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The challenges and opportunities of automation in the channel

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

Like phrases such as big data, digital transformation, and Artificial Intelligence before it, ‘automation’ has grown to become quite the buzzword in the world of business. In fact, there’s now so much talk about the use of technology to ‘streamline operations’, that automation is almost an unattainable panacea in the eyes of many – even in the tech sector where it should perhaps know better.

Yes, at an enterprise level, there are some corporate giants thinking big and really nailing it. Likewise, there are some vast organizations with dedicated project teams and six or seven-figure budgets, that become so shackled with scope creep that their automation aspirations remain nothing more than pipedreams.

There are also smaller – and often nimbler – businesses that would be ideally placed to implement automation-led initiatives large and small, but they simply don’t know where to start. And there are undoubtedly those who have been left so baffled or, quite frankly, turned off with all the automation jargon that exists in industry, that they’ve dismissed any notion that it could add value to them.

It’s certainly a mixed bag, but it needn’t be such a minefield.

So where should an automation journey begin?

The aggregation of marginal gains

Organizations embarking, from scratch, on a quest for greater automation, need to stop worrying about moving mountains from day one. Instead of focusing on the entirety of what’s possible, there is arguably more value in breaking the job down into actionable and achievable component parts.

In this respect, much can be learned from Sir Dave Brailsford, head of British cycling, who took the long-suffering team from winning only one gold medal in 76 years, to seven at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – an achievement mirrored in London four years later.

Aware that aiming for gold felt like a daunting and perhaps even impossible plight, he applied the theory of marginal gains to the sport. In other words, he deconstructed everything to create a checklist of micro tasks and concentrated on improving each element by just one percent to secure a significant aggregated performance increase. The mentality centered on progression, not perfection.

Likening this to automation in a tech firm may seem like a stretch, but the same principle applies. The possibilities that automation can unlock are almost endless, so to cover everything will probably never be feasible. But by making individual systems and processes more ‘joined up’ – as well as quicker and slicker to execute, with an eye on best practice throughout – means even one percent efficiency gains will soon add up.

Removing digital silos

Some businesses may have far to travel on their automation journey, whereas others may have already made a start by ‘thinking digitally’. But even those who have transitioned from post-it notes and spreadsheets to intuitive apps and platforms, may still find themselves with a way to go.

Because yes, the digitization of processes represents an important step. But what happens if these tools and technologies continue to exist on ‘digital islands’, with varying degrees of customization and few – if any – ‘bridges’ between them to enable the data to do what it needs to. If someone must pull all the strings to make multiple products work together – with a questionable degree of effectiveness – there remains much to do.

The key to automation is to define the process that will spontaneously enable widget A to press buzzer B that activates application C and produces data point D – and so on.

And it’s OK to start small.

In simplistic terms, a business may decide to outsource its mailing so it's saving time – and money – that would otherwise be spent licking stamps! This soon outweighs the cost involved.

But automation can be far more sophisticated too, of course. An email marketing platform can talk intuitively to a CRM tool as a sales pipeline advances, for example, before auto-updating a billing engine when a deal converts, and triggering a conversion report to better understand ROI. Without this automation, people involved in any one part of the process would still have confidence the data existed in there. However, the time otherwise required to uncover it, and then manually push it through the system, could mean the insight soon becomes obsolete and the associated opportunity is consequently lost. The real-time nature of the intel is where the value lies, hence the beauty of triangulating these multiple elements to create a truly integrated eco-system.

Only for big players?

In truth, automation is a vast topic which is difficult to cover in one swoop. But the important thing to note is that, firstly, it should not be feared. It is not necessarily a complex process that lies only within the reach of gigantic corporations with equally large budgets. Yes, data volume makes an investment in automation easier to justify. And a degree of technical competence is needed to orchestrate the integration of tools that lead to a super-slick outcome. But this needn’t cost the earth, and there are people in the market who live and breathe this world – making it relatively easy to move forward.

Secondly, automation is not trying to rid people of their jobs and replace them with ‘robots’. On the contrary, at a time when employees are becoming increasingly discerning about their workplace fulfilment levels, it can liberate them from burdensome, administration-centric tasks, and free up their time to focus on activities that make better use of their skills – boosting both productivity and engagement as a result.

Thirdly, the benefits associated with automation aren’t isolated solely to staff motivation and workplace efficiencies. Automation – or certainly, an automation-savvy mindset – can become the lifeblood of a firm’s scale-up strategy, which empowers the business to grow at speed, with a constant eye on cost control and service levels too. In the current economic climate, this agility – not to mention bottom line protection – has arguably never been so important.

The world of IT, telecoms and network infrastructure is renowned for being innovative – certainly when it comes to the creation and deployment of customer solutions.

But some organization, perhaps, may not be as shrewd where its our own systems and processes are concerned. Isn’t about time that is fixed?

Terry Daniell, co-founder and operations director, Trenches Law