The quest for improved productivity and efficiency in a highly competitive world has landed many enterprises at the altar of automation. A global survey by the Grant Thornton International Business Report reveals about 56% of firms are either automating processes or plan to do so over the next 12 months.
However, businesses caught up in the hype of emerging technologies seldom realize that for all the benefits of automation, it is a double-edged sword, which has the potential to inflict serious damage to the vitality of the enterprise.
Automation Improves Accuracy and Speed with Reduced Costs
Automation brings to the table a load of benefits, and among the most obvious and direct benefits are improved accuracy and speed, with reduced costs.
Manual processing of tasks is prone to errors, regardless of how dedicated the person entering the data, and how rigorous the cross-checks. Moreover, manual updating of records, data entry, or process is both time-consuming and resource intensive. What takes days of painstaking effort may be executed in a matter of seconds, by leveraging automated technologies.
Likewise, automated operations, with synchronized operations, and turning switches on and off at the right time, improves efficiency, eliminating wastage.Automated robots work 24×7 at factories, without taking a break, and automated agricultural operations increase crop yield, improving productivity and Returns on capital investment manifold.
Automation also brings in consistency to processes, and increase predictability. With automated system and processes, the outcome both in terms of time and results may be predicted with a high level of accuracy.
Automation enables implementing the seven lean principles of eliminating overproduction, reducing waiting, prompt transportation, avoiding unnecessary processing, eliminating unnecessary inventory, doing away with excess motion, and eradicating defects, with gusto.
Automation Improves Safety
Automation eliminates the risks associated with several hazardous jobs, from handling molten lead to operating shredders, and preempts employees from being infected with ergonomically related disorders through monotonous data entry, injuries due to lifting heavy weights, and so on.
Automation Offers Macro Level Benefits
Automation removes the kinks in the production and operations process, leading to a high level of efficiency and better products. At a macro level, such improved efficiency leads to reduced costs and lower prices which boost demand, both factors improving the now all-sacrosanct bottom-line.
A spin-off benefit is, gains to the environment. The highly efficient operation of heating and cooling systems, brought on by automation, reduce energy. Likewise, automated robots used in mining reduce waste and conserve the environment.
However, often overlooked are indirect benefits of automation, which may be just as profound. Automation spares employees from drudgery and allows them to focus on meaningful tasks. Such work enrichment plays no small part in giving employees a psychological boost and can contribute to employee retention in a big way.
Automation and the Job Loss Quandary
For all the benefits, automation poses certain challenges as well.
One of the biggest benefits and a major reason why companies opt for automation is to reduce their wage bills, which often constitutes a sizable chunk of their operations expenses, to the point of making operations unviable. In fact, it is the wage bill that sounded the death knell of many industries in the US and other developing economies, shifting business to China and other developing countries. Automation is widely seen as an effective tool for competitive advantage, to overcome the challenge posed by low-wage economies.
Automation does lead to a reduction in workforce and reduced wage bills. About 43% of businesses expect automation to lead to job losses. About one in every three companies in the manufacturing, technology, clean tech, and food & beverages sectors expect automation to replace at least 5% of their workforce.
However, enterprises salivating on the prospects of a substantial reduction in their wages bill, as automation takes over manual tasks, may have to hold on to their celebrations. Automation takes away manual tasks, but brings in additional complications, such as the need to monitor and maintain the automated system, with adherence to Quality Assurance (QA) process. In essence, it may replace several low-end jobs with a few high-end jobs. Only large enterprises can be assured of a reduced wage bill. For small and medium enterprises, automation reducing their wage bills depends on the scale and nature of operations, and in the worst-case scenario, automation may actually end up inflating the wages bill!
Automation induced job losses can cause macro-level disruptions as well. In Stephen Hawking’s words, automation can “decimate the middle-class jobs” and displace the working class. Apart from the remaining employees being psychologically unmotivated, such a trend can result in the enterprises finding it difficult to get talent, and having to spend more resources and effort than necessary of its human resource and strafing functions.
