Unlocking Dark Process Value with Intelligent Automation

Now is the Time to address the ‘Dark Processes’ of 2020

2020 will be remembered for many things, but the sudden change in working practices, driven out of necessity, has been instrumental in fuelling the creation of ‘Dark Processes’.

What is a Dark Process?

A Dark Process can be described as a complete process, or steps in a process that are undertaken in a way that is contrary to the official method of enactment. Typically, they will achieve the desired result, but in a way previously not envisaged, invisible to the organisation, and therefore not measured, sanctioned, or tracked.

As an example, think about a scenario where an organisation urgently needs a supplier invoice to be paid and the current accounts payable process is not automated or slick enough to handle this in an efficient manner. To resolve this, an accounts payable team member may speak to the Finance Director or senior approver and subsequently email across an invoice copy as an attachment in order to expedite the process. The end result may be that the supplier gets paid and that appropriate approval was sought and received, but clearly the standard process hasn’t been followed meaning that tracking it at a later date for audit purposes will be challenging.

Why do Dark Processes Occur?

The fact that a Dark Process may achieve the required result shows that it isn’t necessarily wrong or detrimental, in that it delivers the ultimate outcome. This may be more endemic of the official process being outdated and now users have found a better way of working. It may have come about as a result of system changes, altering customer behaviour or employees not being based in the office.

A ‘sticky plaster’ approach to fixing systems and processes that weren’t suitable for remote working has often led to sub-optimal processes, where tasks now need to be conducted in a way that isn’t suited for this change in working practices. Organisations have had to react quickly to ‘get by’ and survive. Process decisions that would have taken weeks and months to analyse, modify and deploy in previous times, have been rolled out rapidly, at pace to suit the changing dynamic. This has led to users and departments adapting and making changes to processes purely to allow their work to be completed.

How do Dark Processes Manifest Themselves?

The most obvious vehicle for Dark Processes was, until recently, email. Users and departments, collaborating in an unofficial manner, sharing information, arriving at decisions and prompting unofficial workflows. With the increase in remote working and the expedition in the use of tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace and the like, the need and opportunity for Dark Processes to be created and performed has significantly increased. Assessment and decision-making taking place in chat windows and on video calls, all outside of process and relatively hidden to the organisation.

The most obvious clues of the existence of Dark Processes will be gaps in reporting metrics in any given process. Take an Order to Cash process that involves multiple steps (quote generation, sales order processing, order fulfilment, billing and payment receipt) and multiple departments (sales, order processing, fulfilment teams and finance). It should be possible to report on end-to-end statistics such as an average cycle time for the process, from order to cash, against an internal service level agreement. A Dark Process issue can often manifest itself as a service level that is being missed which nobody can work out why or where the issue is. Each individual department involved may be reporting on and meeting their own SLAs, but these don’t match the overall process story. These process ‘blackholes’ are symptomatic of something happening outside of the process.

Uncovering the Value of Dark Processes

People will naturally navigate to the path of least resistance, so if there is a simpler better way of doing something, it’s likely users will find it. This is made more compelling when something in the official process is broken, but organisational pressures to complete tasks and activities remain. Users adapt and find a way to keep the process moving.

It’s precisely for these reasons that Dark Processes are valuable. They provide potential insight into a way of working that is more effective and potentially flexible for when things go wrong. In other words, organisations have an opportunity to capture and harness additional efficiency and agility – notions which are the forefront of most organisations’ strategic thinking.

Why Dark Processes are Important for Process Automation Projects

When considering a process automation project, it’s easy for organisations to become fixated on the ‘to be process’ as opposed to also considering the ‘as is’ process. Launching into designing a new process using technology may often be a more attractive proposition when compared to ‘lifting the bonnet’ on existing processes. However, there are significant dangers in designing an automated process that doesn’t necessarily capture the true requirements and nuances of what is happening today as well as missing out on potential ‘Dark Process’ benefits.

Additionally, understanding the ‘As Is’ process properly is critical for knowing whether it is worthy of change, or will automation make a difference, as well as providing quantifiable benchmarks to measure the success of automation, if adopted. Being able to objectively measure automation project outcomes should be a primary focus and is often cited as a reason for perceived or actual failure of a process automation project to deliver results.

How to Identify Dark Processes

Dark Process discovery and understanding comes about as a result of thorough analysis of the ‘As Is’ process. Traditionally, ‘as is’ process discovery was really only viable for large organisations willing to spend significantly on high-cost consultants who would manually map process steps, following documents and data through each step of a process and interviewing users and stakeholders. This would culminate in pages of reports and process maps that represented a snapshot in time, which would quickly become outdated and obsolete.

Screenshot showing swim lane visualisation of process steps, highlighting instances where unexpected activities are taking place in Kofax Process Intelligence
Screenshot showing swim lane visualisation of process steps, highlighting instances where unexpected activities are taking place in Kofax Process Intelligence

Today, most data regarding processes is held in internal systems, and Process Mining or Process Intelligence tools can enable rapid visualisation of these processes. They require less time to conduct the analysis, remove subjectivity and keep pace as changes are made. For these to be effective, access to data, and the right type, is of critical importance. Data in application logs that records events, timings and users, (who did it, what did they do, and when did they do it – relatively standard for most modern applications) can be fed into these tools for a visual representation of the process to allow the analysis of what the ‘As Is’ process really is, and where ‘Dark Processes’ may exist. This ensures that the Process Discovery process can be conducted en masse and at speed.

Value then comes from not just being able to accurately model the ‘As is’ processes, but to use this in conjunction with Intelligent Process Automation technologies such as Cognitive CaptureRobotic Process Automation and Process Orchestration to make informed, but rapid changes to simplify and drive efficiency in the organisation.

In Summary

Dark Processes offer organisations a way to maximise the return on investment made in Intelligent Process Automation platforms, but consideration needs to be given to how these can be identified, and the opportunity exploited. Where the right data exists, then technology offers significant advantages in terms of deployment speed, ensuring objective measurement and near real-time results.

Further reading on ensuring the success of your intelligent process automation project can be found here.

Interested in uncovering your ‘Dark Processes’ – arrange a Discovery Session with one of our experts.

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