In a recent article, Tom Harford argues that the modern office has become less productive. One of the significant reasons, suggests Harford, is that “office work is becoming ever more generalist. Everyone does their own typing nowadays, and many people do their own expense claims, design their own presentations and manage their own diaries.” Harford is not alone in suggesting that always-on, multitasking work environments are negatively impacting productivity. The question is, should we go back to more specialised roles or is there another way?
There is no doubt that technology has been the foundation for the rise of the office worker. Today’s organisations operate in an age of digital transformation. The challenge for businesses is to identify the new and emerging technologies that provide operational and efficiency gains while future-proofing their business to take advantage of emerging opportunities. That is where process automation can help.
The role of process automation for the knowledge organisation
For any organisation, the purpose of automation is to optimise current practices, reduce costs, create efficiencies and enhance throughput. The result of any automation is to achieve cost savings and productivity improvements. Olsen and Lucas suggest that beyond these advancements, “the greatest potential of office automation is… the ability of managers to gain increased control over their operation.” This is especially important for knowledge and service sectors whose workers have become increasingly bogged down by repetitive administrative and reporting tasks that take them away from servicing customers and prospects.
Business process improvements can be achieved by either replacing or augmenting a process to support the workers performing the activities. For example, process automation can automate routine administrative tasks like generating invoices, paying bills and keeping employee records up to date.
Approaching process automation as part of a broader organisational design program can help a business identify the information and resources that a knowledge worker needs to perform their role. Simultaneously, companies can identify and implement structured technology and processes to the more routine aspects to free up a knowledge worker to concentrate on the more complex aspects of their role. For example, workflow and document management technologies can replace emails and spreadsheets to streamline activities across functions and enable faster and more collaborative work practices. The result is not to replace headcount but to have staff working alongside automated processes to deliver more rapid and enhanced customer experiences that drive differentiation and growth.
The keystones to successful process automation
Process automation promises to help a business to achieve productivity gains and cost savings, but there are limitations. While process automation can speed up a process, it cannot discover the bottlenecks and inefficiencies that are part of a process before it is automated. The result of a flawed process being automated is not a better process but a faster outcome to that lousy process.
1. Optimise the process before automation
Before any process is automated, there needs to be an in-depth review of the steps and activities that are a part of the process. Process automation can often mean rethinking existing business processes. It is essential to ensure that processes are designed for automation.
Each step should be reviewed to identify if there is a way to optimise or reduce redundancy while considering potential impacts on other upstream or downstream processes. The goal should be to design systems that improve data flow, limit redundancies and increase processing time with minimal impact on corporate business flows.
2. Focus on employees
The key to a successful process automation program is to focus on employees as much as technology. This includes determining and rectifying any skills gaps that arise from automating processes and prioritising communication across the business to manage the behavioural changes required from any implementation of automation.
To meet objectives, there needs to be clarity on what needs to change within a business. Culture is at the heart of this change, with communication being key to building trust and embedding the required culture shift. If knowledge workers are not kept informed about how they can best use technology to improve their role, adoption will lag.
3. Consider how to future proof your investment
With so many emerging technologies that enable process automation, it is vital to understand your business and technology ecosystem clearly. Whenever you introduce automation to existing systems, you need to be aware of how these changes may impact the legacy systems, and other automated processes. While process automation generally requires a smaller investment than other technology considerations, investing in the wrong solution or one that does not have the flexibility to scale with changing demand could have an opposite impact on your efficiency goals. And once you have implemented process automation, you have to manage it as core systems evolve.
The outcome of process automation
Will automating underlying tasks result in higher productivity of knowledge workers, or will they spend more time “noodling around making bad slides“? The answer to that depends on the organisation’s culture and the value that workers place on the activities they perform.
Businesses have an opportunity to achieve a competitive advantage from automation technologies. Knowledge work automation could deliver productivity improvements, make it easier to scale and provide opportunities to enter new markets.
On the flip side, we need to consider the broader implications these disruptive forces will have on jobs, skills, training and the future of work. What is known is that process automation will remove mundane and repetitive tasks, freeing up knowledge and service workers to pursue their best work, higher value and nuanced activities that help the business achieve its strategic objectives.
How Coxswain Alliance can help
Coxswain Alliance takes a people-first approach to identify and implement technology solutions. We work with you to identify and optimise the process to be automated, build and implement the workflows, and deliver the process with a robust change management plan to meet your business objectives.
No matter where you are in your process automation journey, we can help. Coxswain Alliance has over ten years of experience providing business improvement solutions to a broad range of industries locally and internationally. We use personal, hands-on collaboration techniques to gain a deep understanding of your business and deliver a blueprint for operational excellence. Our proven methodologies provide flexible and innovative solutions to meet your business needs now and into the future. Contact us for a complimentary consultation.
 Olson, Margrethe and Lucas Jr., Henry C., The Impact of Office Automation on the Organization: Some Implications for Research and Practice (1980). NYU Working Paper No. IS-80-046, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1290223