Automation May End up Being Costlier!
From a financial perspective, deploying automated systems requires significant capital investment. A situation may well arise when the cost to implement and maintain the automated systems exceeds the manual costs, making automation financially non-viable. There are also unpredictable costs related to maintenance, and repair, and also predictable but indirect costs related to supervision and training that make automation financially dangerous for an enterprise.
Also, automation depends on having a highly matured technology infrastructure as its backbone. Without reliable ultra-fast backbone and equally dedicated supply of energy, automation will fall flat on its face and become counter-productive. Many companies assume this as given, when the reality may be different, or at least much costlier than anticipated, even in first world economies.
Automation is Not Yet Compatible with Customization
A more significant challenge is the loss of versatility or flexibility. No machinery is as flexible as the human body, and no artificial intelligence can supplant the human brain. An employee can perform a flexible variety of tasks, whereas a machine is limited to what it has been programmed to do. Automation basically entails repeating the same process over and over again and requires standardization. One off customizations, to cater to any special situations or exigencies, or even approaching each customer in a special way, is an anathema to process or operational automation.
The latest developments in 3D printing may provide a breakthrough in applying automation in a customized way, but it is still early days, and there is a long way to go before viable models emerge and mature.
Unless automation is implemented without a thorough understanding of the business process, or customer preferences, it can make things pretty annoying for the customer. Consider the case of an automated customer service helpline, where the customer has to spend minutes selecting one option after another, and in the end, be cut off because he made a wrong choice somewhere and now cannot find the option he wants.
Also, automation works well in a perfect world, but in a practical world, where there may be a need for compromises, automated systems may fall flat on its face. For instance, a strike or a hold up may disrupt the supply chain, throwing the entire synchronized system in disarray.
Each wave of automation has come with fresh benefits. The first wave of automation, heralded by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and made production robust. The second wave of automation in the 20th century boosted production capabilities and speeded up things. The latest wave of digitally inspired automation, powered by IoT and related technologies, promises intelligent insights which have the capability to overcome, almost all these existing drawbacks or challenges.
The trick is to get the implementation right. It requires effective teamwork, bringing together all stakeholders. A partner who knows his trade is essential to develop cutting edge and seamless solutions that leverage the benefits of automation and customize it for the enterprise.
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The one thing everyone, from the CEO to the office janitor have in common is 24 hours in a day. It is how one utilizes the time that makes all the difference. A janitor, a driver, a clerk, or many other employees have their fixed role assigned to them, and a significant chunk of their job responsibilities are routine in nature. A CEO ideally spend time applying his talents, insights, and discretion at the higher facets of the job, establishing paradigms, exploring new business models, engaging stakeholders, monitoring the entire gamut of company operations, dabbling with innovation to do new things and do things better, and more.
Unfortunately, the reality is most CEOs restrained by routine and mundane tasks for significant chunks of time, leaving them with too little time to the things that really matter. The CEO has invested time and effort in acquiring knowledge, expertise, and experience, and the company is best served by ensuring the CEO utilizes these skills to the most.
Today, technology has improved to the extent automation has taken over many aspects of lives, which would have taken considerable manual effort and time not too long ago. The most common manifestations of automation in enterprises have been in data collection, big data analytics, robotics in manufacturing and assembly plants, and more. The latest technological developments such as Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and more infuse cognitive capabilities to automation, expanding the scope of automation in a big way than before. According to HBR, about half of all activities employees now do in enterprises can potentially be automated, with the existing technology.
While automation has eliminated many low-end jobs, it has generated high-end jobs to compensate for it. For instance, Amazon’s drones eliminate the job of delivery agents, but generate new jobs in app development, big data analytics, AI and AR solutions, and more. As companies deploy automation, the focus shifts to the redeployment of the workforce, rather than massive unemployment, dispelling the fears in some quarters.
