There’s been a lot of talk lately about the promise of automation to transform business, but most of the discussion has focused on self-driving cars and robots. These are significant advances, no doubt about it -- but if you focus on only these high-profile examples, you might miss a much larger opportunity: automating the repetitive work performed daily by millions of information workers.
Automation in the office isn’t new, but efforts to date have focused on a handful of key processes that are hardwired into applications. To get them up and running, the business user needs to involve IT, which adds time and expense. What’s more, the resulting solution is built for a single use case, leaving the vast majority of work in the enterprise untouched and unautomated.
The far greater opportunity lies in automating the great diversity of loosely defined, unstructured work that business users perform every day, in every department. Although this has traditionally been hard to do, doing so frees up valuable time for workers to focus on higher-value work.
So what processes are we talking about? Here are two common examples that can benefit greatly from automation. Both typically involve creating attachments, sending email, and following up manually. Here’s how automation could transform the process of updates and approvals:
- Updates: To compile weekly reports, the business user sets up an automatic process to gather information from employees, vendors, or customers. The business user receives the information he needs each week without having to ask -- cutting down on productivity-killing email update threads and in-person meetings. The automated process also triggers notifications when information is missing or new information is required.
- Approvals: When getting sign-off for a purchase, for example, the business user sets up an automated process that specifies when a request was sent, and the precise date when approval is needed. With automation, approvers get notified automatically via email or push notification, freeing the employee who requested approval from creating requests and sending reminders.
These are simple tasks, but they can take up a lot of time when performed repeatedly and manually. In fact, a recent survey reveals that many of us spend more than a quarter of our workweek on mundane, repetitive tasks. What’s more, sending and receiving email, and data entry, are among the most time-consuming.
Automating these tasks has traditionally been challenging because they’re highly varied. A process can involve one or multiple steps, take place in a single application, or require data from another system of record. It’s fine to engage IT for a process if it is repeated frequently by multiple employees and doesn’t change over time. But most everyday processes don’t fall into this category.
What information workers need is a platform that allows any user, regardless of technical ability, to organize and automate their business processes. Letting users structure their processes so they can automate tasks saves time and increases the accuracy and timeliness of the information they receive.
Our customers have been asking for this functionality, and we listened. I’m happy to say that we launched several powerful new tools to let users automate their own business processes at our ENGAGE customer conference in September. We’re starting with approvals and updates, as customers told us that these two actions would be the most useful in eliminating repetitive work, but they’re only the first in a wave of forthcoming features over the next few months. I believe these capabilities are on the leading edge of where the industry as a whole will soon be heading.
As automation of this type becomes pervasive, CIOs must consider how to implement these capabilities and gain maximum value. Here are some tips for enabling automation among information workers:
- To the extent you can, employ an automation platform that is familiar to users. New apps mandated from the top down often result in low levels of engagement. If an existing tool in your organization provides these capabilities, use it.
- Start small. Identify a group of workers who would benefit most from these capabilities and encourage them to experiment. Monitor their progress and collect best practices before rolling it out more widely.
- Educate teams about the types of process they can automate. A good place to start is with tasks that are significant enough to make a meaningful difference to productivity, but small enough that you wouldn’t call in IT or hire a team of consultants to figure out a solution.
- Beware of “low-code” tools. Some platforms target the so-called citizen developer -- those mythical employees who understand coding and system design and can automate a process in their spare time. These citizen developers are extremely rare; to empower the majority of your workforce, choose a platform that doesn’t require coding.
One final thought: You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned “artificial intelligence” once in this post. That’s because AI is not a requirement to get started down this road. A good automation platform doesn’t require an army of data scientists to make it work.
That doesn’t mean AI has no role to play in workflow automation. In fact, we use AI and machine learning extensively at Smartsheet to analyze how our software is used, improve features, and make recommendations to maximize its value. AI has a very real role to play in the future of workplace automation, but that’s a topic for a future post.
A version of this post previously appeared on CIO.com.