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Automation in your digital transformation journey

This post was updated in December 2023.

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack Technologies, says, “There’s a lot of automation that can happen that isn’t a replacement of humans but of mind-numbing behavior.”

If you can automate something, why would you do it manually?

Without automation, businesses rely on repetitive, manual, and often paper-based processes—all wastes of time. In addition, expensive mistakes get made, documents get lost, inventory gets misplaced, incorrect orders get shipped, and customers take their business elsewhere.

Business process automation is accelerating to where it’s a necessity, not just nice to have. The promise of automation is undeniable—it saves time and money, increases efficiencies, ensures accuracy, and empowers businesses to do more with less.

If IT budgets were unlimited, businesses would automate everything. But since that’s not the case, businesses must choose their automation wisely.

Where should you begin with automation? How can you calculate its return on investment?

Read on for practical tips.

Where Automation Begins

Businesses, especially small and midsized companies, rarely undertake a complete automation strategy overnight. Automation projects typically happen one small step at a time. A minor change can significantly and positively affect operations while initiating a digital transformation journey.

Breaking a larger automation strategy into manageable pieces enables a business to identify its biggest pain point, find the right technology—or modify existing technology—to solve it, then proceed to the next pain point when budget and time permit.

Deciding Where to Automate, Step by Step

Many businesses address automation needs when a department reports a problem. For example, the finance team finds a cash flow issue and traces it to un-invoiced service calls.

Other businesses don't know where to start. They know there’s a problem—like customer churn is rising—but don't know what's causing it.

If you’re trying to decide the best place to start automating, follow these steps. Or, to evaluate the effect of a specific problem area, scroll to #6.

1. Assemble a committee with a team member from each major business line, like IT, accounting and finance, and operations and logistics.

2. Identify problem areas for stakeholders and teams. Ask teams to list problematic tasks, processes, or known business issues. If they’re not sure where to start, ask them questions like:

  • Which routine activities are time-consuming?
  • What do your colleagues or customers complain about?
  • Which processes could be improved?
  • Are you working with inaccurate or incomplete data or reports?
  • Are tasks overlooked or done incorrectly, causing problems?

3. Give the group a template to ensure everyone submits the right information. It will be easier to evaluate and prioritize the automation candidates. Here are some suggestions:

  • Name of the task or process
  • Description
  • Why there’s an issue
  • The problem’s impact on the department head (scale of 1-10)
  • The impact on the team or department (scale of 1-10)
  • The impact on the business (scale of 1-10)
  • Potential solutions

4. Organize the information, prepare an initial analysis of your findings, and discuss them with the group.

5. Foster open discussion among committee members to decide which issues are the most critical and deserve further evaluation. Rank them by importance.

6. Perform a cost/benefit analysis of the highest-ranked issues using these criteria. This process will provide the business justification for the investment and validate the importance of automating a manual task.

  • Time: How much time do manual tasks take? How much does that time cost? Break it down by week, month, and year.
  • Mistakes: Even small errors can be expensive. Whether work must be redone or unhappy customers taken care of, mistakes negatively affect a business. Finding their cause and analyzing their cost is vital to understanding if something is worth fixing.

For example: Customers are complaining about delayed shipments. The cause may be data entry mistakes in subassembly production orders. Those mistakes hold up production, which delays shipping.

How much money is the business crediting to customers monthly and annually to satisfy them? Compare that to the cost of licensing software that automates the entire process. Embracing technology to solve the problem saves time and money.

  • Headcount: Growing businesses often hire new employees to handle increasing workloads. But these workloads could be supported by technology for less money. Before adding headcount to perform manual processes, determine whether an automation solution could do the same job—and maybe more—for less.
  • Customer satisfaction: Consider conducting a customer survey. Evaluate the scores and comments. Raw customer feedback may reveal operational issues, allowing you to course correct.

7. Build an action plan based on your cost/benefit analysis. When you quantify and compare the costs of the attributes above to the cost of an automation solution, you’ll identify the projects that will yield the highest return.

8. Make a plan—but make sure it supports and aligns with a broader strategic objective. That objective could be at the team, department, or company level.

Here are some examples:

  • Scale business operations
  • Use technology to reduce costs
  • Eliminate manual or paper-based processes
  • Increase productivity
  • Eliminate process bottlenecks and human error
  • Improve reporting compliance or data integrity
  • Enhance the customer experience
  • Simplify intercompany transactions

Automation Recap

Manual processes bog down critical resources and prevent you from spending time on strategy and innovation.

Automation saves time, eliminates mistakes, increases process efficiency, and improves cash flow. Automation is also an ideal starting point for digital transformation, empowering growing businesses to become flexible, resilient enterprises that thrive in changing market conditions.

Learn More

Want to see examples of automation? Check them out below. While these are for SAP Business One, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, Vision33 can build automations for any solution.

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