The world is becoming increasingly automated, increasing the likelihood that we will move over a large proportion of what we store, and how we communicate, to a digital framework.
But as this trend continues and organisations increasingly see automation as a shiny ‘badge of honour’, we must take a step back to remind ourselves: digital automation is not always the ultimate destination and digital solutions must earn the right to be deployed.
There is a great cost and complexity to changing the way you do things, so before embarking on a digital transformation journey, businesses need to ask themselves: does the increase in speed, reduction of costs/pain outweigh the demands of implementation?
In this article I’ll explore how, and where, digital automation can be relevant in the workplace and in a way that ensures these technologies are delivering measurable results.
The front end – how does data get into the system in the first place?
There are two classic ways data is collected: manual paper based processes and using spreadsheets. These methods have served businesses well for a long time – and continue to do – but there are instances where automation may provide a more efficient, risk-free solution…
Manual paper based processes
Any process that relies on paper should be reviewed urgently unless there’s a good reason. What constitutes ‘good reason’? Well, if it’s not mission critical, not used by many people and not repeated very often, it’s probably not going to impact your business operations enough to constitute an urgent review.
If otherwise, however, and it is something that is repeated time and time again, taking up a large chunk of your human resource, then you really should be looking to go digital. Proformas, for example, usually indicate a task is repeated relatively frequently and if that information is disseminated to multiple parties, the paper solution doesn’t make sense.
Surprisingly, up until recently a number of FTSE 100 organisations were still relying on the likes of multi-sheet carbon paper, pre-paid envelopes and subsequent data entry back at HQ to retrieve info back from field force. These are some of the most valuable companies in the world and yet they were still wasting time and money by relying on old manual processes.
When one of these FTSE 100 companies finally began automating one of its auditing processes, it was able to save auditors at least half an hour every week, as well as save hundreds of thousands of pounds on stationery and postage – not to mention the positive impact it had on the company’s environmental footprint. In this instance, the process was well overdue for an urgent review.
The fact so many processes are still maintained by spreadsheets shows just how powerful they are and they probably won’t go away any time soon.
There are advantages to a spreadsheet in that it can be generated and used by most people and it’s in a universally accepted format. But their inevitable grid pattern means they are ugly on the eye and it is difficult to disseminate information easily from spreadsheets. They are also notoriously good at hiding errors or being corrupted.
The middle section – how does data flow through a system?
Legacy software is the existing software in an organisation and workflow is the process of how things are approved via that software, whether legacy or new. Let’s take a look at why these two things might benefit from automation.
Every dog has its day. The world is always moving and what was a game-changer once (the abacus, the spreadsheet) can be old hat a few years down the line.
Some digital solutions can also now seem a little outdated, either because they were in-house ‘quick fixes’ or – as is often the case – because they stand alone in a silo. A lot of these legacy systems are built organically and contain routines that don’t work anymore and that aren’t necessary.
This doesn’t mean that these legacy outliers don’t have a place. The key is ensuring they function within a digital ecosystem. This task is often made easier through the use of APIs that act as convenient ‘docking stations’ that permit different software packages to talk to each other.
This kind of digital collaboration is great because the utility of all the component software solutions in the ecosystem increases, which means the size and worth of the data pie gets even bigger.
Any process that requires information to be moved from individual to individual for checking and/or sign-off will always benefit from a digitally automated system.
The benefits to this seem obvious: no more emails sat in inboxes; the addition of timely reminders to complete a task; predetermined rerouting that takes account of illness or holiday absence.
One organisation that we worked with had such a clunky approval process that the approval could take weeks. It had to go through so many different layers of sign-offs, which at some points might go sideways to a technical expert and at other points might go downwards to somebody not very senior.
Similar to the FTSE 100 organisation, by automating this particular workflow the company was able to make the process much more efficient and save a significant amount of time and resource. Elegant workflow solutions can literally shave off weeks over the course of a long complex project which has multiple milestones and gates.
The back end – where does the data end up?
“See what you need to see and only what you need to see!” This is often a part of the system that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Data can often be metaphorically dumped on a business analyst that then needs to spend time dicing and slicing it, interpreting it and then presenting it upwards.
Real-time dashboards that can present intelligent information to all key stakeholders are necessary tools. The analytics can be built specifically for individual businesses or you can make use of licences from the likes of Tableau or PowerBI.
Say I want to know two key pieces of information that are integral to the day-to-day running of the business: number of deals won and number of days to replenish the warehouse. Having a decent, clear dashboard that immediately gives you the information you’ve agreed internally, with the KPIs you want to see would be much more efficient than spending hours trying to decipher information from a spreadsheet.
Whatever you do, it is a business imperative to ensure that this key part of the system is not overlooked. Why would you automate everything apart from the bit that helped you make informed management decisions? Exactly.
My alarm bells ring when I think about the fact that there are organisations that still rely on paper-based storage-archive systems. Apart from the physical space, the people hours associated with administering it and the risk associated with records being lost or damaged is huge.
Text-based communication is now largely stored in a digital format, but worryingly, from a disaster recovery perspective, there is still a reluctance from some companies to use The Cloud. There also remains a reliance on paper-based resources in sector specific industries. For example, a large amount of mapping records still rely on paper schematics.
In these instances, an automated system would reduce the hours organisations spend on people and minimise the risk of data getting lost.
Reality – be prepared to adopt a hybrid model
The reality is, most organisations will need to adopt a hybrid model when it comes to automation. An example of this comes from our work with Rolls-Royce and United States Naval Air Systems command (NAVAIR) to help tackle the issue of recovering foreign object debris (FOD) from runways, which costs the aerospace sector around $4bn every year.
The data capture system we developed for them didn’t take away the need for personnel to do regular sweeps of the runway – RADAR can only pick up debris above a certain size – but it did significantly speed up the geo-locational mapping of where debris was on the run way and pushing through the logging of the find to a central hub.
But adopting a hybrid process – a mix of automation and manual process – the timeline of removal and identification of foreign objects has been significantly foreshortened.
Equally, a hybrid process could mean integrating an older automation process with a newer one. Most chief technology officers will have a gradual rolling programme of introducing technology and won’t throw everything out all at once.
That would be a really risky and costly thing to do – especially if the whole system change they deployed was wrong. If it’s just one element of the ecosystem, that can usually be shut off and fixed without causing too much disruption.
It is much more sensible to take a hybrid and pragmatic approach, which also means accepting that some old things have value and not just throwing all your money at the shiny and new.
Reasons to automate
There are many reasons to automate but whether it is the right solution for your business depends on a number of factors.
If a painful, time-consuming process is conducted regularly and by the many: automate.
If the data is important enough such that losing it or trying to recapture it would cost valuable time and resources: automate.
Remember that some old systems and processes have value and a hybrid approach may deliver the best results for your business.
Crucially, make sure you talk to users at every step in a process – from the field service engineer to the business analyst – to find out what takes up most of their time and what causes them pain. This might also uncover the need to automate.