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Automation and its business value proposition

Adopting automation can help companies get the most out of existing personnel and permanently reduce the cost of doing business.
Ethan Searle
By Ethan Searle, Business development director, LanDynamix.
Johannesburg, 07 Jun 2023

South Africa's business leaders are all too familiar with the challenges posed by increased operating costs, decreased revenues in tough economic times, rising inflation resulting in interest rate hikes and that's all before we even comment on the power situation.

Economic downturn is not unique to South Africa − it has been a global trend for some time now. Overall, while SA has a lot of potential, it does face unique challenges that can make it more difficult for businesses to operate. However, with the right planning and IT strategies, businesses can be very successful in this market.

Gartner's 2023 technology predictions highlight collaboration, automation and orchestration to optimise value during economic crisis times, as leading trends.

Delivering value while optimising costs is a constant challenge for the management of infrastructure and operations that becomes even more difficult during tough economic times.

Globally, in 2023, powerful drivers, including inflationary pressures, are likely to continue to fuel automation across various industries. The adoption of automation can help businesses to: overcome current daunting challenges, automate human workflows and get the most out of existing personnel, but possibly most importantly help businesses to permanently reduce the cost of doing business.

In SA, the case for implementing automation as a means of improving customer experience (before we even discuss operations improvement for the business) is exceptionally strong.

Take the simple matter of booking a car in for an annual service. Matters such as mileage, owner details, etc, are all still generally captured manually. The automation of this process would result in an ultra-service improvement for both the customer and garage owner.

In SA, the case for implementing automation as a means of improving customer experience is exceptionally strong.

Public sector data capturing is another example − who in SA has not been frustrated by the laborious paper data capture experience, either at local police stations or municipalities.

These are just some of the issues driving the uptake of automation:

Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML): AI and ML technologies have continued to improve, and businesses are leveraging them to automate complex tasks and processes. Throughout 2023, we can expect to see more businesses adopting AI and ML technologies to increase efficiency, productivity and accuracy in operations.

Internet of things (IOT): IOT devices are becoming more prevalent, and companies are increasingly using them to collect data and automate processes. IOT devices can provide real-time data that can be used to optimise operations, reduce downtime and increase productivity.

Cloud computing: Cloud computing has enabled businesses to access computing resources on-demand and at scale, making it easier and more cost-effective to automate processes that were previously too expensive or complex to automate.

Robotic process automation (RPA): RPA technology has been gaining traction in recent years, and in 2023, it's likely to become even more widespread. RPA can automate repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to focus on higher-value duties that require human expertise.

Changing workforce: The workforce is evolving, and there is a growing demand for digital skills. As businesses continue to automate processes, they will need employees with the ability to manage and maintain these systems.

Business owners often feel a sense of unease when it comes to implementing any IT solutions in their operations but specifically automation, as they may lack the necessary expertise to ensure successful integration.

Additionally, there is a concern among staff members about the potential for job losses that may result from automation or digitisation.

However, it's important to note that such changes don't always lead to job cuts. Instead, they may require employees to upskill or learn new skills that are relevant to the new technologies being implemented. But overall, the drivers noted in the foregoing are likely to continue to push automation forward in 2023.

Where to start automating?

The trick is to simplify tasks and automate as much as possible. One such example is the service desk and the chore of patching − this can be automated, meaning lesser-skilled resources can handle it. This will enhance service levels and generally benefit the business greatly.

Another example is the finance department − reconciling payments to invoice numbers can be automated.

An emerging trend in the US fast food industry is to automate jobs like frying. Nobody wants these menial jobs anymore, so automation is the answer.

Eradication of silo mentality in companies is very important. Many businesses have people in different departments using a myriad of software, with the beleaguered CIO trying to pull it all together. Companies may have projects working in one silo and sales in another; however, in an ideal world all this information should be pulled into place with data already captured on the system.

However, it's important to understand there are a few things to be considered before commencing the automation journey, not least of which is the potential return on investment (ROI).

Businesses should prioritise automating tasks that will provide the most significant ROI and benefits. They should also take into account the cost of implementing and maintaining automation solutions, as well as any potential impact on staff.

Unquestionably, the best place to start will depend on the unique needs and processes of each organisation. My advice is to begin by identifying repetitive and time-consuming tasks that are essential but do not require significant human input. These tasks are prime candidates for automation.

For example, automating manual data entry into billing systems can be error-prone and result in costly remediation actions and reputational damage. Automation will free up valuable staff time and improve accuracy. Also, labour-intensive jobs, such as software patch management, can consume valuable technical staff time that could be better spent on higher-value tasks.

While there may be a relatively small upfront cost to kicking off automation in an organisation, the long-term benefits can include the growth of the organisation. Overall, the best approach is to start small and gradually scale up automation efforts. This allows businesses to test and refine automation processes before making larger investments.

Additionally, involving employees in the automation process and providing training and upskilling opportunities can help to ensure a successful transition to automated workflows.

However, it's important to note there may be challenges to face when implementing automation projects. Nonetheless, businesses need to remain open-minded and embrace the potential of automation to transform their operations and achieve greater success.

Over the next few years, automation is poised to become a key driver for businesses worldwide. Companies failing to adopt automation may find themselves struggling to keep up with more innovative competitors and may even risk going out of business by 2024. To stay competitive, companies must prioritise the implementation of automation technologies in their operations.

This all sounds great, but a relevant question is − are there caveats to automation? The answer is yes, and I will outline these in my next article, including how the benefits far outweigh any negatives.