Automated technologies and artificial intelligence provide a great deal of potential to re-engineer and improve core business processes. In many cases, those improved processes will operate in a completely different way, fully automated and autonomous, freeing up time previously taken by humans to perform redundant and repetitive activities. But the key to gaining advantage from automation is turning that free time into time for innovation. This is where our automation efforts can ultimately fall short.
Turning automation into innovation
Researchers tell us that companies that encourage creativity and innovation outperform their competitors by driving up customer satisfaction, revenue growth and market share. In a study by Forrester, 82 percent of leaders surveyed believed in a strong connection between creativity and business results. What’s more, over two-thirds of the companies that were ranked highly for fostering creativity have received awards and recognition for being a “best place to work.” This is important because nearly a third of employed U.S. adults would take a pay cut for a job that allowed them to be more creative.
If the ability to be creative is so important to organizational performance, why is there such a lack of it today? It’s because we are all too busy multitasking. If you see the description “must be able to work in a fast-paced environment” in a job posting, for example, you can bet that the “culture of busy” will likely inhibit your ability to come up with fresh, innovative ideas. In short: When you’re busy being busy, there’s no room for innovation.
Business process automation should work to help maximize human activities so they can add value to the organization, not simply help it survive. The idea isn’t new; the age-old promise of technology has been that it will give us back more time to spend on what is most important — or at least on getting more done. But the danger is that we will just do more of the same, finding other ways to be busy even as automation helps us be more productive. So it’s critical that executives and leaders use automation as not just a way to inject technology into the workflow and cut headcount, but to create a culture that allows employees with the bandwidth to be creative and innovative — not just busy with other routine activities. Consider the following factors in the success of your strategy.
Choose the right process
Not every process needs to be automated. Choose ones that are the most redundant and manual, and that will take the most advantage of automation. Select straightforward processes like travel expense approval or new employee onboarding as opposed to mission-critical ones. After those initiatives are successful, move on to gradually automate more mission-critical and customer-centric processes like claims processing, loan origination or order fulfillment, for example. From there, look to leverage the “free time” created by having employees apply their efforts in more productive ways that add value to the organization. Task them to generate new ideas, new products and new abilities to respond to customer expectations and market demands more quickly and creatively.
Choose the right tool
With so many technological tools available, how do you know which ones are right for you? Make sure you opt for the tool that best suits your organizational needs in terms of scalability, capabilities and the types of users (technical or non-technical). For instance, some tools are designed to offer fully customizable application development capabilities while some are built for ease of use and are process-specific. Which would be the best for you? Consider how well non-technical business users can easily adopt the system and changes without having to spend a lot of time training or depend on expensive consultants.
Define your goals
What is it that you really need to accomplish with automation in order to be more innovative? Define your goals and then work backward to achieve those specific outcomes. The more specific and codified your goals and objectives are, the better able you will be to calculate a return investment on the technology and the effort. This approach makes good business sense since automation involves substantial investment of time and money. It is important to evaluate the performance of your changes in an ongoing way and ensure that the results are worth the investment at every step. I recommend using a phased strategy versus an all-or-nothing approach so that you can pull the plug with limited investment if things don’t go as planned.
Define roles and responsibilities
Automation can bring about significant changes in the way people perform their jobs, so it is important that everyone is clear about their new roles and responsibilities. Let’s face it, everybody wants to know where they fit into the plans for the future. If that’s not made clear it is much more likely that you will struggle to effectively implement the change. People naturally resist change, and it is vital to your success that you clearly define the roles and responsibilities of every person involved. Identify a process owner in order to enforce accountability within the process. This strategic alignment is critical since resistance to change is found to be the single most common point of failure in a BPA initiative.
Train your users
The real success of process automation depends on how well the workflow is embraced by the people who work within it. So it is important to train each person in the process and to enforce accountability on the process owners for the process to run smoothly. Coach every staff member so that they become well-versed with the new tool. Educate them about the fundamentals of the platform, the rationale behind the implementation of automation and the desired outcome.
Innovation needs to have a breeding ground for new ideas and process improvements that may, or may not, have anything to do with technology. Indeed, innovation is achieved only when you provide your knowledge workers with not only a culture that inspires and desires innovation, but also the time to do it. Many successful organizations like Apple, Google and Southwest Airlines understand this balance, and have thoughtfully included free time, brainstorming and open analysis in their job expectations in order to leverage the maximum potential from automation and innovation.
Business process automation is not a “one and done” process. It is a constant and evolving approach to innovation. Indeed, the classic model from TQM guru William Edwards Deming advises us to “plan-do-check-act” … and then to do it all over again. Follow these best practices to capture the value of your technology investments and bridge the gap between automation and innovation. Look for providers and resources with the right mix of expertise, perspective and capabilities that will help you make the most of business process automation.
Kevin Craine is the managing director of Craine Communications Group. He is writer, podcaster and technology analyst, as well as the author of the book Designing a Document Strategy and a respected authority on document management and process improvement. He was named the No. 1 ECM Influencer to follow on Twitter.