Doing More with Less – Could SME’s do more to embrace Automation?

The concept of ‘Automation’, especially for IT-related processes, peppers general workplace talk these days on an ever-increasing scale. It’s the expectation that someone, somewhere, has already solved a particular problem, and that the solution is readily available for implementation. I’ve been in many meetings where the question has been asked “Haven’t we got someone who can do that?” or “Don’t we have some software that can do that?”. The answer many times is that they don’t, and usually because the problems they are trying to solve are probably unique to their organisation.

It’s easy to point to examples of large organisations or sectors where automation has been a resounding success. Amazon has invested millions into automating warehouse fulfilment over the last decade in order to gain competitive advantage and reduce shipping times. And the volume of investment in Artificial Intelligence systems will see revolutionary change in the next 3-5 years for the Healthcare, Legal and Accounting sectors, for instance. The benefits from this disruptive technology will fundamentally change the way we interact with such organisations (hopefully for the better). But Amazon is a big company with deep pockets and a long-term view on distribution, and the three sectors mentioned above will never cease to exist whilst mankind is on this earth. They also happen to be ripe for shake-up using disruptive ideas and technology.

The reality is that most large-scale automation seeks to solve industry and sector-specific problems, with a view to designing solutions which are easily applicable for a multitude of organisations in a global marketplace. And for good reason too, because the vendors of automation solutions seek maximum payback for their investment and efforts – hence their top down view of things.

As a result, principle vendors providing automation solutions will typically only identify opportunities to automate where their software or robotic solutions are universally scalable, and corporations have no choice but to accept the ‘one size fits all’ automation solution. And whilst certain parts of automation solutions are obviously customised and bespoke to the client, in my experience vendors tend to simply ‘shoe-horn’ organisations into their way of doing things, without fully understanding what the stakeholder requirements are or the key attributes which make an organisation tick.

So when automation is implemented it’s rarely smooth sailing for many small and large-scale organisations. Efforts to automate force these organisations to re-examine their core business processes and adapt them for the future “to-be” world, whilst at the same time continue with the day-to-day running of the business. Analysts will seek to break down the core components of the end-to-end process, and it is here where the risks are myriad. For example, requirements may be missed, stakeholders not fully engaged, parts of the process not completely understood, data quality low, mappings incorrect, etc. They also may not know the answers to some questions until a ‘proof-of-concept’ has been developed. There is a lot to get right during the transition between old/outdated and new/automated during the staged development lifecycle (design, build, test, deploy). Frequently new technology is implemented as a magic bullet to automate the end-to-end process. While these can improve efficiency, they also add another layer of complexity which must be understood by the business and supported in the long term.

As a direct result, organisational leaders are typically only willing to sign up for small, incremental changes, or else bear the price of utter chaos. After all, no individual helming an entire corporation would want to see themselves dealing with an entire new set of problems in the name of automation; problems which may eventually cost more (unbudgeted funds) to fix.

The current reality is this – many SMEs today including large corporations and organisations are struggling to automate even some of the most basic routine manual practices. In a business world where automation has been making persistent headway, why is this still happening?

Many vendors fail to get the basics right when providing automation solutions. If you only look at solutions from a top-down perspective, it’s when things can start to go awry. In my experience, vendors keep thinking that the smaller, unique automation aspects they cannot address (which vary from organisation to organisation), or feel are too expensive to address, should be someone else’s problem.

This should not come as a surprise – can anyone honestly reference a case study where an ERP implementation actually went smoothly with no hiccups whatsoever? Usually all you hear are the typical horror stories. Out of nowhere, big automation projects morph into behemoths overnight and when implementation specialists can command fees of over £1k a day, well, you can imagine what havoc that wreaks on budgets.

How then should businesses automate their processes? After all, it is easy to poke holes in failed implementations, and much harder to successfully deliver quality automation at a reasonable cost.

First, review the processes from both the bottom up and the top down, involving the people doing the actual work. They have a wealth of knowledge and will more than likely be the end users of the automation solution.

Then there are also steps that can be taken with the design and build to maximise the likelihood of success. I am a great believer in keeping IT simple, building in quality from the outset but not cost, and only adding new technology where it genuinely adds benefit.

With this philosophy in mind, I tend to avoid adding extra layers to achieve automation, unless there is no alternative. For example, my team’s area of expertise is automation of Excel, Access and other Microsoft Office products. If you have a process using an Excel spreadsheet, then just automate that spreadsheet don’t add another layer of technology on top. This also has the advantage that many employees already understand Excel, and knowledge of VBA is easy to come by.

I have worked for businesses where Excel is feared, with management seeing it as high risk. Their fear is that users can build tools which no-one else will understand and might contain bugs. The truth is Excel is an enabling technology, with a massive user base. There is no such thing as an Excel spreadsheet that cannot be understood with time and patience. Also, formal IT builds using languages such as SQL and C# will frequently contain bugs. Those can only be understood and debugged by specialist IT professionals, while Excel and VBA can be understood and debugged immediately by many employees doing the actual work instead of a support call to a specialist.

The real trick is to have well written Excel and VBA solutions. When I worked in big business I often had the comment that my spreadsheets were more robust than the formal IT processes. While this may say a lot about poor build quality of the core IT systems, it is also a good illustration that build quality matters. Tidying up existing Excel processes and well written automation using VBA can provide real benefit at low cost. This is the speciality of me and my team.

So where to now? Clearly custom automation software will continue to be implemented across industry, but if you are involved in such a project then I advise you to take a minute to think about the bottom level processes. Consider whether the base level can be improved and automated so that there is less need for a new layer. There will still be a place for new automation software, but this should be used on top of robust systems, rather than used to cover over holes in existing processes.

Tools like Excel and Access boast unbelievable flexibility, allow fairly quick development cycles, and force users to think about the end goal. They are the ideal starting point from which to lay the foundation for bigger change. They are essentially the drivers for the business process re-engineering that is required.

Many vendors won’t even consider projects unless the budget kicks off at £5-10k. And then often there are extras for which you need to take a hit as well such as support contracts and possibly annual licences. Any future change, no matter how small, will cost you money. Essentially you don’t own your solution despite the application sitting on your servers.

However, did you know that the entry price for basic office automation in SMEs and large corporations can be as little as £300-£500, depending on needs and goals?

If you think about it, you are getting serious bang for the buck using something as simple and flexible as Excel VBA (Macros) to automate your day-to-day business processes – these macros are quick to develop and maintain, and very easy to change and support in future. VBA allows any reasonably educated developer to pick up and maintain someone else’s work. You are also in control of your own solution and minor changes can be done quickly and easily at very low cost.

I hope you found my ideas insightful and thought-provoking. Please feel free to drop your suggestions or general comments on automation below. I often do freebies for clients if I think a wider audience would benefit  (see the ‘Free Tools’ section of my website), so if you have any ideas about IT issues which desperately need automation then please get in touch for further exploration.

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