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Busting open the myths about automation and SMEs

(Image credit: Image Credit: Cordis Technology)

Automation technologies, particularly Robotic Process Automation (RPA), remove the burden that legacy technologies, cumbersome manual processes and repetitive tasks are having on businesses day-to-day operations, allowing them to compete differently. In addition, they offer businesses of any size the potential for a low-cost, accessible way to understand their data faster, enabling them to make better and more informed decisions.

However, a recent BEIS committee report on automation and the future of work has found that the automation adoption rate is only four per cent amongst SMEs in the UK, compared to 28 per cent in larger businesses. Unsurprisingly, these figures fit with the common trend that uptake in new technologies is slower amongst smaller businesses than that of major multinational companies, who often have more capital and resources at their disposal.

But if automation has so much promise why is the uptake so slow amongst SMEs? Do they still consider automation technologies to be too expensive? Are they concerned about robots taking over their jobs? Or are suppliers of RPA continuing to overlook smaller businesses? If so, many of these concerns are myths that need quickly debunking if SMEs are to increase their uptake in automation and avoid being left behind as businesses evolve.

Myth 1 – Automation is too expensive for SMEs 

A common reason given for low uptake in automation technologies is the ‘cost of investment’, particularly for smaller businesses. Previously, automation solutions have often required both software and hardware, in addition to the investment in training current members of staff. In some cases, such as when employees are not able or willing to learn, SMEs may also have to invest in recruiting staff with digital skills to work with the new technologies. This is the complete opposite with larger businesses, who have more scale and resources to play with, which can then be channelled into a comprehensive ‘digital transformation programme’.

However, the claim that the cost of entry is still out of reach of SMEs is a total myth. Automation technologies such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can now be provided as a SaaS (software-as-a-service) offering. This means that it is now an affordable option, particularly for smaller companies, as businesses of any size can now access RPA through a simple cloud deployment, avoiding the cost implications of investing in expensive infrastructure or re-architecting applications.

In addition, RPA provides rapid internal cost reduction and significant increases in ROI almost instantly. This is because it gives businesses the chance to remove the weight that legacy technologies, burdensome manual processes and repetitive tasks are having on their everyday operations. By automating repetitive tasks with improved accuracy and efficiency, businesses are then able to invest more time in retraining and reskilling workers in different, more productive areas. 

At EACS, we are an expert in the delivery of IT Services to the mid-market and we have integrated automation technologies into our own operations, including IT, HR and finance processes, and the returns have been dramatic. For example, one of the most visible and beneficial ways we are using RPA is to speed up the process of debtor chasing. Our software robots are able to automatically collate and identify outstanding invoices, allowing staff to avoid this mundane task and focus their time on the main task: collecting the debt. More importantly for EACS, this has saved our staff around 36 hours of work per month, and it has allowed us to invest more time in getting our employees more involved in different, more technically enriching and valuable areas of the business.

Myth 2 – Robots are coming for your jobs

Whenever a new, disruptive technology such as RPA emerges, there is always an underlying concern that humans with be replaced. However, SMEs shouldn’t be scared: RPA will only replace those roles that can’t be fulfilled by humans, either because humans cannot be found to do the roles, or the level of quality needed cannot be consistently delivered by the human hand.

If anything, adopting RPA will allow staff to be able to spend more time to be innovative and get in touch with their creative side, which opens up the opportunity for increased personal improvement and the chance to be re-deployed to higher-level, managerial roles. Also, RPA is leading to the creation of a number of new technical roles, where skilled workers are needed to monitor the robots.

Myth 3 – Automation may not work for some sectors

The final misconception that continues to linger amongst SMEs is that automation technologies and RPA can only work in certain industries. The initial adopters of RPA were mainly larger businesses in the banking and finance sectors. Although it’s true that RPA has been a great success in these industries, we believe there is a huge amount of potential to revolutionise sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing and logistics, just to name a few.

This is because, at the very least, RPA can be used to automate most repetitive tasks in organisations across any industry. Take EACS’ experience for example, we have looked at some of our own back-office functions and in doing so we have seen a 96 per cent efficiency improvement in statement generation and an 83 per cent increase in the onboarding of new staff. These activities crosscut every industry, highlighting how RPA can be of great assistance in improving how businesses are run, regardless of the sector.

Moving on from the myths

So how can we break through these myths and embrace RPA more readily? Key to the issue is the fact that many of the misconceptions around RPA in SMEs are being solidified by a lack of engagement from suppliers of automation technologies.

A Global Fintech report from PwC has recently shown that the focus of RPA providers is firmly placed on bigger enterprises, particularly banks and financial services firms. This is a big issue, as it results in less awareness at the mid-market level of the opportunities that automation offers. Many SMEs are not geared towards optimising the technology they have, let alone the adoption of automation and AI-related systems, which means that they may not immediately appreciate the value it can bring to their business. Combine this with the fact that that many RPA providers focus most of their time and resources on the “big boys”, particularly those in the world of finance, how could SMEs be aware of the impact that automation technologies could have on day-to-day operations and their bottom line?

To overcome this hurdle, we at EACS believe that business leaders in SMEs, particularly those with purchasing power, must take the lead and push for RPA to be introduced into their companies’ workflows. They should look to engage with the right partners and cloud providers who are knowledgeable on the most cost-effective and accessible solutions, which can now be provided as SaaS. By developing these relationships and outsourcing automation responsibilities, SMEs can reap the full rewards of automation, in a way that is both efficient and cost-effective.

Stuart Dickinson, COO, EACS

Stuart is COO at EACS and as a proven track record of running successful business transformation programmes.