Every business has access to the most advanced intelligent decision making tool known… the human brain
Whilst it is infinitely flexible and capable of making complex decisions and learning from them, the human brain is however less than optimal for repeating highly predictable tasks and tends to become distracted and demotivated. And yet many business processes require exactly that
On the other hand we also have access to technology which is capable of conducting repetitive tasks identically each time, far faster than a human, without a need for rest. And properly deploying this could allow any organisation to free up it’s people to deal with the ambiguous, the difficult and the novel by automating the repetitive, the predictable and the simple.
Human vs Computer
In simple terms computers are great at the things humans are bad at, and vice versa
There are two factors to consider in terms of speed to execute processes. Firstly the raw speed at which a machine can undertake something is usually far faster than a human can undertake the same activity. However, the other point to consider here is that whereas humans need to take breaks (especially from repetitive activity) and also work only a certain number of hours each week, an automated solution is “always on”. This is particularly important if you serve customers in other time zones as it means from their perspective the time from starting a process to completing it is not affected if it is night time for your business.
Of course, the speed of execution can be a double-edged sword in that it also means your automation can be happily making mistakes at high speed while you sleep, which means it is important to design and test it thoroughly.
Humans are actually pretty poor at performing repetitive tasks over an extended period. They tend to become distracted and that can introduce errors. Machines on the other hand are excellent at reproducing the exact same outcome every time they perform a task with the same inputs
So for processes that are highly repetitive a machine will outstrip a human in terms of consistency of outcome
However, machines are generally poor at tasks that are individually unique, and this is where humans excel. So for successful automation it is important to identify novel cases and hand them off to a human who can decide how best to deal with them. In a machine learning system, it may then be possible to train the machine how to act if it sees this case again but the more unique the case, the harder it will be to do this and the lower the returns on doing so and for these more unusual cases passing them to a human will often remain the best solution, especially since they are often highly subjective as well.
Similarly humans are generally better than machines at dealing with complexity in processes. The ability of a human to exercise judgement or to interpret fuzzy inputs (for example the words used by a customer) is generally better than that of a machine, although this is an area where more advanced forms of automation, such as machine learning, are catching up
There are also types of complex problems such as analysing a large number of inputs in a short time frame, where machines outstrip humans.
Where the human brain can provide an enormous advantage over machines is where subjectivity (or creativity) is required
This could include the most complex cases (as noted above) or certain types of activity where decision making based on factors that are hard to quantify is required. In these cases however, partial automation can still be helpful in removing the burden of collecting the required information and allowing the human to concentrate on the high value part of the activity – making the decision.
It is likely that in the first year an automation solution may cost more than a manual one. However as noted above, once in place the automation solution can run 24/7 without a need for breaks or sleep and unless there are changes to the environment in which it runs that require maintenance it is a very low cost solution once it is running so subsequent costs will be lower
Key drivers for the first year costs are the need to understand the outcomes that are trying to be achieved (noting that this is not necessarily the same as understanding and replicating the current process automatically since that may have evolved over time and not still be the best way to achieve the outcome), and testing the automation carefully to ensure that it properly refers difficult cases to a human, or stops before undertaking an action which could be detrimental
At this point you may be thinking that the best motivation for automating processes is cost reduction, and specifically salary cost reduction. However, this is the wrong way to think about it. Your people make your business and it is surely better to consider that you could grow the business without the same rate of cost growth, and that you could do so whilst making your people feel more empowered and engaged by removing boring work and replacing it with the opportunity to exercise judgement and creativity
In many organisations, too many tasks are done by a person rather than a machine because when they were first set up it was the simplest, lowest cost solution. Maybe volumes were low, or there were uncertainties in the process that meant a human was beneficial for understanding and documenting how to deal with them, or perhaps it was just that the technical know-how to set up a more automated solution was not available in the business, or had other priorities
These areas can act as an enormous drag on any organisation, in particular when it seeks to scale (and often a highly manual process is simply not economic to scale up but at best means that to grow income there must inevitably be a growth in costs). More problematically they tend to accrete over time as an organisation puts in place simple, human driven solutions to problems when small but these get embedded into the way things get done, often long after the original architect of them has moved on…
“We’ve always done it like this”
“We’ve always done it like this” is usually an indication that the original reason for a process has been lost in time and that it is probably time to look at it again. If you hear this in your organisation then it should be a signal that you have a problem
But every problem is of course an opportunity! If you are going to look at a process again, that’s a great time to step back and consider whether there’s a better way to achieve the same outcome. External consultancy can help here, since a fresh pair of eyes, with experience elsewhere may ask the questions that are overlooked by people closer to the problem
However you tackle it though when you find this problem, it is a good time to think about whether you could actually free the people involved from certain aspects of the work, and make them available for something that would bring greater benefit to your business and allow it to grow faster, operate more effectively and serve your customers better
So the real benefit of automation to your business is to unleash your humans from the dull, repetitive, low value-adding tasks like copying information, filling in forms etc and free them up for the far more interesting work where they can truly add value, whilst feeling more engaged and interested
Done right, automation can deliver you a more sustainable business, with more engaged staff and happier, better served customers
If you’d like to discuss automation options for your business, why not get in touch for a FREE initial consultation.
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