Every industry is looking at automation as a way to improve productivity, customer service and the way work gets done. So many aspects of our personal lives are made better by automation. Uber is transforming the way we arrange transport with consumer friendly technology and automation, throwing the taxi industry into disarray. The automated check-in process at the airport has improved the customer experience, whilst eliminated cost from the process. (Remember lining up like cattle to get a printed boarding pass?)
Yet, when we are are at work, many tasks associated with either the way we do our jobs or what we need in order to get our work done are highly manual, repetitive and painful. The concept of consumerising workplace services is not new, but the practical applications are becoming much more mainstream. ServiceNow recently published a study that supports the link between the service experience, automation, and workplace productivity. Dave Wright, ServiceNow’s chief strategy officer, is spot on when he states that most companies have a maniacal focus on the experiences of their customers but are not using those same principles for their internal-facing experiences. Workers have to leave their 21st century lives at the door when we go to work. Automation with the right approach can help fix that.
Understand what you want to achieve with automation
Many, if not all, universities are talking about automation in some form or another. But it is worth thinking about what automation actually means. Is it simply taking a manual task and converting it into something that a machine or piece of software can execute, or is it about transforming the way that work gets done across a university? One definition is not more correct than the other. The right answer depends on their vision, preparation, resources and technology.
5 Automation Imperatives
Whatever the outcomes or drivers are for a university, the right approach to automation is critical and will go a long way to determining success or failure.
1. Avoid the BIG BANG!
Trying to automate everything at once is fraught with danger. Organisations are understandably tempted by the fruits of automation, but the BIG BANG approach can often end in a BIG BANG! Biting off more than it can chew can have disastrous consequences for an organisation, and we see this most often when newly automated business-critical processes fail and organisational change management cannot keep pace with the change.
Instead, we recommend an incremental approach to automation. Whether you are looking to transform the way work gets done across the entire university or have a more modest objective of automating certain manual tasks, identify a particular process or area of the organisation and start there. Successful automation, even on a small scale, creates an appetite for more. A deliberate, sequenced approach reduces risk, creates momentum and allows time for essential change management activities within an organisation.
2. Don’t automate processes that suck
It is worth doing the groundwork to address poor processes before you automate. Automating existing processes that suck will simply speed them up. Mitch Ratcliffe’s quote says it best, “a computer lets you make mistakes faster than any other invention with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila”. An incremental approach affords the opportunity to review and improve processes as you go. A suitably qualified lean or six sigma practitioner can do wonders in a short period of time.
3. Don’t get stuck down a rabbit hole
Preparing to automate invariably raises the question of how to manage the exceptions to a process – and there are always exceptions! Use the 80/20 rule. Stay focused on automating the ‘standard’ process and avoid trying to solve for all the exceptions. You will end up down a rabbit hole and it will paralyse progress. Tackle the big chunks first and refine for exceptions at a later stage. In the interim, exceptions can generally be managed by the existing manual process.
4. Don’t try to replace intelligent people making intelligent decisions
When automating processes, it is tempting to try and automate everything. Recognise that organisations are complex ecosystems, not production lines. Human intervention within a process is often essential. Often, a subjective decision needs to be made – one that cannot be codified. A system cannot read the political landscape within an organisation or deal with every exception that arises. Automate what makes sense, but recognise when to rely on intelligent people making informed and intelligent decisions.
5. Don’t just relocate the effort
As universities take a more customer-centric approach, collaboration and coordination across departments becomes more important. Automation initiatives with a department or business unit focus, rather than a university-wide focus, can result in the relocation of ‘effort’ to another part of the organisation or worse, onto the shoulders of the customer. Keep an eye out for this – relocation versus elimination of effort.
People, Process and Technology Mash-Up
Automation is more than just technology and process. Automation is a mash-up of people, technology and process. The technology underpinning automation needs to recognise and support the way that work actually gets done within a university. Busy people will continue to take the path of least resistance to get stuff done. Automation needs to remove the friction between the user and the technology – it needs to be the preferred path. Don’t lose sight of people, they are as important as the technology and process in an automation initiative.