Photo by Pat Krupa on Unsplash
- business automation is having a multi-trillion dollar impact globally
- the 6 types of tools to tap into this impact, depending on business size, expertise and industry (analysis below)
- there is a lot of low hanging fruit to be automated (examples below)
How automation flies
A decade ago, flying was very different to what it is today. Taking the budget offerings as a benchmark, we have seen a shift towards customers managing their own check-in. Gone are the days of meeting cabin crew two hours before a flight, performing ID checks and printing your boarding passes. 'Cabin baggage only' travellers can now arrive only ensuring they have time to walk from taxi drop off, through security, and to their boarding gate before it closes. If you're taking luggage, scan a QR code on your mobile, at an unattended conveyor belt and your luggage will find its way to your destinations baggage carousel.
Premium offerings will always demand a more intimate experience - think here, the hotel concierge for your stay the The Ritz. But the hump of time, effort and expense for getting on a plane has been significantly reduced through process automation - for both airline and customer. And putting an idealists glasses on for a minute, why should getting on a plane be any different than getting onto a train? All the stuff between getting out of your taxi and take off adds to your trip time and expense. Consumer brands have latched onto this 'sunk airport time', winding us through a maze of bombastic bright lights and idolised products designed to capture our boredom (and wallets) on the way to the gate. Reducing airport dead-time and costs has been enabled through automation. And this is only the surface, we haven't even touched on the typical three to seven minutes that pilots actually spend actively flying the plane.
What is happening in the world of automation
With advancements in software, increased adoption of web apps and deepened understanding of user experience, business process automation (BPA) is becoming a minimum requirement of being in business. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is software that enables this and “is the fastest-growing enterprise software segment in history” // Tauli RPA Handbook. Let that sink in for a moment... RPA are virtual bots that handle tasks and its adoption is growing fast. Whilst a confusing term - there's no conjuring up of NS-5's to run around - here are some stats and predictions about RPA:
- Gartner says RPA software market grew 63% in 2018,
- in 2017 HFS Research predicted RPA will reach $USD1.2b in size by 2021, and
- way back in 2013 McKinsey estimated the economic impact of RPA could be up to USD $6.7 trillion by 2025
Bold prediction: These are all significant underestimates. They unlikely foresaw (as is the case with predictions) the many synergistic streams of activities throttling the uptake of RPA. To name a few: digital transformation, AI, machine learning, Internet of Things (IOT), remote work, deep image and voice recognition, new start ups disrupting, growing disparity between adopters vs non-adopters, and economic downturns (think COVID-19).
Whilst it sounds like a great time to be an RPA provider, it is also a great time to be in your current business and to know what's possible. SiriusDecisions has found that a staggering 65% of a salesperson’s time is spent on non-selling activities. If just half of this time could be gained back through RPA, it would be like having another closing sales. If your business has three salespeople, congratulations you now have four - that's without considering compounding synergies (to be discussed another time). This impacts on every business from a sole freelancer to a mega multi-national corporation. As Process Street highlights: "using it lets you hand off menial tasks to computers so that everyone can focus on the important work — work that only humans can do."
The tools needed to automate
There are varying degrees of offerings available, depending on your business needs. Scrolling through the options, you'll notice the following trends upward: the difficulty to set up, cost to establish and maintain, but also its adaptability to any business.
My opinion: most businesses should favour the top of the list. Whilst they are the simplest, cheapest to establish and cheapest to maintain, they have significant other advantages. The extensive features already provided, coverage of interactions, industry adoption of web apps and the need for businesses to be nimble is not about to go backwards. If a business strategically decides to move to more capital intensive options, they can easily transfer the now-tested tool requirements and business rules.
1. Native integrations
The simplest automation. This is software talking to each another directly. Some automation we take for granted: linking your Facebook and Instagram accounts so that when you post content on one, it will appear on both. Accepting an event invitation through email and having your response appear within your calendar app. Apps increasingly offer their own integrations and internal automations. Xero, the popular accounting application, has excellent native integrations.
Difficulty: 🔶⬜⬜⬜⬜ Cost: 🔶⬜⬜⬜⬜ Adaptability: 🔶⬜⬜⬜⬜
2. Online automation platforms (online RPA)
These are your gofers, they take and transform data between applications. With the rise of web apps, cloud storage, open API's, the power offered by online automation platforms rivals that of the RPA behemoths.
