While the integration of business processes and digitization always were fundamental aspects of Industry 4.0, the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the digital conversion of activities.
However, while the benefits of digitization are apparent, it also poses new challenges to businesses. New digital tools and systems appear every day, and there is a constant need to integrate these processes. Therefore, the researchers of the Kaunas University of Technology (further – KTU) in Lithuania raised a relevant question – how do digital technologies facilitate business process integration in Industry 4.0 settings?
Digitization in every process
Digital technologies that are embedded within products and capable of monitoring and controlling process activities allow for the gathering, accessing, manipulating, presenting, or communicating of information, creating affordances for the integration of business processes. Thus, the researchers of KTU were aiming to identify the affordances of digital technologies that contribute to the integration of business processes in the context of Industry 4.0.
To answer this, the researchers conducted an inductive case study, focusing on a producer of professional stainless-steel kitchens, known for their extensive digital transformation.
“The study makes a twofold contribution to the field of business process management and integration studies. It reveals how digital technologies facilitate business process management in Industry 4.0, and it highlights the mechanisms through which digital technologies facilitate business process integration”, says Mantas Vilkas, a researcher at the Kaunas University of Technology School of Economics and Business in the “IN4ACT” project.
According to Vilkas, companies use various digital technologies that play a critical role in business process management. The analyzed company, for example, uses a wide range of digital technologies, from computer-aided design software to internal communication systems, in different business processes.
For instance, computer-aided design software is used in the integration of management and sharing processes of product data and design, while QR codes help to integrate business processes from product detailing in the workshop to inventory management.
Four affordances of digital technologies
While analyzing all the digital solutions implemented in the business processes, researchers were able to identify four affordances of these digital technologies. These affordances include accessing, updating, sharing, and initiating.
“For example, software applications augment the abilities of process participants, while QR codes are attached to artifacts, such as parts, in-process inventory, and warehouse shelves. The updating and initiating affordances allow for the seamless linking of activities or business processes. The affordance of updating is defined as an automated refreshment of information about the status of artifacts or activities which is later reused by decision-makers or by the downstream participants or IT systems”, says Vilkas.
The affordance of initiating, according to the researcher, describes a generation of actions based on the status of activities or artifacts, which automatically triggers a downstream process or activity. The sharing and accessing affordances are interrelated as two sides of the same coin. Sharing constitutes deliberate efforts by process participants to disseminate information on activities or artifacts among relevant employees, whereas accessing means enabling process participants to obtain information about artifacts of activities.
Crucial role in business processes
Scholars argue that these four affordances revealed in the research constitute business process integration mechanisms facilitated by digital technologies. They enable the full or partial automation of the transfer of information or artifacts, thereby minimizing the efforts associated with the flow of information and artifacts among and within business processes.
“The study’s findings augment those of other scholars and respond to the call to better understand business process management in the Industry 4.0 setting, revealing the importance of digital technologies”, says the researcher.
What is more, digital technologies allow facilitate the integration of both simple and more complex business processes. However, findings from this study suggest that companies should responsibly look to the integration of different digital technologies in business processes. Only a good understanding of these implications can provide substantial insights into managing digital technologies and enabling positive work outcomes.
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