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Harnessing the power of automation

(Image credit: Image Credit: MNBB Studio / Shutterstock)

Automating tasks previously done by hand to simplify and enhance production is nothing new. Humans have been doing it since 350 BCE when the first waterwheels for processing grain were recorded in Syria and Egypt.

Today, many businesses are embracing technology to automate manual processes, generating a 30-200 per cent return on investment in the first year. With 74 per cent of organisations actively looking for new use cases for automation it’s no surprise that by 2022 it’s estimated that 42 per cent of total task hours will be completed by machines.

There are several ways in which businesses can harness the power of automation to achieve competitive advantage, and it is important that businesses gain a clearer understanding of automation; its benefits and applications.

The types of automation available

There are numerous types of automation being used by businesses, from sophisticated AI software to tools with more basic functionality. Globally, almost half the activities employees perform have the potential to be automated using existing proven technologies.

These existing technologies include:

Smart workflow tools that automate and collate manual processes into simple, regular workflows – from sales quote generation to employee onboarding/offboarding tools

Machine learning that use algorithms to make decisions by identifying patterns in large amounts of data, including numbers, words, images and clicks – from predictive maintenance in manufacturing factories, to market segmentation and product recommendation in sales

Robotic process automation (RPA) that automates repetitive, manual tasks by recreating the steps of rules-based processes through a presentation layer, without compromising existing IT systems that don’t have easy-to-use or available APIs – from mass timesheet submission to order and invoice processing

It’s not just big business that can afford automation; many SMEs are harnessing the power of automation by using cost-effective cloud-based and SaaS applications to reduce manual processes.

How automation has evolved

Automation is continually evolving with new software, AI-driven hardware and service industry robots developed as both leaders and employees see the benefits and demand ramps up.

Businesses are considering every manual task and looking at ways processes can be automated. Solutions might include off-the-shelf SaaS tools, such as cloud-based accounting software platform Xero, or bespoke software that is designed specifically to automate a business’ unique workflow.

Leveraging automation means that an increased amount of data is being captured digitally. This data can be used to identify performance improvements and trends and, increasingly, allows for real-time decision making around business-critical processes.

With more of this data being captured, businesses are moving on to using machine learning services, such as easily integrated recommendation engines for e-commerce platforms, functionality that was previously only available to large organisations.

What kinds of businesses can use automation?

Automation benefits businesses of all sizes and in all industries. Any business that has a consistent and well-defined set of processes, especially where volume is high, can leverage automation to reap the benefits.

For example, replacing a manual recruitment process by using tools and systems that automatically screen CVs, manage candidates, book interviews and collate feedback, can streamline recruitment in any business. Automating this procedure saves significant time, freeing up employees to focus on more high-value work.

The key benefits of automation

There are numerous benefits to automation including:

  • Increased productivity of the workforce – automation frees up employee time to focus on more high-value tasks
  • Ability to handle increased volume – automation enables businesses to process more jobs, faster
  • Cost savings – automating tasks means more available man hours and potentially the opportunity to reduce the workforce without reducing the level of output
  • Reduction in human error – software reduces the chance of human error, for instance, humans are no longer manually inputting masses of data
  • Customer satisfaction – automation improves the service provided to customers, for example, by speeding up the time it takes to order a product or book a service
  • Employee satisfaction – employees no longer need to work on repetitive, mundane tasks
  • Better insights and data – tracking data allows for better analysis and improving procedures, potentially in real-time
  • More efficient and targeted marketing – automation means businesses can hone their marketing activities to focus on core audiences with CRM software or by using digital advertising

Exploring automation in your business

Businesses keen to introduce automation should start small by assessing which are the easiest processes that have no value added by humans. These processes could be automated to save time and reduce human error.

Looking at one business function first is also a good approach to ensure that automation produces a significant return on investment, and that it meets both the short-term and long-term strategic business goals. For example, if you can use automation to reduce a task that takes two hours to 20 minutes there is a clear timesaving.

Once you have a few successes with smaller automation transformations, then begin to assess what larger aspects of your business can also benefit. It’s important to remember that automation can be added to your business incrementally, and that smaller projects can be built upon rather than tackling a huge digital transformation all at once.

How to approach an automation project

Once you have identified an opportunity to apply technology to automate manual processes; whether through workflow automation, machine learning or Robotic Process Automation (PRA), we recommend addressing the following points in order to ensure a fit-for-purpose and scalable solution that delivers effective ROI.

Detail the process

Once you have identified the task or tasks that you want to automate, it is important to detail the process from initiation to completion. This can be as simple as a workflow on one A4 piece of paper or a more complex sequence with a journey that passes through different departments.

Map out happy and unhappy paths

It’s also important to analyse the ‘happy’ paths (e.g. a customer ordering and the product is in stock) and the ‘unhappy’ paths (e.g. the product is out of stock, what next) for each automation initiative to ensure it captures the full path and exceptions.

Consider your options

You then need to assess whether there are already off-the-shelf products available or whether a bespoke piece of software is required; the price of various options; and the potential down time involved with implementing and training.

Assess the risk

Deciding on what option to progress requires thorough risk-assessment to ensure you get the most value from your investment – for example, by considering what would happen if the software went offline.

Measure results

Those who opt for a custom-made piece of software should ensure they have a clear vision of what success looks like from a non-technical perspective, such as impact on revenue or customer engagement. This enables you to track success throughout the design and prototyping process and to be agile in terms of improvements and to measure the project’s results at the end.

Embracing the power of automation not only gives businesses a competitive edge but also improves employee satisfaction. A digital strategy that harnesses automation does not need to be a daunting prospect. Start small with a focus on improving one manual process or one business function, and soon you will reap the rewards.

Philip White, managing director, Audacia