Difficulty: 🔶🔶⬜⬜⬜ Cost: 🔶🔶⬜⬜⬜ Adaptability: 🔶🔶🔶⬜⬜
Email management concept within online RPA tool - Integromat
3. Business Process Management (BPM) software
Set up your workflows and these will make sure your people and external stakeholders get the right information when they need it. These are advanced checklists that handle communication. They can often perform scripts to transform data or integrate with other software - think here online RPA!
Difficulty: 🔶🔶⬜⬜⬜ Cost: 🔶🔶⬜⬜⬜ Adaptability: 🔶🔶⬜⬜⬜
4. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Platforms
They are programmable, trainable (recording what you click on) and artificial intelligence driven. What separates these tools from the above is their offline and legacy software capabilities. From Gartner: "The beauty of RPA, and why companies like it so much, is that it enables customers to bring a level of automation to legacy processes without having to rip and replace the legacy systems." Again, with the rise of web apps and cloud, this is becoming less relevant. RPA Platforms are suited towards large enterprises with significant compliance obligations (banks, health) or those wedded to legacy systems because of prior investment.
Difficulty: 🔶🔶🔶⬜⬜ Cost: 🔶🔶🔶🔶⬜ Adaptability: 🔶🔶🔶🔶⬜
5. No Code or Low Code tools
Build a custom app tailored to your business needs. The sell with these tools is you don't need to be a developer to build custom apps. Whilst true, a software developer is going perform far, far, far better in them. These are more advantageous for companies wanting to productise a customer facing application fast, with limited* development capability.
Difficulty: 🔶🔶🔶🔶⬜ Cost: 🔶🔶🔶🔶⬜ Adaptability: 🔶🔶🔶🔶🔶
*take note of previous sentence
6. Scripts and full development
If you're in this space you're likely the following: a tech company, a non-tech business with resources to build applications (a.k.a. tech company) or a business with legacy software and internal developer knowledge - a.k.a. an IT business (a.k.a. tech company). Jokes aside, with the options available at the price offered it doesn't make sense to consider this path - unless you're a tech company. For the developers amongst you, some notable frameworks include: Sikuli, PyAutoGUi or UI.Vision.
Difficulty: 🔶🔶🔶🔶🔶 Cost: 🔶🔶🔶🔶🔶 Adaptability: 🔶🔶🔶🔶🔶
"Business automation is one of the best ways to improve your customers’ experience, reduce costs, and boost your overall workflow." - Django Stars
Every business can have its own auto-pilot
Do you remember email distribution lists for internal comms? If you've used (or still use) these, then congratulations, you have used business automation. Rather than writing or pasting names to send a group email, a single, up-to-date group can be selected as a recipient. The world (mostly) has now moved beyond this to more advanced communication tools - the likes of Slack or Microsoft Teams. Email was a huge automation step from penning letters or using vacuum tubes to send communications. But where this gets more exciting is automatically generating these important communications from information captured previously rather than recreating it.
Businesses use a mix of different software applications, hardcopy documents, detailed emails or working meetings to get work done. This means lot of manual input and effort, particularly getting data from one place to another. Business automation allows these pieces to talk to one another. It is the auto-pilot for your business. Handling these repetitive or complex tasks whilst reducing human error means teams can focus on generating more value for the business.
What can be automated
If an activity has any hints of document management, is rule based, involves data transfer and transformation or is repeated for any organisational stakeholders (eg. employees, customer) it's a candidate for automation. Here's some typical tasks which can be done instantly, with zero errors for very little cost:
- onboarding new clients or employees
- generating business reports
- generating new leads
- technical and design approvals
- multi-team development workflows
- managing marketing campaigns
- visualising company data (analytics and graphs)
- new project establishment
- invoicing and accounts receivable fulfillment
- customer support and processing feedback
- creating sales proposals
- copying and pasting data between tools
- moving documents between apps or folders
- sending and collecting documents for signing, and
- the list goes on...
As has been proven by the airline industry and Big Tech, the customer is also willing (in some cases more satisfied) to complete parts of the workflow themselves. Opportunities are endless but it's better to start now than be forced to start by your competitors.