The human side of automation 

If you spend anytime browsing or searching in regard to process automation a large part of what you’ll come across is cool technology and panic. “Hey, look at what these awesome robots can do” tempered with “The robots are going to steal our jobs!!”. Much of what we do as IT professionals is helping to make a complex and constantly evolving field more accessible – to realise what these awesome ‘robots’ can do and allay the fears and concerns many have. However, we have a habit of focusing on the technology, that’s normal, we understand and embrace the technology.  

I’ve talked about a process automation lead approach to digital transformation before and one of the key points is that your processes gain agility to not be constrained by a particular tool-set. The processes are key, the technology slots in, and the user-interaction points. The human side of those processes are the make or break points of any automation strategy.

The user interaction points are only a start though. In reality, the entire strategy needs to be people-centric, precisely because of things like that fear of automation that I talked about earlier. For a non-expert user, the very idea of automation can be a threat. 

I was reading a case study recently about a tool called clarity which uses AI to automate some elements of contract reviewing. This quote struck me: 

He acknowledges the solution could be taking away work from human lawyers, something they think about quite a bit. Ultimately though, they believe that contract reviewing is so tedious, it is freeing up lawyers for work that requires a greater level of intellectual rigor and creativity. 

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Essentially it also frees up lawyers for other billable activities. Lawyers are highly skilled workers with specific areas of expertise, and an inherent knowledge of the value of time. So perhaps it’s no surprise that they could embrace automation in this way.  This faith in one’s ability to adapt actually stretches throughout many types or worker. For example, have a look at this from the Fabians society: 

Overwhelmingly, workers are positive about their own ability to navigate change: 73 per cent are confident they will be able to change and update their skills if new technology affects their job.  

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What this teaches us is that there is a great deal of positivity there just waiting to be harnessed if an automation project focuses on the people involved in the process. 

Where to start 

“Digital Transformation describes a series of projects that, together, change every facet of an organisation” 

“Two-thirds of CEOs have digital transformation at the centre of their corporate strategies”  

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Ever look at a messy room and wonder where to start? Digital transformation can be similar, there is no doubt that being a transformative and adaptive organisation in relation to technology brings fantastic results but sometimes things are just too big for us to really process. With a complex series of systems and processes winding their way through even the leanest of companies it can feel like an impossible tangle. And that’s before you get to the human tangle, company politics can be an absolute minefield.  

Focusing on systems is perhaps not the best route here. Users often have a good feeling for what technology they want to use, quite often this is diverse and when supported by a platform like Office 365 there can be multiple ways of working. Systems can vary, people can change, and part of user satisfaction is ensuring that users and departments have the agency to pick and chose to a certain extent. There need to be guidelines around infrastructure, connectivity and security but there needs to be some freedom too. 

I would suggest that process is a good place to start a digital and cultural transformation. Indeed, simple clarification of the framework of processes can go a long way to making people feel more at ease with their place in the organisation. However, it is really easy to get into departmental minutiae too swiftly. At the start of any project, I always try to start at the top – what is it that your organisation fundamentally does? What service or product do you offer and how? Then take some time to map out periphery processes at a very high level. The chances are, you will very quickly come across some parts of the business where risks and bottlenecks are high, and user-satisfaction is low. These are the places to start – this is your strategic hit list and to start off you need to find one which will give you the most value in the shortest amount of time. If you limit your first steps to a single process, it’s easier to control and account for the human variables and start to untangle those knots. At the same time, it is easier to ensure the project is successful and can therefore be used as a template and platform for further projects. If not, simply going through this initial project can have a domino effect throughout departments and organisations and lead to more improvement than was first envisioned. 

How to start 

“Giving employees a sense of control improved how much self-discipline they brought to their jobs.” 

– Charles Duhigg the power of habit 

Once you’ve decided on a particular process you’ll need to get a working team together and that needs to include all levels of the users involved. i.e. you need representation from the floor not just from supervisory or management levels. This ensures a few things. 1. You have the best chance of getting an accurate representation of how this process really works from the ground up. 2. Everyone who is involved in the process feels as though they are included or at least represented within the decision making. This is vital for buy in. 

It also needs to be made clear that one of the goals is to improve their day to day working life. Reducing repetitive tasks allows you to focus on more interesting work. Optimising processes which you are involved in, means you are MORE valuable to the organisation as you have the time to achieve more. The more users who are focused on and capable of improving business processes the better. 

This does require a couple of things from project owners and organisational decision makers. Firstly, the organisation needs to be open about their objectives. Secondly, the organisation needs to prioritise change management techniques alongside process automation to reap the maximum amount of benefits. 

This is not easy to do on your own. An outsider view of your organisation coupled with many years of experience going through similar programs can be enormously valuable. What’s more, process automation projects lend themselves particularly well to showing this value; you can measure time saved and employee satisfaction quite easily. This has been a very quick summary of some of the techniques we use and the reasons behind them. Many organisations get in touch with us as they have ‘one simple process’ they’d like to sort out. It is rarely that simple, but with a good partner to help you bridge the gap between the technology and the human side, it is one of the best ways to get results quickly without too much risk.  The good news is that process may well be the key to a digital and cultural transformation. The bad news is that you might find it hard to stop at one simple process.