Automating your office processes? 8 lessons to bear in mind

Using technology to automate white collar work is a top agenda item with leaders in industries that have significant back office costs; banking and insurance for example. With the squeeze on the top line, increasing efficiency is critical to maintaining financial performance. But how to separate good practice from the hype? Whether it be robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning or AI lessons from previous waves of operational and process change apply. Let’s not forget automating office work began decades ago with the adoption of core IT systems, followed by Customer Relationship Management CRM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and HR applications such as Workday. So when you embark on an office automation project, for example, implementing RPA, use the knowledge and expertise of the past to make the most of these futuristic technologies. He is some guidance based on my own experience and client work:

  1. Think holistically; automating selected office processes not only results in more productivity from the processes in scope, but also enables other non technical change that will release further efficiency. I call this ‘intelligent automation’. A virtuous cycle can be achieved combining the high throughput and standardisation of automation, non technical operational efficiency gains, more interesting and value adding work for employees and the possibility of new or more customer configured products. Furthermore the need for expensive office space can be reduced.
  2. Work with a bag of tools not just one. I have seen organisations spend a significant amount of time selecting an RPA tool. Once everyone is satisfied the tool is the ‘right one’ a project is initiated, processes are selected and then automation begins. More often than not there are snags, the RPA tool does not handle Citrix for example. Then the doubt sets in; perhaps this automation is over-hyped and not for us? This is akin to playing golf with a single club then doubting your ability when your round is poor. For golf you need a bag of clubs, each suited to a particular set of circumstances and shots. Then you can play and improve. It is the same with office automation, perhaps two or three RPA tools are required to cover the range and type of processes within your business. So be open to using a range of tools, both technical and non-technical.
  3. Spend an appropriate amount of time on studying both your processes and how people actually work. Group processes into those suitable for immediate automation, those which require some rework first (perhaps using lean sigma), those which are duplicates between department or functions, those which can be eliminated, plus any other categories that emerge. You will find a lot. Then determine both the sequencing of the planned automation, the nature of your future operation post automation and the support required to make the change. Work with your employees and get there input into the process as they have the ‘know how’ to help make the more to automation a smooth one.
  4. Spend time on how you will manage the change and the possible change of roles for affected employees. How can you retain and reuse their institutional knowledge, which is often built up over years or decades? You will need people to resolve and process the exceptions rejected by the robots.
  5. Set out a clear HR and Communications policy aligned your corporate policies and culture from the start for the project so that you set out the options for any employees affected by the change.
  6. If you are in a regulated business involve Risk and Compliance from the start. Once a process is standardised, certified compliant then automated, operational risk is significantly reduced compared to the previous human approach.
  7. Decide early on what you want to do in-house, what capability you will buy in (e.g. consultancy, project management and delivery, robot factory, technology forecasts), and any phases or changes to your model as you scale. Have a plan to scale quickly if your initial efforts are very successful.
  8. Take a look at manufacturing – there’s lots to learn. Most factories today are highly automated, more flexible in what they can produce and making goods of a higher quality at a lower cost than prior to automation. Factories that once teamed with people in their thousands are now staffed by far fewer people, supported by machines and robots. This level of change and productivity gain is what we could see over the next 5-10 years in offices.

I implemented my first office automation (a CRM system) in 1993 and used it to transform the department I led and create a significant new revenue stream for my employer. Since then I have led or been involved in many operational transformations both as a client and as a consultant. This coming wave of automation may well herald a paradigm shift in the world of white collar work and one we must implement intelligently.


The article was originally published on LinkedIn and is re-posted here by permission.