Likewise, there is big potential for change in the job profile of the CEO, who, in a sense is the embodiment of all functions taking place in the enterprise. About 25% of CEO’s time is currently spent on activities that machines could do.
The following are some of the CEO functions that machines could easily take over, even with the available technology.
Eliminating Administrative Tasks
Categorizing emails, approving bill payments, sending emails, and several other routine administrative tasks are an inevitable facet of life for any executive, and the CEO is not immune from it. If anything, the stakes are even higher with a CEO, considering the value of such tasks. An automated system, where an algorithm or a pre-set formula processes such tasks can eliminate or significantly reduce such burden, and improve accuracy as well.
Analyzing Reports and Data
Automation has made a lot of data entry jobs redundant. Typing data into a spreadsheet is no longer required when automated systems capture data from source automatically. However, someone still has to go through the reports generated from such data. A sizable chunk of the CEO’s time is spent going through various reports from all departments of the enterprise, and do the needful. For instance, a CEO looks at the reports on market trends and custom preferences and makes a decision on whether to increase production on a particular product line. The CEO looks at the financial reports and makes investment decisions. The CEO looks at marketing and sales report and devise new strategies, or makes changes to the marketing budget.
Developing algorithm based systems automate the task and give the CEO information in a drill-down capsule model, saving considerable time. An algorithm does the job just as well, and more accurately, leaving the CEO to either approve or veto the automated decision based on any additional insight he or she may have.
A sizable chunk of the CEO’s time is consumed in meetings. Scheduling meetings are the headache of the CEO’s secretary, but an automated system that schedules meetings proactively and syncs the schedule makes the life of the CEO more organized as well. In fact, an automated reporting system, integrated with video conferencing ability could eliminate the need for many meetings altogether, or enable meetings at-will, again saving a considerable chunk of CEO’s time, and prevent work getting blocked up, waiting for the meeting to happen.
Very often, the CEO is the sounding board of the enterprise, interacting with the top external stakeholders, such as board members, major shareholders and investors, government authorities, and even major customers. Developing an open enterprise system, where such stakeholders get revenant messages automatically or can access the required information at will, can take a load off the CEOs work. Establish rapport with people that matter is an important arsenal up the CEOs sleeve, and the ability to establish and improve such rapport increase when the CEO is armed with a powerful tool that can provide information to such stakeholders seamlessly.
The CEO, as the leader of the enterprise, invariably has people management tasks high on the list of priorities. While there may be no substitute for face-to-face interactions, automation can ease the process considerably. Having automated systems in place for appraisals, a robust HRIS system that updates all HR information in real-time, and more makes a big difference, eliminating the routine that comes with the process, and allowing the CEO to focus his or her energy on the core task of motivating the employee.
While the CEO can delegate most of the task, many CEOs have tasks too important to delegate, or not possible to delegate. Such tasks include writing sales concepts, defining new product features, undertaking high profile marketing, and more. Having automated systems in place offering comprehensive, real-time information benefits the CEO greatly, just as it benefits any other employee.
Better Work Quality
At a personal level, automation is much more than a time saver for the CEO. By eliminating mundane yet inevitable chores, it removes dullness and enriches the quality of work. This has a positive effect on motivation, and work enrichment. Needing to do lesser routine tasks could also mean a better work-life balance. This last facet is very underestimated in today’s highly stressful world, where burnout rates are very high.
HBR estimates automation to raise productivity globally by 0.8%–1.4% every year. The stakes are even higher with CEO productivity. Automation can free the CEO from the trappings of the routine, allowing them to focus their energies on the “higher” things that really matter.
It requires highly intuitive systems that capture the required information and execute what is required. Automation of key tasks should also be accompanied by an efficient reporting and tracking system. The best way to execute such systems is by toe-up with a partner who is good on the technical front, whose has the cutting edge tools to deliver highly intuitive mobility solutions, and who is on top of the latest developments. The investment in such tools is well worth the potential value on offer.