What are the real-world challenges of automating a business?
Business Process Automation

What are the real-world challenges of automating a business?

Ninety percent of the employees at Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan City in China have been replaced by automation. The mobile phone manufacturing company, which once had over 650 human employees, now has just 60 and the rest of the work is done by 60 robot arms that work 24 hours a day. The results are impressive: a 250% increase in productivity and an 80% drop in defects.

While companies around the world debate the merits of automation and worry over the loss of jobs, Changying has embraced the possibilities of the technology completely with great benefits. But while the productivity gains are impressive, the process of moving to automation, regardless of industry, requires careful management. It resonates with most employees’ greatest fear: that they will be replaced by a machine – and it means the c-suite needs to consider exactly how they make this move.

 

How much of an issue is job loss in the road to automation?

As more and more look to automation in everything from finance to HR, manufacturing, and customer service, the need to manage investment in automation sensitively becomes even more vital. One of the greatest concerns about AI is centred on job loss and announcements of the implementation of automation can cause fear among employees who think they are being replaced. Automation, though, does not have to mean much or even any job loss; it can be a complement to human capital within the organisation.

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Oded Karev, VP and head of advanced process automation at NICE, says automation increases productivity, eradicates errors and reduces employee attrition. “It ensures flawless execution of many businesses process, which means employees’ time is spent serving customers rather than correcting errors,” he says.

Michael Ringman, CIO at TELUS International, says while popular culture has painted artificial intelligence in a fairly negative light, the reality is that there are significant opportunities for employees and AI to work together for the best possible outcome. He uses the example of the contact centre. AI can be deployed in the voice/telephony channel, or through web chat, text and mobile applications, or to support social media customer care. “But to achieve the ideal, high-tech-high-touch level of customer service, companies will need to combine artificial and human intelligence,” he says.

He explains that AI software can search through thousands of documents with lightning-fast speed and pass on any relevant information to the frontline agent helping the customer. Equally, if there is an influx of customers calling in about the same product defect, AI can analyse and identify the larger issue at hand for a faster resolution.

“But for as many things that AI can assist with, there are still significant limitations. Machines have made very little progress in tackling novel situations. They require large volumes of past data and can't handle things they haven't seen many times before,” Ringman says.

He adds that humans, on the other hand, have the ability to connect seemingly disparate threads to solve problems not seen before. In fact, according to IDC research, overall customer service agent numbers are anticipated to go up over the next few years, with many firms reporting an expected increase between 10 to 50%. “Not only will we need more agents, we will see a need for more highly-skilled agents who can solve more complex customer cases and provide cross-channel consistency of service,” he says.

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Mahesh Shah, the global BPS lead at DXC Technology, says that rather than simply replacing jobs, automation opens up new opportunity. “Robotic Process Automation (RPA) also enables people to operate alongside the machines and use their greatest skills much better. Globally, this represents billions of dollars of opportunity, with RPA making life easier for individual employees and whole departments. It helps people do their jobs, eradicating repetitive tasks and enabling focus on more skilled work.”

 

What are the biggest pitfalls hindering business automation?  

Barry Crackett, product designer at Brushtec, cautions that there are drawbacks to this, though. The UK-based design manufacturers automated parts of its production line back in 2004 and has continued to innovate. But, Crackett says, automation does require a higher quality of staff and a greater investment in training in order to get the most from this cutting-edge technology, which also comes with a substantial set-up time.

“This means that it takes much longer to change from one job to the next, meaning production runs have to be larger to offset the lengthy setup. This requires a more detailed level of forward planning. However, we feel that the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks when it comes to automation, and last year we received delivery of a new £600,000 ($780,000) 5-axis machine that, in theory, will increase our production by 300%.”

Increasingly it is not a matter of whether to automate, but rather how to do so. The pressure to automate is growing as technologies demonstrate new efficiencies and functions. “By combining artificial intelligence and automation, organisations can meet their SLAs 100% of the time and create a new standard of service. Failing to automate means longer customer wait times for resolution, and compromised accuracy,” Karev says.

