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Considering Automation for Your SMB? Here's How to Get Started

Suresh Yannamani
Suresh Yannamani

Following these three tips can position your small business for success.

When I talk to business leaders about why they are pursuing automation, their focus is on making their processes more efficient, more effective and less costly. Still, I am certain many employees have a very different perspective on the subject. It is likely that they see automation as a threat that may eliminate their roles altogether.

Automation isn't about replacing workers, though it has earned that reputation over the years. Rather, it's about making lives easier, increasing productivity and helping employees generate more value. According to an August 2018 report from Research and Markets, automation has enormous potential to transform business operations. The opportunities automation creates, and its associated demand for skilled labor, will more than offset potential job loss from the transition.

The opportunity for automation is ripe, and the timing couldn't be better. A Formstack survey found that 62 percent of businesses face at least three major inefficiencies that could be resolved through automation.

From replacement to symbiosis

In the early days of the movement toward working smarter, businesses identified repetitive tasks their employees performed that could be handled by machines. The next big step was to expand automation from simple, physical processes to data-centric functions, including analytics, modeling and decision-making. From that point on to an increasing extent, employees have been able to focus less of their attention on rote functions and basic administrative tasks and more on high-level strategy, creative development, and sensitive business needs that significantly affect a company's bottom line.

Intelligent process automation, machine learning and AI-powered predictive analytics are at the forefront of a new revolution in business process automation (BPA). Today, attended automation enables employees to work alongside machine assistance to produce results more quickly and at higher fidelity. And with cognitive automation, data analysis is no longer about simply looking backward and guessing forward. Computer-assisted predictive modeling can now incorporate vastly more data than previously possible, which empowers knowledge workers with actionable insights that have significant transformational potential.

Considered together, these developments help to make us all far more productive, and the rate of this technological advancement continues to grow exponentially. The fourth industrial revolution we are experiencing is still in its infancy, and with BPA already worth more than $7 billion (and growing rapidly), this technology has a very bright future.

Obstacles to automating

The financial crisis of the late 2000s played a large role in the latest wave of BPA. When budgets tightened, companies scrambled to find cost-saving strategies that didn't sacrifice effectiveness. Automation maintained its status as a powerful solution, but only those companies with sufficient liquidity were able to capitalize on the opportunity.

Other companies have been reluctant to automate due to fears about losing control. They want to save money but don't want to reduce their workforce or drastically alter their core functionality, which may potentially harm their cultures in the process. Even when organizations wish to pursue automation, concerns about losing visibility and flexibility have worked against this much-needed transition.

Automation obviously gives companies a competitive edge, but not every business is set up for the switch. Disparate system architectures, dated organizational structures, and, frankly, dated leadership mentalities can hamper advancement. In spite of the current potential of BPA technologies, McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 60 percent of global occupations still involve at least 30 percent of work activities that could be fully automated.

The easiest way for businesses to address this issue is to start small. Begin with automating subprocesses, reap the incremental benefits of lesser victories in cost savings and productivity and then expand as opportunities present themselves.

Starting small may be necessary, but innovating quickly is paramount. Businesses cannot sit idly by while their competitors implement automation into mission-critical operations and move to control greater market share. Organizations that are quick to seriously commit to BPA will have a significant advantage as technologies continue to advance and as consumer expectations continue to increase.

Get a head start on automation

Standards continue to rise in most markets – this is just the nature of competitive growth. The pressure to innovate and evolve is constant, and as companies strive to meet changing demands, they will continue to turn to improved technologies and more intelligent automation to stay relevant and profitable.

If you find yourself in this very common position, consider these tips to keep up with the revolution.

1. Consider an automation partnership.

For some companies, internally automating core functionalities will simply not be realistic in the near or even medium term. This doesn't imply that longer-term aspirations for BPA should be abandoned, but it suggests that a more creative approach may be necessary.

If you face serious obstacles to BPA but are otherwise ready to position yourself to move toward that larger goal, consider outsourcing as a more accessible inroad to automation. That is, consider partnering with a seasoned BPA provider that offers the technological acuity and expertise in business process transformation needed to rapidly assimilate your mission-critical functions.

This strategy offers an easier on-ramp to automation, as well as the promise of more immediate cost savings, efficiencies, and insights from improved business intelligence. Moreover, this approach may help you position your company to push for a truly integrated BPA evolution sometime in the future.

2. Test with attended automation.

If you have lingering reservations about fully automating certain aspects of your business, or you'd prefer to develop your automation capabilities incrementally, consider a machine-human hybrid approach as a way to test the waters.

This strategy is particularly effective with regard to business functions that do not have a long history of automation, or in those areas where human intervention is necessary to generate desired outcomes. Attended automation allows humans to lean on robotic assistance or machine intelligence without requiring that workers relinquish control entirely. This approach enables you to test the potential of automation without completely disrupting existing workflows.

Attended automation isn't just useful for experimentation though. Even in small doses, attended automation can drastically improve the productivity of employees, which further justifies its value as a business tool.

3. Eliminate silos to simplify systems.

Every business aspires to destroy silos, but BPA demands it. Organizational walls that lock information away from internal stakeholders prevent companies from getting the most out of their investments in automation. The bigger the company, the more walls likely need to fall.

Prioritize the elimination of silos to pave the way for getting the most out of your push for BPA. The more information you can share between your working groups, the more effective your automation efforts will be. Quite simply, sharing more information leads to greater transformative powers through BPA, which leads to more streamlined and efficient processes, which lead to larger margins and greater profits.

The fourth industrial revolution is already upon us, and its impact on the future of business is undeniable. Some estimates of yearly investment returns on robotic process automation alone have pegged the figure somewhere between 30 percent and triple digits. Companies that work toward incorporating intelligent automation, machine learning and AI-assisted analytics into their business systems as quickly as possible will find themselves poised to reap the greatest benefits. Those that do not take advantage of the latest developments in BPA will scramble to keep up.

Image Credit: Leo Wolfert/Shutterstock
Suresh Yannamani
Suresh Yannamani Member
Suresh Yannamani serves as President of Exela Technologies, a global business process automation leader with more than 3,700 customers worldwide. Mr. Yannamani has over 20 years of experience delivering business process automation solutions that help organizations remain competitive and maximize profitability.