We are amid an automation rush, with nearly every sector looking to automate myriad tasks to improve processes and ultimately the bottom line.
Whether it’s maintaining hybrid workplaces, improving customer service, or just a matter of finding innovative ways to do more with less, automation, along with artificial intelligence (AI), could add up to $4 trillion to Australia’s economy, forecasting that between 25 to 46 per cent of current work activities could be automated by the end of this decade, according to recent research.
In one example, the automation of in-house legal processes at Telstra saved its lawyers over 6,000 hours per annum. They now spend less time on menial tasks, and more on those that require their skills and expertise. They also have increased capacity for face-to-face engagements with business stakeholders to meet business deliverables.
Automation is even beginning to emerge in industries that might appear to rely solely on the human mind in perpetuity. Laboratories, once the sole domain of inquisitive researchers and test tubes, are seeing automation handling daily processes. Research and analysis are supported by data analytics engines that crunch the numbers so that scientists are freed to focus on qualitative assessment.
With analysts at IDC estimating that process inefficiencies are responsible for losing businesses between 20 to 30 per cent in revenue each year, automation can undertake much of the grunt work that has burdened the workforce for decades, and subsequently led to operational hurdles and financial losses.
However, just because something can be automated does not mean it reflexively should be, particularly at a time when the nation is looking to foster and support a highly-skilled workforce to remain competitive globally, and amid ongoing fears around the impact on jobs.
The human impact
Automation is intended to supplement and de-burden the workforce. It drives return on investment (ROI) through boosting productivity, reducing cost, increasing accessibility to resources, and enhancing data security by removing the risks that come with manual handling. And for many, it provides unprecedented access to data to report on KPIs.
But organisations often find themselves automating the wrong processes or for the wrong reasons. Every conversation must therefore start with an analysis of the level of talent or human capital, and how they will be impacted once automation enters their workflows.
What bottlenecks will automation remove for different people? Are duplicated processes keeping skilled workers from interacting with customers? Are projects falling behind deadline because the IT department is inundated with requests from multiple departments and stakeholders? Are you losing revenue because staff are digging through data while competitors capitalise on your stale leads?
Perhaps most importantly, are businesses automating for the sake of it, or is there an immediate, measured target in sight?
An impact analysis shines light on prospective return on investment, and creates visibility into not only productivity gaps, but areas for further investment.
It also addresses the complacency that has traditionally held back adoption, stemming from misconceptions on the role of automation in a digital economy, including its impact on jobs.
However, research firm Forrester recently found that 1.7 million jobs will be created by 2030, with many more to transform into the gig economy. While some types of jobs will be lost, principal analyst Sam Higgins says “a shortage of skills to build new digital solutions will fuel massive growth in the digital elite cohort” as technical skills become set to boost the ranks of digital elites by 33 per cent.
While the pandemic has amplified the appetite for digital transformations in various forms, the first step for the automation piece is evaluating how frequently processes and tasks are completed, and the resources required to finish them.
A task completed twice a year which takes 10 hours each time might appear to be ripe for automation, but if building the automation solution takes fifty hours, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. There’s also little value in automating tasks that aren’t repeated or performed by more than an individual; while it might make that person’s life easier, there’s often no broader benefit to the organisation.
On the flip side of the equation, if the effort, time, or cost to automate the task is much lower than the current process and outweighs any benefit, automation makes the most sense.
Organisations may have settled on processes which are ripe for automation, but regardless of the type of business, you can’t go ahead and simply automate everything at once.
Overhauling existing or implementing new processes can be expensive and disruptive, and sometimes fail altogether, especially in the face of large-scale, forced change; the pandemic, Royal Commissions and regulatory systems like the OAIC’s Notifiable Data Breach (NDB) scheme have had companies scurrying for solutions.
Assigning ranks is critical in this process. This ranking should consider the different use cases for each implementation, the anticipated ROI, and the potential benefits to the business, along with the potential disruption it will create along the way. This will provide a roadmap for what must be automated this quarter versus the next, and map spend accordingly.
Automation will become increasingly critical in supporting the execution of business strategies devised in response to ongoing uncertainties and new challenges. It’s precisely because it’s becoming increasing prevalent that Australian companies need to consider when to automate, just as much as they evaluate the ‘what’, ‘why’ and cost.