Many businesses have taken the road to making their processes more efficient and less people-intensive, with a major driver being cost reduction by removing head-count. Some businesses are sending menial activities to low-cost, off-shore labour markets, while others are bringing them back on-shore with intensive automation, often resulting in taking people out of the equation altogether.
But automation can also deliver great customer outcomes, and help deliver customer-centric initiatives to improve sales, market traction and loyalty in markets that are being disrupted.
Automation as an enabler for Innovation
Automation of IT platforms processes can deliver outcomes more quickly, with less people. One example is DevOps, which shortens the time developers wait for new infrastructure to test their latest code release, by automating the IT operations steps and making them part of the code release process.
DevOps as an underlying IT platform function helps organisations’ innovation capability. Frequently releasing new features to a website or app is far simpler when the test systems’ deployment is automated as part of the release cycle. To work smoothly, the underlying technologies need to support these features. Public cloud platforms such as AWS have them baked in private cloud platform tooling is now starting to also support them.
Improving process efficiency
Where a process involves people doing repetitive and sometimes unproductive tasks, businesses can remove these inefficiencies by automating some, or all of the steps.
One way is to develop, or leverage, new software platforms that emulate or replace manual process steps. Another approach when considering a new platform, is to rethink the business process altogether. This provides the opportunity to ask why certain process steps are carried out at all.
It could be that a system, technical trend, or risk mitigation driver for having designed a process a certain way is no longer relevant, and a better process can be designed.
Will automation reduce headcount?
Using automation to reduce the number of people to perform a function in the business is still one of the biggest drivers, especially in larger organisations.
Automation that seeks to drive this business outcome is getting interesting. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) enables the development of ‘trained’ software ‘bots’ to perform part, or all, of a business process on a repetitive basis. Software bots can work 24×7, be re-trained if needed, and they support scaling of a business function independent of
RPA can also be used to overcome integration issues, where software systems can’t otherwise communicate with each other – and where the business currently uses people to replicate information from one system to another.
Automation of business processes helps enforce business rules, reducing risk with better compliance, and prevents steps being missed, information being lost, or balls being dropped. Any company which passes a customer between functions benefits from automation in reducing friction in this way.
Whether automation significantly reduces headcount really depends on the application. In recent years many IT functions have been automated, but skills demand for a highly automated function like cloud is now white hot. That’s not ironic, it’s just a sign of jobs being shifted in a changing economy. Automation will continue to drive these shifts.
Improving the customer experience
Bots, AI and ML are driving some interesting outcomes for backend business processes such as resource planning and management, too.
Where statistical models have traditionally been used, some quite advanced machine learning techniques are now being applied to develop efficient planning outcomes, such as the best way to prioritise a sales rep’s visits in an area based on the highest potential value at stake (sales won, churn prevented, etc.).
Automation is also getting widespread adoption in the customer experience side of the business. A bot can engage with a customer, and through natural language processing backed by machine learning, guide them to an answer that saves them a call or pre-qualifies them to speaking with a person in the right area of the business.
If you’ve ever called a company and been asked to describe in a few words what you want in order to best direct your call, you’ve experienced some of this automation. A common feature of this automation is for the system to be improving itself based on the success of answering many queries per day and feedback loops on success and failure rates into the model.
Automation as a driver for customer delight
While automation can provide focused business outcomes aligned with process improvement, cost reduction and headcount re-allocation, it can deliver superior customer experience.
In general, using automation to shorten the time needed for a customer to go from “I am interested” to “I have been fulfilled and you have been paid” can be very successful.
Anthony Woodward is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Accelera