With productivity high on every UK employer’s agenda, recent years have seen automation and artificial Intelligence become commonly used buzzwords in today’s business landscape. But many still wonder: What is automation and how will it improve productivity?
To answer this burning question, I sat down with Alex Croucher, a Founding Director at VKY Intelligent Automation recently to understand what automation is, and whether it could be a significant solution to the UKs productivity problem.
What is automation and how does it differ from AI and robotics?
AI covers a very broad range of computer science disciplines, and there are many things which are labelled AI because it’s trendy. In simple terms, it’s a computer system which can work without constant human intervention and can improve its performance with experience. Think of it like seasoning or spices in food – a pinch of AI such as image recognition, machine learning, pattern recognition or natural language understanding can supercharge an otherwise bland system.
Likewise, Robotics is a broad field. Here we are talking about Robotic Process Automation. We are not talking about the physical robots which might be seen in manufacturing or warehouses and certainly not humanoid type creations. Personally, I think the words “bot” and “robot” are unhelpful as they add weight to sensationalist misconceptions. I tend to use the word “automations” or I refer to “virtual users” or a “virtual workforce” depending on the context. However you label it, it’s the use of a machine to perform a repetitive task.
Automation is the simplest of these terms to define. It means training a machine to perform a process or task that is currently undertaken by a person. These tasks are then called automations. Here at VKY, we train computers to mimic a human when performing computer based processes. We add a pinch of AI to Robotic Process Automation to create Intelligent Automation.
How can companies identify business processes for automation?
To identify processes for automation, I strongly recommend following these three steps:
1. Identify one or two relatively straightforward processes to start with: These are unlikely to be the organisation’s biggest prizes, but they should have a sensible business case. The purpose of this is to bring forward the realisation of benefits which will pay for further analysis and development. It enables those involved to gel as a team and for good foundations to be built which will support a more intensive programme of work. Depending on the scale of an organisation, it may make sense to look across the whole business at once or start in one business area such as Finance or HR and then move on to the next.
2. Start small and build: Whilst development is underway, a backlog of processes can be created and prioritised based on complexity to deliver and expected benefits. Larger more complex processes may need to be broken down into chunks for delivery.
3. Perform an opportunity assessment: When performing an opportunity assessment it’s critical that there is input from people who are experienced in delivering automation programmes. Processes sometimes look straightforward from an automation perspective when in fact they are not. . This fundamentally changes the business case and time to generate ROI. Likewise, some processes which might seem painful are actually quick to automate.
Are there certain sectors more ripe for business process automation than others?
Obviously very large enterprises with many people doing the same processes can benefit extensively from automation. That suggests it is more about scale than sector. However, organisations that are under heavy financial pressures who ask “how can we do more with less” may see a greater relative benefit from automation. This immediately raises public sector and third sector organisations as having the biggest opportunities.
There is also huge opportunity for SMEs to boost their productivity, but the pricing model for licenses is aimed at large enterprises, meaning the potential ROI is lower for SMEs. However, we are working on a number of innovations to make Intelligent Automation more accessible to SMEs, so watch this space…
How can business process automation improve productivity and business performance?
People often jump to the benefit of efficiency savings when talking about automation but for me, the key is productivity improvement. Cutting costs is always useful, but what CEO wants to run a smaller business and what Finance Minister wants to oversee a smaller economy? Growth is the general objective, and that even includes the public sector where doing more with the same resources is a key driver, not just cutting cost.
Beyond productivity there are many other business benefits, including improved customer satisfaction due to reduced errors, quicker responses, increased compliance, enhanced security and improved process adherence. Automation also enables employees to take more care with customers because they have been unburdened of menial and repetitive tasks.
People inherently are not good at menial and repetitive tasks. They make mistakes and get bored. This leads to pressure, lack of enjoyment in work tasks and lack of fulfilment. By automating the menial tasks, we stop treating people like robots and enable them to perform more interesting and challenging tasks where they can add value.
In your view, how will intelligent business process automation impact skills and the UK workforce in the years to come?
The workforce is gradually becoming more skilled and able to pick up a wider range of tasks. With the advent of digital, people have developed a wider range of transferable skills. This will continue.
I recently heard a University leader referring to “metaskills”. Although I don’t like the label, the concept is spot on: employers will look for examples of innovation, creative and critical thinking, team-working, logic, empathy and other soft skills instead of basic tech skills or an ability to follow a process. It’s not that these skills don’t exist already; they’re just not used as much as they could be.
As more tasks are automated, people will perform more tasks which humans are better suited to. We already have the skills, we just need to help people recognise that and build their confidence to show them what they can do.
About our Contributor
Alex Croucher is Director of Intelligent Automation at VKY, the first independent Scottish business to achieve partner status with both Automation Anywhere and UI Path – two of the top software vendors in the global automation market. You can find out more about Alex and VKY Intelligent Automation by visiting www.vkyautomation.com
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