Overcoming automation assumptions can help influence business strategy

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Freeing up staff to focus on value-adding activities, automation is of interest to many businesses.

We speak to Leon Stafford, UK Country Manager, Digital Workforce, to find out more about the latest in business automation. 

Leon, what is the likelihood of business automation being more accepted in the coming years?

The journey to mainstream acceptance for new innovations follows the same pattern. It’s so predictable that Gartner even has a name for it: the Hype Cycle. From the initial excitement at the beginning, to heightened expectations and subsequent disillusionment, before gradual acceptance and widespread use, every technology currently in use by businesses has gone through that process. 

Automation, and particularly business automation, is no different. The theory behind using automation is solid, with significant benefits for a wide range of organisations in many industries. And with the likes of the Great Resignation making it even harder to acquire the right talent businesses need to grow, being able to automate a variety of tasks, and in doing so free up staff to focus on value-adding activities, is of interest to many businesses. 

Is it true to say that most people’s initial assumption of automation is that it’s bad?

Yes many people are put off by what they’ve heard or seen. They assume that implementing business automation requires significant upfront investment, and that the only people available to deliver deployments are either expensive consultancies, such as one of the Big Four professional service firms, or start-ups with no proven capabilities. 

There is some truth to these preconceptions, or at least, there used to be. That is now changing, however, and that mindset is becoming outdated.  

For instance, more automation vendors are tapping into a technology that has already gone through the Hype Cycle – cloud – to offer the likes of business automation on an as-a-service basis, providing access to powerful tech without major capital expenditure. 

As well as reducing the risk for the customer, it also means smaller projects can be considered for automation. When major investment was required, the trade-off needed to be similarly spectacular – whole departments automated, for example. But if teams wanting to use automation haven’t had to make such a big business case, then that means their projects don’t need to be as big to begin with. 

As such you’re lowering the barrier to benefit from business automation?

Yes, not only does this mean that companies can effectively sandbox business automation by deploying it quickly on focused projects, try new things, get results rapidly and then reiterate, it also means that automation becomes a viable option for smaller organisations, or ones with less resources. 

Now, everyone gets the opportunity to take small yet strategic steps to automate certain tasks, realise the value and justify increased investment and scope. And because they’re getting results back fast, they’ve got real-world data with which to tweak and tailor their strategy and objectives. 

Are businesses playing the long-haul game with automation? Overhauling everything and creating strategies to blend it in?

As an example, it’s something sustainability certification and net zero programme Planet Mark found when it wanted to automate key parts of its analyst function. 

The company helps businesses to achieve their sustainability goals by measuring continuous   progress, engaging a businesses stakeholders and communicating their achievements externally Planet Mark has enjoyed significant growth as businesses have sought to measure their environmental efforts. Scaling was challenging; a lot of what Planet Mark does is complex, relying on experienced individuals to analyse data with specific skill sets. 

This high-performing, experienced group of individuals performed some of Planet Mark’s most complex tasks, but they also had manual administration to complete that took up time. To fix this, the business looked at a number of different solutions. While it was open to automation, it had several preconceptions (specifically, that it required CAPEX and partnering with a major consultancy that might be too big for Planet Mark). To tackle this, it undertook a discovery phase, and in doing so realised that there were ways of deploying business automation that would not only meet the specific goals for the automation project but could have wider ramifications for the company. 

As such, it has stopped at the discovery phase to go back and redesign its strategy, factoring in all the opportunities automation could generate across the organisation. 

So it’s right to say that automation is worth a second consideration now …

Yes, definitely. Planet Mark is only at the beginning of its automation journey, and other companies may have already tried business automation in the past. In that instance, making the case for renewed investment must overcome significant opposition which will be based on real-world experience, albeit from a time before automation-as-a-service was feasible.  But even those companies can learn from Planet Mark’s example and how it demonstrates that investigating automation in the right way can have an impact on the wider organisation.

Automation is just the latest in the long line of innovations that will go through the Hype Cycle. Some flame out, and never reach mainstream acceptance. But automation is already proving its value to a wide range of entities. Those companies that do not wish to be left behind need to put aside their preconceptions and assumptions and look again at how business automation could be deployed in a way that suits their organisational structure and business model, while helping them achieve their goals. 

Cherry Martin

Cherry is Associate Editor of Business Matters with responsibility for planning and writing future features, interviews and more in-depth pieces for what is now the UK’s largest print and online source of current business news.

Business Matters Magazine

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