Welcome to the Automation Revolution

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is an automation revolution underway today. In Gartner’s hype cycle, which ranks technologies based on how the market perceives them and how far away they are from mainstream adoption, automation using machine learning and artificial intelligence is right at the top.  According to Gartner, business process automation is poised for mainstream adoption, and the message is to get on board or risk getting left behind.

Gartner isn’t the only research firm rallying the rise of automation. Forrester predicts that investment in AI and business process automation will increase more than 300 percent this year alone. Analysts anticipate that data-driven automation will allow organizations to significantly outperform their rivals – stealing $1.2 trillion in revenue from competitors every year.

Time to make the move

In the age of automation, big tech-savvy players will keep getting bigger since they have the resources to invest. At the same time, agile young companies will use the techniques to outmaneuver challengers in the marketplace. Either way, you’ve got to make the leap … and now.

While conducting research for his best-selling book, “The Age of Surge,” author and researcher Brad Murphy investigated how companies are successfully navigating the demands of digital transformation and automation … and how some are not.

“Digital transformation is not hype. It is putting traditional large organizations at great risk of being irrelevant,” says Murphy. “The irrelevance risk is a result of the fact that customers and consumers are increasingly in charge. They direct the marketplace … not the other way around. Customers today put a premium on the degree to which the experience with any brand is frictionless, digital and delightful. This is not the world in which large companies were designed to excel in and that’s the real challenge of digital transformation.”

A research study conducted by AIIM International recently found that 75% of respondents said that process automation is a “must-do.” Modernizing their information management is on the scope for 82% of respondents. Which core business processes were identified as the most likely candidates for automation?

48% said internal processes like approvals and reviews

36% said internal HR processes

34% said sales contracts and proposals

29% said accounts payables and receivables

This breakdown points to a top consideration; digital transformation, ultimately, is not just the application of technology, it is also the act of improving those core processes that propel the business forward while implementing new technologies to meet growing and changing business demands with new ways-of-working.

The small and midsized challenge

The advantages of process automation can be compelling, but many small and midsized business owners feel that the benefits may be out of reach in practical terms. Often the perception is that the opportunities are possible only for larger organizations with enterprise-sized budgets and teams of experts to make it happen. But times are changing. The rise of cloud-based applications and services has made many of the same advanced business automation capabilities that the “big boys” use accessible to smaller organizations and departmental operations. And the time is right for SMBs to evaluate how process automation could deliver immediate and observable benefits

There are also numerous applications and services that readily cover routine business processes such as bookkeeping, point-of-sale and inventory management, document management, and even communication and collaboration that can all be readily acquired and implemented.

Best practices

The time to innovate with automation is upon us. In order for organizations to maintain a competitive edge, however, automation needs to be a breeding ground for innovation and process improvements that work to directly boost organizational performance. The question is, how will you use automation to keep your company competitive? Here are three best practices to consider:

1. 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 at every step the results are worth the investment. 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.

2. 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. Start with core processes that drive business every day, like accounts payable, claims processing or new client onboarding. These are processes that many organizations have, and they are ripe for automation and innovation that will make a difference.

After those initiatives are successful, move on to gradually automate more cross-functional and enterprise-wide processes; things like case management, product development, or sales and marketing, 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.

3. Understand the workflow

We talk a lot about “workflow” but what does it really mean? The term describes the sequence of steps and processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion. Naturally, this can mean a lot of different things and can be applied to a wide array of applications. Indeed, the workflow of creating a rocket engine is significantly different than that of creating an insurance claim, yet the principle is the same: simply the steps taken to achieve the desired outcome.

If we understand those steps clearly we can use the concept of workflow as an incredibly powerful way to design important process improvements. Before we begin doing anything it is important to understand how the process really works. Not how we think it is, or how people say it’s done, or how we wish it was…but how the as-is process really works. This is important because when you clearly identify the problems in your current workflow, it is easier to be clear about the solutions that you need to solve those problems and improve the gaps in performance of the process.

Moving forward

Welcome to the automation revolution. Will 2020 be the year that your company breaks through?

It will take the right tools and the right focus to be successful. Use these ideas and best practices to spark your success. Look for providers and partners with the right mix of expertise, experience and vision to enable you to make the most of process automation and innovation.

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.