What is the importance of automation in the modern world?
I suggest that Business Process Automation is no longer a potentially valuable addition or nice-to-have technology for modern businesses. Rather, Automation has evolved into a critical driver of business viability, continuity, and longevity.
The evolution and importance of Automation
Although the idea of Automation is not new, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the term was coined. In those early days, Automation was mainly associated with manufacturing and mechanical assembly lines. But since then, its influence has exploded, and the importance of Automation is now acknowledged by virtually every industry.
The human race is wonderfully creative, innovative and detail-oriented. And yet, humans are also careless, prone to making errors, and slaves to basic needs like hunger, thirst and sleep. All these challenges frequently impair productivity, lead to mistakes, and curtail creativity and output. These problems may disrupt business operations, or result in significant losses of profits, data, customers or reputations. In the worst cases, these human frailties can even result in business closures and obsolescence.
Automation, in particular Business Process Automation (BPA), can effectively address these challenges. It enables organisations to simplify and optimise processes, and improve service delivery and customer experiences. It even helps augment human capabilities to deliver better business results than would be possible with people alone.
And yet, not every organisation is able to effectively leverage these benefits of Automation. Why?
Obstacle #1: Resistance to change
Automation has evolved from the early days of conveyer belts and assembly lines into cutting-edge Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Intelligent Automation (IA), Artificial Intelligence, chatbots, predictive analysis, and other technologies. These advanced automated systems can interact with us in human-like ways, “learn” and continuously improve their capabilities, and even take autonomous decisions. These amazing capabilities improve human productivity, accelerate innovation, and help dramatically enhance the human experience. With Automation, work gets “redesigned”, and leaves humans free to engage in higher-value tasks that enhance their workplace motivation and engagement.
So what holds organisations back from adopting Automation and benefiting from it?
One reason is fear of change. This 2020 study found that 65% of respondents said that new Automation technology makes them more productive at work. And yet, 80% also said that they don’t want their job responsibilities to change. Automation almost always results in a transformation of job roles and responsibilities. But when individuals are resistant to change, it holds back automation for the entire enterprise.
So how can organisations overcome this resistance? The most important way is to adopt a people-first mindset. Leadership must understand the reasons for resistance, and communicate the value of the new initiative to overcome this resistance. They must explain Automation’s benefits in terms that resonate with employees, and get buy-in at every level. It’s also crucial to create an Automation-ready culture – one that’s open to experimentation, feedback and idea-sharing.
Obstacle #2: Not knowing what to do or how to do it right
In late 2019, Adidas announced that it would shut down its two automation-powered “Speedfactories” in Germany and the U.S. These factories were originally expected to accelerate the production and go-to-market of in-demand customised shoes. One of the reasons these factories failed is that Adidas did not understand the limits of Automation technology, or whether it was flexible and adaptable enough to help them meet their stated goals.
According to a 2020 survey, 70% of U.S. decision-makers considering RPA credit “process insight” as the top factor for RPA success. And yet, only 31% of such organisations use tools to understand their processes better. This may be why a lack of awareness of which process to automate is one of the leading causes of Automation failure. The same study also found two other critical success factors for RPA initiatives: advanced planning, and having simple workflows to Automate.
For all these reasons, process knowledge is vital. It’s also important to plan strategically for any Automation project. Organisations should not take on more than they can handle in a certain time period. Leadership should set goals that are reasonable and achievable, not overly ambitious, short-term or vague. Moreover, they should first identify and implement the “foundational” components of their Automation programme, such as governance, resources, infrastructure, and a trusted vendor network.
Organisations should also define the right success criteria right at the outset. Which pain points or objectives should the Automation project address? Which processes should be Automated? In short, what is the story of this initiative? Early clarity on these issues is crucial.
It’s also usually best to start small with a “pilot test”. Automating one process and evaluating its performance against the identified success criteria is a good way to get some early wins, and create a positive culture for a wider roll-out.
The right Automation platform and the right vendor are also crucial. These choices would depend on the company’s current Automation maturity and its Automation goals.
An Automation Centre of Excellence (CoE) can also be a worthwhile investment. The CoE can set up a management system, create standards and best practices, measure progress against goals, and keep the Automation programme on track.
The consequences of Automation failure
Adidas is just one of many examples of a failed Automation initiative. A study by EY estimated that 30-50% of initial RPA projects fail. Often, this is because organisations jump into RPA before they know how their processes work. Sometimes, they pick the “wrong” process to Automate. This is usually a process that’s not clearly-defined, or is too dynamic for RPA bots to handle. Some processes requires decision-making, brainstorming or creative thinking – uniquely human competencies that present-day RPA bots just cannot bring to the table. Such challenges could lead to RPA failures for any organisation in any industry. That’s why it’s vital to plan well and set a strong Automation foundation as already discussed earlier.
Automation is vital for business continuity in the post-COVID era. To keep up with new market trends and meet new customer demands, companies in every industry need to think different. This requires exploring new digital solutions, and augmenting their human workforce with Automation. For all these reasons, it’s crucial to be aware of both the factors that may lead to Automation failure, and the strategies that can increase the chances of success.
The importance of Automation is already clear. It’s also clear that the time for Automation is now. To keep up with the times and to keep ahead of the competition, modern organisations must modernise their legacy processes and systems with Automation. They must also do everything they can to ensure its success.