Process automation is a revolution in how to approach workflows. Here’s the basics of how it works in business.
At the heart of any useful piece of technology is the concept of making a complicated process easier. Few trends in digital tech exemplify this idea better than automation, or having a machine perform most (if not all) of a task on their own.
Even with how much technology has advanced and opened up, however, it may seem as if automation is out of reach for small to medium-size businesses. Many have an implicit belief that automation can only happen at a large scale and for larger procedures — rendering it irrelevant to most office work or behind-the-scenes workflows.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. With the right set of tools, even a business at its very outset can put menial yet important tasks into automated processes. Better still, by shifting responsibility for these processes from humans to machines, businesses will stand to gain time, money and even increased approval from employees.
Check out how that process can begin to come together with this overview of digital process automation.
What Is Automation?
It first needs to be clarified that when we say “automation” in this context, we’re not talking about robots building cars or physical assembly lines. That’s what’s known as “robotic automation,” which, while valuable in certain business contexts, is very much out of scope and need for the vast majority of businesses.
Rather, what we’re talking about here is “process automation”: the use of software — especially AI — to automatically carry out work procedures. In practice, this usually refers to automating more menial parts of workflows, like filling out documents and databases.
In this context, we’re thinking more along the lines of what’s happening within a computer or behind a screen — not so much actual robots handling physical tasks (as nice as that might be in a wide variety of office settings).
Benefits of Automation
Easily the biggest two advantages of automating procedures are reductions in delivery time and costs. With software optimizing processes, the actual operation will in almost all cases take significantly less time to complete. This, naturally, brings that step in the workflow to a close far more quickly and moves the overall project to the finish line sooner. And since less time spent on a task means less of the employee’s workday dedicated to that step, the company spends less in terms of salary and wages to bring it to completion.
Perhaps more importantly, this reduced time will often have a cumulative effect as well. Should you automate tasks that impose a significant bottleneck on future operations, the resulting workflow will be freed up and proceed far more swiftly. In other words, strategic automation will improve the speed of work processes as a whole.
This is in addition to other significant benefits:
For most routine tasks such as data entry, filing and basic analysis, AI and software typically commit far fewer errors than employees do (it’s called “human error” for a reason, after all). Shifting responsibility to automation reduces these mistakes on top of giving employees greater opportunity to catch any potential errors thanks to freed up time in workflows.
Since automation by definition puts the actual procedure in the hands of software, the fine details of that procedure can be altered by changing the software itself. This allows management to implement standard policy in those procedures more reliably and generate more consistent results. Additionally, administration will gain a singular window into how these operations are conducted, as they will need to examine only how that software behaves rather than evaluate the performance of multiple employees.
Improved company morale
The phrase “menial tasks” has a negative connotation for a reason: Work of that nature is dull, and, to be blunt, most employees would rather not do it. By offloading these processes to software instead, workers no longer have to spend energy on mundane parts of their job, meaning they can focus instead on intellectually engaging tasks. That, of course, leads to a happier workforce that’s more committed to their responsibilities and even their company.
By the same token, less energy spent on menial tasks frees employees up to reinvest their efforts elsewhere — particularly in more complicated elements of their work. On the one hand, this allows for greater enthusiasm toward those main areas, as employees can dedicate more focus to those main responsibilities. At the same time, because their focus is kept singularly on those main thought-intensive efforts, they’ll have an easier time keeping attention on problem-solving and creativity. That allows for greater innovation at every level of a company, which in itself is an invaluable investment.
Greater customer satisfaction
It likely goes without saying, but lower costs, greater accuracy and swifter deployment also just lead to happier customers. With how time and money saved through automation carry over down the line, those savings can easily be passed onto the customer for a more competitive package. Given how that resulting increased satisfaction can easily translate to greater customer loyalty, the payoff here is potentially tremendous.
What Procedures Can Be Automated?
Although in theory you can automate nearly everything from sorting data to actual content writing, in practice, automation takes time to implement. Furthermore, there will always just be instances where human creativity significantly outperforms the quality on offer by machines.
In considering what to automate, it’s crucial to first evaluate what the quality of output will look like, then how much time and money you’ll have to spend on the change. If the quality is up to acceptable standards, you can then begin to weigh if the necessary expenses will be worth the consequent expense.
With this general framework in mind, it’s typically most valuable to automate tasks that are:
- High volume
- Performed often
- Predictable in terms of results
- Highly impactful on future tasks
Remember, automating tasks tends to create the most benefit when doing so both frees up bottlenecks and eliminates the need to perform mundane operations. Before automating any more complex parts of your workflow, try starting from those elements that, while relatively easy to perform, play an important role in later procedures.
Some examples would include:
Call transcriptions: Especially when calling potential customers, auto-transcribing calls ensures employees don’t have to dedicate focus to note-taking, allowing for greater focus on the conversation. Even better, if the transcription software picks out important points from that transcription, moving the lead down the pipeline more quickly.
Sales orders: Creating, then filling out order forms based on a customer’s communication can be time-consuming and leaves plenty of room for human error. But alternatively, if automated software can simply access these communications and pull out the relevant data, the entire process becomes quicker and more accurate, advancing the customer journey rapidly.
Database input: Data entry is among the most tedious varieties of work delegated to sales teams. What’s more, the more data is involved in this process and the longer it goes on, the more chances there are for employees to miss information or enter it inaccurately. However, if individual sales representatives can simply leave it to software to add these data, then sort contact information for leads and customers, that frustration vanishes in a puff of smoke. Additionally, accuracy improves, as the automation transfers all available data exactly as it was first received.
Data analytics: Finding basic trends and spreads within data is a nightmarish venture when done manually, requiring hours of poring over spreadsheets and cells. Handing the process over to software, however, makes analyses complete in a fraction of the time, and spares employees countless headaches to boot.
Customer support: Even if you’re intent on giving customers real, live representatives to talk to, automation can ensure your clients get an initial response when they first reach out. Chatbots or custom routines for website chat plugins are one quick way to give web visitors a quick acknowledgement, as are automated voice messages for your company phone number.
Performance analysis: Locating slowdowns in employee performance isn’t always easy, especially in departments with significant daily output and activity like a call center. By creating an automated data collection process, however, businesses can gather performances of individual employees into a central database for analysis. On top of figuring out where bottlenecks occur, this is great for understanding where certain employees shine, letting management use their example to improve procedures.
Note that these are just some examples of what the basic principle of automation can achieve. As with so many parts of business technology, the exact nature of process automation will depend on what your business does and how you achieve it.
Automating processes isn’t always seen as within reach for businesses, but in actuality it’s well worth looking into. From time and money saved to retaining more of your customer base, the return on investment from smart automation can be enormous. Those advances alone mean it’s worth investigating if your company has the means to launch into that process.
And more likely than not, you will have some tasks or components in a workflow that can be given this automation. Especially as we shift toward digital transformation and the cloud, procedures are becoming increasingly digital in nature; that means there’s ample room to let software take over the mundane sectors of work and up both delivery speeds and employee engagement.
Still, remember that automation doesn’t produce results of uniform quality, nor can it be deployed quickly and cheaply in each instance. Rather than trying to automate a huge set of tasks at once, focus on those parts of the workflow where faster performance and greater accuracy will have the most impact. As with most technology, strategic use of automation will in every case be more beneficial than an overly broad approach.
If you keep these main benefits and considerations in mind, however, you can easily reap benefits of a digital workflow with maximum efficiency.
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