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To Automate, or Not to Automate, That is the Question

By Matt SpearsOriginally appeared in the Simplifying Processes blog.

My “get off my lawn” moment

2020 has been an interesting year to say the least. Somewhere on the list of changes we all have had to make this year is adapting to a “virtual reality” – and not the friendly kind of VR everyone knew about in 2019. No, this new virtual reality is not exactly optional and has largely defined how we connect with far-off family members, friends, co-workers, teachers, classmates, and our industry peers. So, it is only fitting in 2020 that the “virtual conference” has actually become a thing. Anyone who has participated in such a thing has experienced the limitations, namely, the awkward attempt at dialogue, the missing body language, the chaos of managing the mute button, and the eerie similarity between the virtual conference and what was once clearly understood to be “entertainment”. Despite these challenges, many industry organizations have marched forward into this Brave New World. To be sure, I prefer the “old normal” versus the “new normal”.

How is automation going for you?

With that necessary qualification out of the way, I recently facilitated a number of interactive discussion groups for this year’s virtual Shared Services and Outsourcing Week conference. My topic was “Intentional Automation – Using Process Management to Lead Your Automation Strategy” – In crafting this topic, my intention was to get the participants to think critically and ask key questions about the way many organizations are adopting process automation technologies. Are organizations using a disciplined approach to automation? Are they seeking to clearly understand the flow and function of their processes before applying automation? Are they prioritizing automation projects based on calculated expected return on investment? Do they have an established framework of processes to guide their implementation of automation technologies?

Although not nearly as helpful as traditional round table discussions, I think we were able to mine some value out of the virtual sessions. One story in particular caught my attention. A shared services director for a Fortune 100 medical supply company shared some lessons learned from their automation journey. This company was struggling with completing various automation projects. As it turned out, they did not understand their processes correctly and had to stop multiple automation jobs mid-build, reconnect with the line-of-business to clarify process details, and then restart each automation venture. Obviously, this type of approach led to extended delays, wasted development efforts, and frustrated employees. Realizing the importance of truly knowing the process flow and business function before developing any automation, this company is now investing time and resources into process management capabilities – namely process mapping and process mining. Their intent is to use the information gathered through process management to better inform and support their future automation projects.

Many of the other discussion group participants echoed the sentiments of this shared services director. For example, a director-level employee for a global water-cleanliness solutions provider commented on the difficulty of employing automation due to struggles in managing process exceptions and getting process participants to agree upon a standard process flow. Now, considering that all of the discussion group participants are capable people and work for organizations that are obviously prioritizing investment in technologies to improve the business, how can we begin to diagnose the challenges that many of them are facing? Can these types of automation challenges be solved by simply obtaining a thorough understanding of the business processes the automation is intended to streamline? I say yes.

But first, process management (and coffee)

For the record, this is not the first time I have asserted that perhaps technology is wagging the dog in far too many organizations today. It may be that this is the case in the scenarios above. I submit that a significant reason why these organizations experienced struggles to get automation efforts off the ground can be linked to a lack of process management within the business. As a reminder, process management is the practice of improving company performance through managing and optimizing business processes. Automation is a tactic for process optimization and logically follows initial process documentation and management. Flipping the order – or ignoring process documentation entirely – will lead to frustration. As Marcia Williams writes for “You are also probably wondering if [process mapping] is worthwhile. It is if you want to avoid burning your money.”[1]

Process management is the practice of improving company performance through managing and optimizing business processes.

So, what is the solution? Well, at a minimum, organizations that want to employ process automation should be documenting and managing those processes they wish to automate. After all, it only makes sense to start an automation project knowing the true flow of a process: What inputs are needed? What roles are involved? Where do the hand-offs occur? What systems are used? What instructions are followed? How does the process perform against key performance metrics? What outputs are produced? What exceptions and variations exist? These are the types of clarifying questions a functioning process management system can answer. Without having the answers to these questions, automation projects will struggle to even make headway, or worse, will be completed and implemented creating more inefficiencies for the business. As Tom Taulli warns regarding RPA projects (applicable to workflow automation as well): “Rushing to implement RPA will probably mean getting subpar results. There first must be a thorough analysis and understanding of your current processes. Otherwise you’ll likely be just automating inefficiencies.”[2]

A final exhortation

Much more could be said about the benefits of expanding process management beyond just the processes you want to automate. In short, enterprise process management can provide up-to-date playbooks for front-line workers, governed process documentation for audit or compliance purposes, a baseline for process re-engineering efforts, and, as we have discussed, accurate process data to support automation projects.

At a minimum, get your process documentation in order before you begin building automation components. But if possible, do not simply settle for employing process management for those one-off automation projects, but seek to expand the practice across your department or enterprise and begin reaping the benefits of documented and governed standard processes.

To read Matt’s original blog, visit Simplifying Processes.


[1] Marcia Williams in Forbes.

[2] Tom Taulli in Forbes.

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