In highly regulated industries, such as the financial services, or insurance, errors can sometimes lead to high costs and major brand image loss. “As process automation takes over the repetitive, routine manual work – human error is eliminated, and costly mistakes no longer happen,” he says. “The engaged, knowledgeable customer of today expects nothing less from the companies he interacts with, and only those who would provide this level of service will survive in the long run.”

He cites the example of a UK telecoms company that invested in automation at its contact centres – 6,000 agents in six in-house sites – and so transformed its frontline team, improved its decision making process and enhanced its customer service overall. Complaints received by Ofcom reduced by 70% in mobile, 40% in fixed and 20% in broadband resulting in the business moving from the 1st to the 6th most complained about network. “All done whilst becoming more compliant to both internal and regulatory procedures and against a back drop of making our agents and team leaders life simpler,” Karev says.

 

How can companies can lead the way in automation?

Automation, then, is not something that can be ignored. C-suite executives need to grapple with the implications of a move to automation and develop a strategy to manage the process not only effectively, but in the best way for the people of the company too.

Antony Bell, CEO of LeaderDevelopment Inc. and author of Great Leadership—What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex World, emphasises that preparing for the future is a leadership function. “If the senior leaders don’t see as their responsibility the preparation of their workforce for a radically different production, delivery and maintenance process, the transition for their companies will be brutal and painful. Many such leaders dismiss such concerns as simply the cost of progress,” he says.

Bell advises that those companies whose leaders harbour a sense of responsibility towards their employees are actively preparing for a highly automated world.

Karev says automation makes it easier for businesses to scale, bringing a range of benefits that puts businesses in a better position to serve the customer. Automation enables businesses to improve almost every part of their process.

For example, Karev says, automation allows businesses roll out new processes and learnings across the board with minimal fuss. Once you’ve built a system that works, it can be instantly scaled to 100 or 1,000 employees. New working methods can be implemented across the business to deliver greater flexibility and cost-control and also to enable a better working life for the employee.

Chris Pope, VP of strategy at ServiceNow, believes that the key to successfully managing an automation deployment project is communication, transparency and the implementation of a solid training programme that helps people develop their soft skills.

“If employees know what’s happening, and why it is happening, and are reassured that their jobs are not at risk, but that automation will help them make a greater contribution to the business by breaking free from the burden of this day-to-day administration, they’ll be a lot more receptive to the change.”

For Ringman, the two significant factors to consider when investing in automation are technical feasibility and cost. “Wanting to automate is one thing, but actually understanding what roles and responsibilities can be seamlessly transitioned to machine learning or robotics is another,” he says. For example, the collection and processing of data or predictive physical labour are entirely feasible for computers, while tasks that require the managing of others or a very niche set of expertise, will prove more challenging to replicate with automation.

But Ringman adds, while technical feasibility is most certainly a prerequisite of automation, it should not be the deciding factor when considering implementation. “Conducting a cost/benefit analysis that accounts for supply-and-demand of the current workforce is key, as negating automation in favour of an abundant and less-expensive labour pool can prove more beneficial for some industries. Executives that take the time to assess automation compatibility with their specific business will save time, energy and resources in the long run.”

Managing the human dimension is not the only aspect that c-suite executives need to consider, as Rurik Bradbury, global head of communication at LivePerson points out. “One of the biggest misconceptions about deploying bots is that you can just ‘set it and forget it’. If left unmanaged, however, we see things like Microsoft’s racist bot happen. The bot is now doing work for a company and should be expected to uphold the same performance standards as a human employee.”

He adds that bots need to be managed just like another employee – if a bot is not doing a good job, the bot should be “benched,” retrained, and then put back out in front of the customer. “To do this requires monitoring, management and training – it won’t happen by itself,” he says.

If managed well, automation in all its forms from chatbots to manufacturing automation can yield significant returns while also improving the work life of employees.

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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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