Q&A: The Journey to an Autonomous Business Environment

| 3/31/2020
Q&A: The Journey to an Autonomous Business Environment

The automated, digitized business environment of the future is here now for many industries. And as healthcare works to catch up, many organizations are beginning to make moves toward automating their business functions, including those related to the revenue cycle, finance, and other shared services. Organizations that don’t adapt to the change most likely will be left behind as their competition gets ahead.

Here, Brian Sanderson, managing principal of healthcare services at Crowe, answers top questions healthcare organization leaders have when they consider embarking on the journey to a more autonomous business environment, in which tasks are completed by technology but designed and managed by humans.

Q: Why should healthcare organizations start now?

A: Making the move to a more autonomous business environment – that is, less dependent on scarce labor and more reliable in process – is already top of mind for today’s healthcare executives. On top of that, automation technology already exists. And I’m not talking about robotic process automation (RPA) – I’m talking about sophisticated integration of data to drive automation. If healthcare organizations don’t begin this journey, they most likely will be left behind. There are too many disrupters waiting in the wings, and the cost of being a late follower means the terms of operation might be dictated versus selected.

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Q: Where should organizations start?

A: Healthcare executives first must consider what senior leadership ultimately is seeking by pursuing automation. For example, do they want to save on labor by employing fewer full-time equivalents when certain tasks become automated? Are they seeking revenue realization? Or, do they desire the consistency of operations that comes with implementing a digital environment?

Whatever the answer – and it will vary from organization to organization – executives should home in on what senior leaders are seeking so they can align automation initiatives with senior leadership’s desired outcomes. For example, some organizations have a goal of making sure that any automation initiatives pay for themselves (and don’t wind up costing the organization money). This can be a good place to start when setting goals.

Q: How should organizations start the journey to automation?

A: To begin, organizations should take a thorough inventory of their key performance indicators (KPIs) and other business office metrics. Then, they should study each identified function and position to find redundant tasks or processes that aren’t resulting in the consistency or positive achievements the organization desires. Sometimes, an organization might need to fix performance issues in order to pursue automation. For example, an organization struggling with credit balances will want to fix processes in that area before automating those processes.

Another way for an organization to identify processes and functions to automate is to find out what its peers are automating. There is no need to do this work in isolation; on the contrary, much can be learned from what other organizations in the field are doing, including learning from failure, in this arena.

Q: Who should be involved?

A: The journey to a more autonomous business environment is a group effort involving internal and external parties. Involved internal parties might include functional managers whose departments will be affected by new initiatives, IT professionals, and engaged and supportive executives. An external party might be a vendor that aligns with the organization’s goals and can help it achieve them. Organizations should set the framework for automation and then find the best vendor to help them achieve it. Just selecting an RPA vendor at random is not advised.

On a related note, organizational leadership should consider optimizing any automation capabilities that already are embedded in its patient accounting system (PAS). Many organizations overlook these tools and even attach RPA where it already exists. It is worth conducting a thorough assessment of the organization’s PAS to identify any tools that can be used.

Q: How much should organizations invest?

A: The answer to this question will be different for each organization, but leadership can use some basic parameters to frame the conversation when determining the appropriate level of investment. For example, some organizations choose to base the investment completely on their current performance goals, such as the KPIs that were inventoried to determine which processes to automate.

As a rule of thumb, the returns an organization can expect are 2-to-1 for labor and 3-to-1 for revenue. For example, if the organization invests $10,000 in automation, it should expect $20,000 in labor savings. But it’s wise to underestimate rather than overestimate savings – I’ve already heard from many organizations that have invested in RPA with promises that have not been realized. Don’t set the bar too high.

Q: What do we start with? Which processes should we automate?

A: Once an organization has done an inventory of the positions, functions, and processes within its business office to help determine which processes might be automated, organizational leadership can start with these four basic steps:

  1. Start with the best, most reliable processes. Once a process has been improved – if necessary – then it can be automated.
  2. Thoroughly map out that best-practice process. What are the steps involved with the process, including even the most minute details? What key decisions are related to the process? What are the desired results? The answers to these questions supply the information that will be programmed into the automation.
  3. Determine which automation tools the organization wants to implement. Myriad tools are available today, for tasks such as screen scraping, keystroking, and more.
  4. Define the new management model that fits your organization: Should the organization work with fewer people? Or should it use more machines? What about the new management approach of managing people and machines? Whichever model is used might require new skills to support consistent performance. This involves providing the necessary training for staff members to operate effectively in the new environment. Remember, moving toward the autonomous business office isn’t about using machines instead of people. It’s about transitioning from people aided by digital, to digital managed by people.

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Brian B. Sanderson