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Back in March, I spoke to the Acumatica User Group Southeast on the topic of automation. I started writing a summary about the talk, but then everyone’s worlds were turning upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At Moore Colson, we were transitioning to working remotely. Many organizations were making similar transitions, while others were reacting to major business disruptions.
One thing became abundantly clear. Manual processes, especially processes that require physical paper, can be very difficult to perform when no one is in the office. Businesses with a high degree of automation were able to transition employees more easily from working in the office to working from home. I recently spoke to a business professional who said she could do almost all of her job functions from home, but she still needed to go to the office once a week to print checks. After hearing about this challenge, I was able to share my knowledge of accounts payable automation with her. If she could implement this type of automation and remove printing checks from her standard operating procedures, she wouldn’t need to go to the office at all.
Although a lot of circumstances have changed for many people in the last few months, my thoughts on automation remain the same. When addressing the software user group in March, I defined some of the terminology and talked a little about the technology, but I mostly focused on the questions you should ask before you automate. Dr. Stephen R. Covey sums it up best when he said, “Begin with the end in mind.”
So how do you know what the end will look like? It is necessary to ask yourself the following questions that may appear to be simple, but can often prove to be very difficult to answer.
1. What are you trying to accomplish?
Increased efficiency is probably the most common answer to this question. People want to accomplish more tasks while consuming fewer resources. Automated processes will usually result in more accurate data and adherence to a standard process. This can translate into scalability, the ability to grow your business. As more employees work remotely, you may be looking to eliminate physical steps to a process. For example, replacing physical signatures with electronic signatures could eliminate the distribution of physical documents.
2. How are you doing it now?
Examining what you are doing now is critical to defining the requirements for a developer. The current steps of the manual process must be broken down into business rules that can be automated. You may be able to route some things to a human for processing, but this should really be the exception to the rule. Also, you need to define in concrete terms what constitutes an exception.
The best place to start understanding a process is by speaking with the people that are doing the work now. Watch and learn. You may know how a process “should” be done, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it is currently being done. You should also try to gauge the transaction volume and the frequency of the exceptions. This will help you understand the cost of a process.
3. How much are you willing to spend?
After answering question 2, you should have an idea of the value that would be realized when you automate a task. Some value is easily quantified, like reduced data entry. Other value can be intangible or hard to measure, like customer satisfaction. However, these more qualitative items should also be considered in your evaluation.
Next, you should understand the cost of automation. Designing and developing a solution can be expensive, and it is important to factor in the ongoing cost of maintenance. Automation is never a one-time expense. Additionally, automation will change the process. The overall process should be improved, but sometimes tasks can get modified, and responsibilities are shifted. As an example, I recently worked with a client that automated an integration between 2 systems. The duplicate data entry performed by a different department was eliminated, but an audit task was added.
At the end of this exercise, you should understand the cost and benefit sides of the equation and know how much you are willing to spend.
4. How will you measure success?
In addition to knowing the project is complete, measuring the success of automation is important for future projects. If you were not successful at creating your desired outcome, you will want to identify where things fell short and learn from these mistakes. Once you have automated one process successfully, it is likely you will look for other opportunities to automate. Leverage what you have learned so you can repeat your success or not make the same mistakes twice.
So, before you make the leap to automating a process, do your homework. Ask yourself the critical questions that need to be answered. If you need to address process issues, do it before you start your project. Automating a bad process will magnify or accelerate mistakes. On the flip side, automating a well-defined process may improve efficiency, increase scalability and allow your human resources to focus on the processes that are not ready for automation.
Shelly Bitter is a Software Consulting Senior Manager in Moore Colson’s Corporate Accounting Practice. She provides support to our clients wherever software expertise is required. Typical projects include system requirements analysis, software and vendor selection assistance, project management and report design.