Make no mistake: Automation is on its way to your office if it's not there already. As digital transformation tops the to-do list of major organizations in every industry, business functions everywhere — whether in IT, HR, sales or finance — are using automation strategy to produce maximum results with minimal effort.
Automation — specifically, robotic process automation (RPA) — is a catch-all term for specialized software designed to simplify, streamline and speed up routine business processes. Tasks that once took hours of administrative drudgery can now be performed by machines in seconds.
The cost-savings and performance-boosting implications are huge. On the one hand, automation presents companies with enticing opportunities to improve output and quality of service while eliminating some peripheral positions. In Mercer's Global Talent Trends 2019 report, more than half of executives expect automation and AI to replace one in five jobs in their organizations. But it's not all about reducing headcount. Companies are also using automation as a springboard to elevate employees to higher-value work, and the World Economic Forum estimates that automation will actually create 58 million net new jobs by 2022.
Whatever a company's intentions may be, the benefits of automation are undeniable, which is why the market for RPA is expected to reach nearly $4 billion by 2025. However, automating important business processes is rarely as easy as plug and play; it comes with organizational nuances that can't be ignored. Without a well-defined plan and careful consideration of the impacts on employees, attempts at automation can spark enough confusion and fear to counteract any positive results.
With that in mind, here are five steps organizations should consider as they shape their automation strategy:
The best use cases for RPA automate repetitive, high-volume tasks that are business-critical but which most people would be happy to give up. By assigning these chores to a software bot, the department in question can provide faster and more accurate service, save money and, ostensibly, give real people more interesting things to do.
That said, not every job is ripe for complete automation. For example, tasks that truly benefit from a human touch might be best left as they are. The same goes for processes that may be monotonous but require very little manpower and don't warrant the cost of automation.
To ensure automation is properly configured and doesn't do more harm than good, it's essential for companies to fully assess the scope and influence of the targeted process. Each scenario will be different. For example, an off-the-shelf RPA product for a standard business process may suffice, but more unique and complex processes might require custom-built solutions. Before choosing a solution for the process in review, companies will need to know exactly who carries out the process, how often, what other systems might be indirectly affected, and who's counting on the results.
While "automation" implies a completely hands-off process, in reality, many automated processes are designed to be used interactively by employees, helping them work faster and more effectively. Therefore, RPA should be easy for employees to grasp and use to their benefit rather than being dauntingly technical or requiring lengthy training courses.
This may not be as hard as it sounds, because most employees are heavy users of technology in their personal lives. They've come to expect automated processes and effortless user experiences through their favorite websites, apps and streaming services. It stands to reason that the most effective uses of automation in the office will improve the employee experience by mimicking the user-friendly, intuitive systems employees already know and enjoy.
Naturally, when talk of automating processes begins, the rumor mill kicks into high gear. Employees will be concerned about how their jobs might change and whether layoffs loom on the horizon. Anticipating this, companies should get ahead of the curve and communicate proactively and transparently about their automation strategy.
Keep people at the heart of your transformation efforts and help them understand the benefits that automation will bring to the organization and, if applicable, to them as individuals. If automation will indeed lead to job losses or changing roles, be prepared to outline the company's plans for reskilling and reorganizing roles. Also, keep in mind that the message may vary for different stakeholder groups.
As with any technology roll-out, a thorough plan of attack with date-based milestones is essential to keep the project on track. Part of this planning process includes identifying key stakeholder groups — those affected by the automation — and sharing expectations for how the changes will play out in the short term and further down the road.
While it's common for companies to set aggressive goals for the launch, it's important to remember that automation doesn't happen in a vacuum. The timing may be impacted by any number of other initiatives, such as technology platform changes, acquisitions or divestitures, that compete for resources and could alter the automation plan itself.
For nearly every large enterprise — and many smaller companies, as well — automation is an inevitability, as speed, precision and flexibility are requisites for success. The companies that can take advantage of automation to not only cut costs but to also maximize the potential of their human employees will be the true winners of the digital age.