Garbage in, garbage out: save your automation efforts from certain failure
Digital transformation continues to be an exciting and high-profile business initiative, but as with every business ‘revolution’ of the last few decades, it’s not a silver bullet.
In particular, many businesses have embraced automation as a technology to shift their organization to a new way of working, but failed to understand both the limits of the toolset and the support it requires.
It’s vital that companies grasp the potential of automation but realise its limitations too. By helping your staff come to terms with what these technologies offer, your teams can advocate for more intelligent and effective implementation across the business, and ensure the maximum benefit is derived from each tool.
There’s no denying that business process automation pays dividends. It can remove or reduce laborious, repetitive work and bring greater accuracy and efficiency to processes and procedures in the workplace.
However, if an organization wants to see more than short term gains and truly realize the potential ROI of the technology, automation needs to be employed intelligently and with a supporting structure that looks at more than just new software.
Scaffolding for success
The first factor in successful process automation is the process. Without capturing and refining your business processes, even the most effective automation solutions can only achieve so much.
It’s another instance of the old programming mantra, ‘garbage in – garbage out.’ If the process itself is inefficient, lacks clarity or is poorly understood, then adding automation may in fact amplify the problems rather than reduce them.
Engage the people who know the process best in the practice of capturing the process, then provide avenues for feedback and continuous improvement. Once the process is clear, compliant and functioning as intended, there are opportunities to identify where automation can bring greater efficiency and effectiveness.
Identifying the systems and structures already in place can help indicate where automation will be beneficial. The users most familiar with the activities can link their steps to the platforms already in play, and this can provide a map of dependencies and connections. For Lean and Six Sigma advocates, utilizing tags or highlights can pinpoint elements that are ripe for optimization.
Reporting these markers across the processes is an effective way of spotting automation opportunities within the business.
Knowing the tools
There are various forms of automation available, and each has its own arena of effectiveness. Like any toolkit, you can’t expect any one solution to fit every problem and trying to apply blanket fixes can in fact create more problems.
Rather than grasp the latest trend, carefully consider what your needs are. This is where empowering your business teams helps; since they’re the everyday users of the processes, they know them best. By giving them an understanding of the various technologies, they will be able to identify use cases that best suit the tools.
Workflows are the connectors between people, processes, and the systems they use. Workflows take many forms, but they’re ideal for processes where collaboration and creativity are required. What sets workflows apart is their capacity to keep the human element active, while removing monotonous and repetitive tasks.
A workflow will route data between two agents, or add and extract records from integrated systems like a CRM, while still engaging your staff in decision making along the way. When empowered with AI tools like sentiment analysis, a workflow can make rudimentary decisions about how to route emails or documentation, who to engage and what level of response to make.
Digital documents like forms are used to reduce both the physical clutter of paper-based records, and the unnecessary repetition of handling the data they contain. Rather than completing a form, then entering that data into digital records, then accessing and employing the information, intelligent forms take care of those steps automatically. By directing clients, staff or other users to intelligent forms, the time taken up by manually processing that data is saved and the potential for errors is reduced significantly.
The other side of this is document generation. Rather than compiling reports, agreements or other documentation manually, a document generation system will access the relevant records and create a custom document, complete with branding and formatting, without needing user input. This aspect of workflow automation eliminates the delay between compiling the data required and producing the documentation it supports. Coupled with digital signature technology, such forms can turn contract cycles into days or hours rather than weeks.
Robotic process automation (RPA) utilises virtual ‘bots’ to undertake repetitive manual processes that follow the same path every time without deviation or decision making. They perform manual steps, interacting with legacy systems and other tools like spreadsheets or web interfaces exactly as a human agent would, but faster, more accurately, and tirelessly.
The important distinction here is that these are rote tasks, and the bot is ‘trained’ to undertake them in the same way a human user would, but without exercising judgement along the way. That makes them very efficient, exponentially faster than a manual user would be, but unable to tackle variations or decision making.
Power to the people
Some of the fear around automation is that it will replace human employees, but as these examples highlight, the tools are best used to free your teams from monotonous tasks so they can focus on value-adding work and bringing creativity to their roles.
By understanding the strengths and distinctions of process automation solutions, staff can explore how those tools can enhance what they do and increase their efficiency in everyday tasks. By coupling that knowledge with well captured and managed processes, you have a foundation for effective digital transformation that will make the best use of the resources and benefit everyone involved.
Once these approaches are established, they become a self-strengthening cycle of managing, automating and optimizing processes, always evolving both the procedures and the tools supporting them for the very best outcomes.