How to get real value from automation

July 2, 2021Jouko Ahvenainen

I hired Mark. He works with our accounts, makes monthly closing, collects information from our invoicing system, ERP and online payments and enters them to the accounting system. He never makes mistakes.” 

But then something even better:

I just hired a guy—his name is Mark II—to process insurance claims. He can also analyze the claims and make decisions. He never makes mistakes.” 

Both of them are obviously effective guys, but there is even something better. 

I hired Mark III. He doesn’t just handle the routines and processes we had earlier, but we can redesign all our operations not only to save costs but multiply our sales. He never makes mistakes.” 

Actually, Mark, Mark II and Mark III are not humans—they are software robots. But they can handle the tasks mentioned above. The New York Times published a recent article saying robots are taking work from white collar workers, those that earlier felt their positions were quite safe from automation. In reality, automation can take work from doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers to make work easier for people in these professions.

But the reality is often more complex. I have previously written that many automation projects fail to scale-up and robots are often also broken. They are not as effective projects as expected. AI, digitization and automation are at the heart of these changes. Their reputations suffer if those technologies are not appropriately utilized; they become window-dressing, like lipstick on a pig.

We know that in the past machines and automation haven’t led to fewer jobs, rather new kinds of jobs. But we easily underestimate how these things have an impact on our jobs, and the winners are those companies that look for not just savings, but growth with automation. A common statement is that machines and automation remove routines and let people focus on more demanding tasks. This is true in the big picture, but details are often much more complex.

Suppose you put a little bit of AI and a little bit of automation on top of your old processes and systems. In that case, it is not making them more digital or intelligent, and it’s just adding one more layer of complexity and arguably, technical problems. A record shop doesn’t become a new Spotify simply because employees automate some of their routine work. And a bricks-and-mortar retailer doesn’t become a new Amazon when employees automate their routines. Henry Ford didn’t build a car for everyone by asking old-style workshop car builders to automate some of their routines.

This depends also on the technologies used for the automation. If you just use a tool for copy-pasting or organizing data fields, it is quite clear, it is about quick savings, not transforming your business. Growth means automating and building mission critical automated processes. It also means better and smarter automation than  copy-paste solutions. It means solutions that can really process data, make conclusions from it and typically integrate to other software.

Three critical areas to really get business growth from automation:

  1. Processes and operations must be designed based on real business needs and opportunities of technologies, not just automating the old way of doing things; it is not to discover existing processes but design processes that make sense,
  2. Tools must support automation that enables relevant work, not just small routines of the old way to do things,
  3. It is really demanding, top competence work to automate white collar work and it requires top level operations and technology professionals.

It is a paradox that many automation and RPA solutions have tried to offer simplified solutions to build robots to automate white collar work. White collar workers are typically well-educated, professional people. How is it possible to automate their work with simplified tools and solutions, when robots to automate blue collar work are built by top professionals with top level design tools?

It is like underestimating the work of many professional people. White collar robots are coming, but their implementation needs professional tools and top professionals to design processes and robots. Only then can we enable white collar workers to focus on more demanding and creative work. You cannot describe the work of professionals just by dragging and dropping some boxes and arrows. That kind of tool can help to start, but it takes much more.

All these changes require courage from management and investors. They must be brave enough to discard old models and old systems. It is nice to promise each employee that nothing will change or promise two percent stable growth to investors, when we cut a little bit of routine work. As we have seen in retail, this model leads to huge collapses, significantly when truly digital competitors change the business and market rules. Those leaders who want to create big successes should start to build their operations based on software robots, AI and digital processes, not just hope the old models can be done a little bit better.

Robocorp tools enable you to automate routines. It is also very cost effective, when you can use open source tools and pay only when you actually use your robots. But we don’t leave it there. Our professional tools enable integration to other software components, add AI with Python and make truly scalable, reliable software that empowers you to make the digital transition to your business. It is possible to automate demanding white collar work and create new processes and operations that help to create the future T-Model Ford, Amazon or Spotify.

And please meet Mark.

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