right people. This process is done using rules-based logic, and ideally with little to no human intervention.

For some people, a world of automation and artificial intelligence can be overwhelming or even lead to job security concerns. In reality, automation and artificial intelligence can be complementary workmates for most jobs, allowing people to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

An example of workflow automation is the way most invoices are processed. The typical manual process is tedious, time consuming and error prone. This process usually involves receiving an email, forwarding it to the billing department, and assigning it to someone who then types the important information onto an affordable invoice. That information is then sent to someone to take line items and do an inventory to confirm that the information is correct. Every time another person is involved in this process, there is a greater chance of human error and definitely more time involved in the process.

This is why automation, specifically related to documents such as invoices, can be hugely beneficial to organizations in terms of finances, efficiency and accuracy. Still, there are different approaches to workflow automation that have different benefits for different organizations, and making an informed decision between the two is critical.

There are two types of workflow automations: Intelligent and RPA (Robotic Process Automation). The data that these two types of automation process can be structured or unstructured. RPA can only handle structured data, i.e. data with labels or headers, and stays in the same part of the page every time. Intelligent Workflow Automation, which is true artificial intelligence, can process, extract and classify unstructured data without ever seeing the document before.

In the example of the invoices: with RPA, a company receives an email, scans it and trains the software for that specific invoice. This works well when the document contains structured data, with the same information in the same place, and has neat labels or headers, and the amount of space in line items doesn’t change.

With Intelligent Workflow Automation (IWA), after learning one type of invoice, it can now read any type of invoice and extract and classify information such as the payer and payee account information and know which is which. With each new document, it not only processes and understands the data, but learns and trains itself to understand the next document faster and more accurately. This is vital for an organization to save time and reduce error rates as 85% of data is unstructured.

Both RPA and IWA offer organizations benefits. In terms of capacity, Intelligent Workflow Automation wins, but in terms of start-up costs and maintenance, RPA can offer a strong solution.

There are a few steps to implementing automation into your business infrastructure, and they vary slightly depending on individual goals, industries, and technology capabilities.

First, identify the task at hand: While a small sales company may want to automate a standard, structured invoice, a hospital may need to process a variety of dynamic documents and EHR data. Depending on the complexity of the data, the sensitivity of the information transferred and the steps involved in each task, one can select RPA or IWA as the preferred automation option. On complex tasks, IWA can go as far as completing editing, or data extraction and validation, which are required in medicine, government and law.

Second, select “provider”: are you going to hire a full-time developer? Are you going to work with a company? Are you implementing a pre-developed solution? These are all strong options that vary in value between budget and again, the complexity of the task at hand.

Then start: Getting the automation right requires a lot of fine-tuning, so pay close attention when the ball is rolling. The beauty of technology is its ability to continuously learn and optimize itself, but much of this learning ability depends on the human team’s ability to give it intelligent information.

A specific use case of implementing workflow automation occurred at a large healthcare data aggregator. Hospital systems sent the data aggregator hundreds of thousands of dynamically unstructured healthcare documents every day, which had to be classified, extracted, and entered into each client’s electronic health record system. The workflow involved sending the documents abroad for manual reading, classification and typing into an Excel spreadsheet. This process took up to 48 hours each time and had an average error rate of 10-30%, along with potential security vulnerabilities and HIPAA violations.

The hundreds of thousands of documents sent were all dynamically unstructured, so the healthcare data aggregator chose IWA over RPA for its automated workflow. The IWA now completed the same workflow in less than a second. Data points were now extracted from all types of unstructured documents, such as prescriptions, MRIs and oncology reports. The IWA is 70% cheaper than sending the same documents abroad for manual classification and saves 50% of the operational budget. Now 73% of documents are processed with IWA and no human intervention is needed at all. The error rate has been reduced to just 0.03% and the IWA can process documents it has never seen before.

In short, automation is more than a buzzword. It’s an opportunity to increase revenue, optimize performance and accuracy, and harness immense technological power to empower human employees to maximize their potential beyond repetitive and time-consuming data tasks. In 2022, automation will be within reach for businesses and organizations of all sizes, unlocking efficiencies and revenue opportunities previously unavailable. A business with automation is a business with an advantage – and it’s never too late to get started.

Sergio Suarez Jr. is the founder and CEO of TackleAI.

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