Automation is super simple, in theory.
The basic premise of business process automation is to allow machines to follow a set procedure –wait for it – automatically, to save on human capital and reduce human errors.
So far so good.
The complexity of what can be automated, however, is still up to humans, and is limited only by the imagination. Well, your imagination and your ability and standardize formatting your inputs, integrate into various systems, and create rules.
But beyond the ability to program your machines with the criteria listed above, you also need to consider the context of how they’re being used.
Think of a tennis ball machine vs. a tennis pro—no matter how good the pro is, it will never be as accurate as the machine. Additionally, the machine is basically a one-time fixed cost, while you’d have to pay the tennis pro every week, reschedule appointments when he gets sick, etc. And this doesn’t even account for the fact you’d have to listen to him drone on about how he “Could have qualified for the Australian Open in ‘95 if the darn line judge wasn’t completely blind…”
Obviously, the machine can’t coach form or any of the other human things a tennis pro can, but as far as shooting a pre-calibrated serve over and over and over again, with very little variance, there’s no better way to do that than with a machine. Business process automation fits the context of somebody who needs to work on returning tennis serves very well.
Outside the country club, and especially industries like manufacturing and technology, automation is a huge topic. What it means for the bottom line, and what it means for the future of work are questions we are all wrestling with. This is because, as we’ve mentioned in other blog posts, many jobs (such as writing) that we never thought would get automated, are being taken over by machines with artificial intelligence.
So should you stop reading this post, go buy a bunch of robots, fire all your employees, and automate your entire business? Probably not.
Context is huge for business process automation, and today we hope to provide some with examples from the good, the bad, and the ugly of automation.
There are many benefits of automation, and these benefits will likely increase as we continue to refine AI. There are several buckets of the good things in automation.
High productivity through efficiency. As mentioned before, humans can’t keep up with the pace of a ‘well-oiled machine’ because it’s not their nature. Once a machine is dialed into a process, you can see resource savings and higher productivity as a result of precision. You do need a process to support automation, however.
Better quality jobs. Especially in the manufacturing industry, automation has been improving the quality of life for workers since the 1800’s. Tedious, tiring, or downright dangerous jobs have been eliminated with machines. In the Information Age, automation has allowed machines and algorithms to take over things like number crunching and forecasting, which frees up employees to pursue creativity and innovation in other areas of their work. For instance, if Dropbox Sign can use workflows to get a signed document into revenue processing faster, that leaves more time for a salesperson to do their job—instead of paperwork.
Not necessarily fewer jobs. Robots aren’t necessarily taking jobs away from humans, at least in terms of volume, and it’s actually very difficult to track this statistic. This is because when a job function is automated, it often creates a new, different job for the human to do. MIT professor Daron Acemoglu uses the example of ATMs. Yes, they took over the job of a teller, but the banking industry has not reported a significant change to the amount of people it employs as a result of the invention.
Automation, while effective in some situations, isn’t all roses...
Misuse of automation, for lack of a better word, is bad. Automating something doesn’t create a process, and if automation doesn’t fit the context of what you’re working on, it can actually be a detriment.
In the book The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt—which covers the theory of constraints in manufacturing but is a must read for any industry—the protagonist, Alex Rogo, is on his way to speak at a conference about robotics in manufacturing when he bumps into a mysterious consultant, Jonah, at the airport. When Alex tells Jonah how the robots have increased productivity 36% (in a single department), Jonah is not impressed:
“Check your numbers if you’d like, but if your inventories haven’t gone down… and your employee expense was not reduced… and if your company isn’t selling more products—which obviously it can’t, if you’re not shipping more of them—then you can’t tell me these robots increased your plant’s productivity.”
While Alex, a plant manager at a manufacturing company, was bragging about the productivity increase his robots provided, he hadn’t even realized that they weren’t helping at all in the overall context of reaching his goal—running a profitable manufacturing plant.
Automation can’t create process for you, and if you engage in automation before you’re ready, you’ll waste a lot of time and resources.
The way automation goes from “bad” to “ugly” is not through misuse; it’s through neglect. Automation is inevitable (it’s actually already here) because it’s an economic advantage, but for those who choose to ignore it or fight it, the future is bleak.
For example, let’s say you tried some form of automation at work, whether an army of robots or some slick software, and you didn’t get the results you wanted—you got stuck in The Bad category, and you abandoned your pursuit of automation. There’s a good chance your competitors didn’t, or they’re willing to stick it out and figure some way to make automation work. As they begin to produce products cheaper and better, it won’t be the robots that take jobs away, it will be other companies.
Or even worse, some companies, or industries as a whole, are rejecting the idea of retraining in hopes that the old way of doing something prevails. But it won’t, and this prevents them from finding a more lucrative job in the future after learning new skills.
The ugly side of automation is ignoring the potential.
Simplifying Work Through Automation
At Dropbox Sign, we don’t believe in a dystopian future of robots running the world—we believe the power of automation can be a part of your daily work routine that makes life easier! From electronic document signatures with robust workflows to automating other areas of your sales process, Dropbox Sign has a suite of digital tools to help make work go a little smoother.