The time to turn automation talk into action is right now – think big, or go home

Tom Henriksson, General Partner, OpenOcean, discusses how Covid-19 has shifted automation from the realm of long-term strategic thinking into an operational imperative for survival.
Tom Henriksson, General Partner, OpenOcean, discusses how Covid-19 has shifted automation from the realm of long-term strategic thinking into an operational imperative for survival.

The debate around automation technologies has now shifted from devising a long-term strategy to implementing one before it is too late. The past eighteen months have seen companies that had spent a long time talking about using artificial intelligence and ‘robotic process automation’ suddenly finding they had to put a decade of development into a single year.

The global pandemic shifted businesses into action on automation. When employees were suddenly working from home, businesses could no longer carry on just prevaricating about remote working solutions, they had to act. One particularly common approach during COVID-19 was the acceleration of plans to introduce Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to streamline back-office administration while, at the same time, launching AI-driven ‘bots’ to handle customer enquiries.

This shift from strategizing to execution can be seen in recent findings from Deloitte, which reveal 73% of organizations worldwide are now using automation technologies – up from 58% in 2019.

Automation challenges

However, the headline figure for accelerated uptake in automation may trick the untrained eye into glossing over the underlying challenges. There has, undoubtedly, been significant progress, but with so many companies moving from strategy to execution, it has been difficult to find the right people to push plans through at speed and within budget.

It means there is now a real risk of organizations falling into two camps – the have and have nots. Those who have acted successfully will already be reaping the benefits of working more efficiently and gaining in-depth insights from their data. Those who have not will find it harder to compete against rivals working smarter at a reduced cost.

As the return to offices is well underway, those who have invested will find their people can focus on more value-added tasks as processes are automated. Those who have not will find their people are still having to grind through the gears of getting tasks done while having to answer general customer queries that could easily be processed by leveraging RPA.

Wide-scale automation plans

There is still time for companies that have yet to invest in automation, so long as organizations realize they must commit to action. The guiding philosophy must be to recognize this is not a limited exercise. To drive meaningful, sustainable change, companies must think bigger picture. They have to take a large scale, end-to-end approach to ensure systems work seamlessly together and deliver value across the organization.

One area that cannot be overlooked in this process is UX. All too often an organization will implement a new technology that looks amazing, but when it comes to using it in the real world, it struggles to function across disparate systems. For automation to work effectively, it needs to be seamless, otherwise IT teams are introducing one simpler process while creating a bottleneck elsewhere.

Organizations have to take the time to deploy analytics and automation orchestration solutions throughout their tech stack to spot these gaps and bridge them accordingly. It’s the only way they are going to deliver effective automation.

People as automation innovators

Automation strategies are best applied by bringing in the employees who are going to use the tools and going the extra mile and seeking their input. The key here is not to allow employees to go out and implement new automation tools unchecked. That would lead to people potentially pulling in different directions and risk new ways of working in one department not working seamlessly with another. Accidental data corruption would be another key concern.

The key is to get employees involved but with a clear governance structure that both oversees and guides teams, so they are empowered to think creatively about driving innovation within the organization.

It is more than a good idea in terms of staff relations. Businesses that are introducing employee involvement in creating their automation solutions are reporting positive results. Coca-Cola Icecek, for example, has put employee participation principles into action by encouraging teams to create their automation solutions. The programme has the protection of a clear governance framework and is already leading to a line of interesting new projects taking shape, such as a recently implemented order management process using RPA.

The age of enterprise automation

It would do staff a disservice to only concentrate on the exciting news of teams coming together to drive change within their organization. There is a potential downside to automation that is very clear to employees. The more streamlined the technology becomes, the fewer humans are needed to run processes.

It is almost certain that within every business, there will be people who do not share the excitement in developing and adapting automation solutions that could impact their economic well-being. However, the good news is the World Economic Forum predicts AI will create 97 million new jobs by 2025, while 85 million roles will be lost.

With these concerns in mind, then, businesses must take a people-first approach to automation. They not only need to match solutions to processes but also map out the current technological capabilities of staff and their IT training needs. If there is a gap in skill levels, this needs to be addressed.

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The result will be that rather than being seen as a route to job losses, automation and AI become a route to upskill people, so they become an integral part of the organization’s digital transformation. There is an exciting technological age starting to happen right now and it is only by taking its people with it on this journey that organizations will be able to enjoy its exciting possibilities.

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