Automation requires upskilling as much of the workforce as possible

A look at what goes into the making of a successful automation journey and the outcomes businesses can expect to achieve, particularly when it comes to the workforce.
Peter Clarke
By Peter Clarke
Johannesburg, 23 Sept 2020

Approaches to automation may vary but the general consensus is that it is a powerful business enabler that was pioneered by IT departments and is a formidable trend across the entire business process landscape.

The IDC describes three best practices for deploying intelligent automation. It recommends devising an enterprise strategy for automation to build a foundation for deployment at scale. This should be followed by an examination and re-engineering of processes aimed at revealing and resolving of data quality and management issues. Finally, it is advised to engage employees in the training of, and collaboration with, intelligent automation solutions.

This pretty much supports my recommended approach to automation where I believe a successful and ongoing programme is dependent on easy access to the right tools. Many IT services applications have automation tools built into them, but it might be necessary to invest in a good automation toolset. The various offerings should be evaluated in terms of their ability to deliver your goals.

It is not advisable to automate just one aspect of a business; eg, sales − automation should bridge systems and business processes so that, for example, once a sale is made, the same information is pulled into the billing and CRM systems without the need to capture this information again. This approach eliminates silos and improves the customer experience, thus helping create a better company all round.

Having acquired the right toolset, the next priority is staff training – not just to learn how to use it, but also to understand the principles behind automation. It is important to remember that costs incurred on both the application plus training are upfront expenses that will taper off over time. What will not taper off are the benefits which will continue to accrue. In the long run, these costs will be more than justified by a reduced salary bill thanks to the more productive use of existing resources.

Companies need to balance their responsibility towards the workforce with the urgent call for automation and robotics.

Automation is all about enhanced efficiencies, but it is also about enabling scope for deploying valuable human resources to add greater value.

What about the all-important question of jobs? This takes us to the controversial and somewhat sensitive issue of job security or lack of same due to automation innovations.

It’s important to encourage project teams to ensure they demonstrate automation benefits including up-skilling users. They need to show how business owners will have more time to focus on improving operations and refining strategy, while employees will be liberated from mundane chores and given the scope to take on more valuable work, enhance skills and generally be more motivated in their jobs.

An attitude of continuous improvement must be cultivated. Moreover, it needs to be understood that freeing up staff time is not another term for cutting head count. It needs to be made clear to staff that the idea is to provide greater opportunity for existing staff to take on more demanding/interesting jobs, gain skills and better their career prospects.

Automation can be a touchy subject in countries like South Africa where there is high unemployment and a large, unskilled workforce – these circumstances make carefully calibrated automation strategies crucial. Labour-intensive manufacturing plays a key role in economic growth in developing countries.

Companies need to balance their responsibility towards the workforce with the urgent call for automation and robotics.

Is automation stealing manufacturing jobs? One study examined exactly this question, focusing on South Africa’s apparel industry. Among the findings was the conclusion that qualitative research investigating the impact of automation on jobs in developing countries is scarce and that many forecast studies failed to acknowledge the full range of factors that determine automation’s impact on employment.

The South African apparel industry was selected for this study because SA is deemed to be among a handful of developing countries already adopting automation technologies in this sector. The study drew on evidence based on interviews with company managers in the arena, as well as with government and union representatives.

The findings concluded that the overall impact of automation on unemployment has been negligible and is predicted to continue in this vein. Moreover, in some instances, increased automation was predicted to enhance employment opportunities by improving productivity.

Of course, circumstances differ from industry to industry; for example, manufacturing in the automotive arena – globally this is highly automated but the upfront costs of automating a factory floor versus an abundance of low-cost labour remains an issue in developing countries.

In conclusion, it is clear that automation will play a key role in helping businesses build more efficiency into their operations and make better use of expensive human resources, particularly as robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence become increasingly commercially viable.

But the move towards automation must be phased and will have to include an ambitious programme of upskilling as much of the workforce as possible.

If one looks at automation as part of a strategy to increase efficiencies and help employees to reach their potential, the benefits are massive, with increased profitability and a more engaged workforce setting up a virtuous cycle.

It’s all about the approach.