Automation: new, but subject to old wisdom
Automation is likely to become a hot topic in the coming months and years as the world struggles to deal with the new landscape in business in a post Coronavirus world.
As some organisations need desperately to improve their services, such as banks, financial institutions, healthcare providers, and more, they will look to process automation to improve speed and efficiency, as well as reduce errors and increase capacity.
Also, as more actions as part of these processes, such as employee onboarding, will take place remotely, automation will be a key mechanism to facilitate more of what is needed in tomorrow’s world.
While much around automation is seen as new and exciting, some old wisdom also comes into play to help illuminate the issues and potential pitfalls for organisations.
Once such issue was well illustrated by a recent survey from the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM), the not for profit representative body for IT professionals. Surveying more than 260 IT pros in globally, the resultant report said that for more than a third (37%) of respondents, the most important target for process automation efforts are those processes that cross departments, systems, and/or organisational boundaries — the very processes, the report authors argue, that are most problematic due to chaotic information silos.
Now that might sound like a great idea, applying new technologies to processes that may be multi-layered, messy and problematic due to the number of silos touched, combined and processed, but there are familiar bits of advice that apply here which might dispel some of the fog of the unknown.
“Automation is not about making something that is cumbersome or unwieldy faster, it is about finding a more efficient way of doing things and then applying automation to ensure the task or process is repeatable without, or as little as possible, human intervention”
As with outsourcing, the wisdom is never try to automate a problem — resolve it first. In the same way that you do not try to outsource a function that is, well, disfunctional, one does not try to automate something that isn’t working. Automation is not about making something that is cumbersome or unwieldy faster, it is about finding a more efficient way of doing things and then applying automation to ensure the task or process is repeatable without, or as little as possible, human intervention.
Strangely enough, one of the barriers that is often reported in automation is that after initial success, automated processes do not scale. This might sound counterintuitive, and to a certain extent it is, but what it generally results from is an inefficient process that has been turned over to machines, but its innate inefficiency means that to scale the solution might take a vast investment in the resources, to the point where RoI is defenestrated.
The key here is to work with a good technical partner to evaluate what is desired to be automated, benefiting from their wisdom and experience, to understand if a process is currently fit for automation, or if not, why not. Once a process has been redesigned to be efficient, then it will lend itself far better to automation, and be scalable.
This is supported by the AIIM survey, as almost one in five (18%) organisations admit they do not have the right skills for applying automation to their own business, with a little more (20%) admitting they lack clear strategic priorities for automation.
Leaning on the expertise of a partner can kickstart efforts in automation and allow organisations to get quickly up to speed. That said, visibility and transparency are also key in evaluating and implementing automation opportunities. And this turns out to be a problem for many. The survey reports that almost half (47%) of organisations said that users within who would interact with the automated systems needed more education in understanding core process technologies — meaning, one supposes, that one cannot tackle black box technologies with automated black box solutions.
As promising as automation in business is, it can sometimes blind with promise. Not only that, on initial examination, it can blind with complexity. Understanding that old adages apply can help with both dispelling the fog of the new, as well as some minor pitfalls around efficiency and scalability.
Earlier this year, we examined some of the areas around business process automation (BPA) and robotic process automation (RPA), which is still worth a read, but education is key, understanding is paramount, and then the benefits become clear.