Efficiency and agility are essential for business success. And in 2023, operations automation plays an increasingly critical role.
A disquieting economic outlook, a super-competitive field, cybersecurity dangers, and remote working – your business faces many challenges in today’s landscape. However, an informed and proactive approach to workflow automation can help you navigate this tumultuous time.
Previously, we’ve explored the benefits of IT workflow automation. In this article we will make a deep dive into automation in operations management and what it looks like in practice. We’ll look into the potential benefits of automating operations and how you can implement automated operations workflows in your organization. Finally, we’ll identify the tasks that are particularly well-suited for automation.
What is operations automation?
Although critical, business operations are often overlooked or taken for granted. If you think about your business as a human body, operations are like the critical bodily systems that keep the whole show running smoothly.
We don’t often consider our body’s inner workings throughout the day. We’re busy getting on with our lives while, in the background, our lungs continue to breathe and our hearts pump blood. But the more efficient these systems are, the healthier and fitter we are, the more we can achieve. This analogy applies to business operations.
Business operations include the wide range of activities and workflows necessary for a business to produce and deliver its product or service. Operations can vary enormously and depend on the nature of your business, including:
- Scheduling appointments
- Managing inventory
- Logging customer details
- Approving staff leave requests
- Order fulfillment
- Contract creation and approval
- Assigning tasks to team members
It’s more than operations themselves that are diverse. Recent years have seen our workplace become ever more disparate and dispersed, forcing Operations Managers and teams to consider all possible locations employees use to do their jobs – from call centers to offices or homes.
In short, getting all these operations right is complicated!
Yet, the more efficient such processes become, the better the business can perform. Repetitive workflows can be labor-intensive – often pulling people away from where they can add value to your business.
Operations automation addresses that issue by leveraging technology to automate certain aspects of work, removing the need for human involvement. The routine work happens automatically and efficiently, freeing your team for higher performance in other ways. Automation makes these repetitive, manual tasks as effortless as breathing.
The benefits of operations automation
Operational automation can streamline workflows and processes to optimize performance, offering numerous benefits:
1. Increased efficiency
Laborious, tedious tasks are removed from your team’s to-do list, freeing them to focus on higher-value aspects of their work.
For example, call center cloud systems use automated technology like interactive voice response and call routing, which is particularly beneficial for larger companies receiving high calls. Automating these tasks frees agents at the call center to focus on customer care.
Moreover, automating tasks nearly always means completing them more quickly. That can result in significant time savings where multiple elements in a process are automated. There is also less potential for bottlenecks.
Automating operations workflows can make your business quicker, slicker, and more agile, all of which can also boost productivity.
2. Standardized workflows
However much your business may try to enforce consistency and standardization, it becomes more challenging as it grows. The challenges of today’s business landscape only deepen the issue. Consider the following:
- The shift to remote working makes it hard to ensure everyone follows policies
- An unpredictable economic environment means operations teams must achieve even more with fewer resources
- Colleagues sometimes see efforts to enforce consistency as an unnecessary restriction, a barrier rather than a support
A recent airSlate report of IT and Ops teams rammed this picture home: the number one concern was about being forced into a reactive role, forever bogged down fixing mistakes rather than focusing on strategic, operational improvements. Moreover, 85% were particularly alarmed by the danger of shadow IT in their business as a source of crises.
Automation enables a highly standardized and consistent approach to workflows. With automated systems in place, it’s harder for employees to go off-track and do their own thing. And, if the automation is supportive and time-saving, why would they even want to?
Along with consistency and standardization, automation enables greater visibility and transparency of your workflows, such as KPIs monitoring, etc., serving as a powerful tool for overall business management.
3. Improved accuracy
However careful they may be, people make mistakes – whether entering the wrong number on a spreadsheet, forgetting to complete a particular task, or making an erroneous decision because of misreading something.
By their very nature, automated systems are not prone to human error. They can be relied on to deliver consistent and accurate performance (assuming they are set up appropriately). That further increases efficiency and makes life simpler for your teams.
4. Better team support and empowerment
Citizen development has become popular among IT and Operations specialists, empowering teams across the business to automate tasks for themselves.
In the past, this was unthinkable. However, the new generation of low-code and no-code automation tools facilitates this. Employees can now develop automation processes within a user-friendly interface without writing a single line of code themselves.
In the survey mentioned above, 92% of IT and operations respondents supported this trend, confident that their teams have the skills needed to implement automation solutions in this way successfully.
Of course, success here depends on close oversight by the operations and IT teams. It is about empowerment rather than an abdication of responsibility.
Such an approach has significant advantages, though. An intimate understanding of the task can help get to the best solution. Plus, your staff are more likely to feel empowered rather than imposed upon by an arbitrary system, which helps boost morale and employee retention.
5. Enhanced security and compliance
Adopting a standardized, automation-led approach can boost your cybersecurity. Rather than trying to monitor a potentially disparate web of practices that vary from team to team, automation brings an opportunity to consolidate and embed robust security practices.
6. Improved customer experience
A sleeker, more agile business is more likely to deliver better customer care than one wedded to inefficient, laborious processes.
In addition, automation can support customer care directly. For example, it can streamline the sales and order fulfillment experience. It can also improve customer communication through email or hosted call centers, speeding it up and adapting to the needs of different customer segments.
7. Competitive edge and improved bottom line
Ultimately, the above is about enabling your business to perform more competitively. It is not just about saving time and money. It also means doing things better. Your team can be more productive and efficient – in a more rounded sense, giving your organization a competitive edge.
How to implement operations automation
Automating business operations is achievable, even for small businesses. Here are the steps to follow:
1) Identify workflows to automate
First, you need to consider which workflows automation could support. There are likely to be many of these. It is a good idea to liaise with each department to explore possibilities.
Look for easy wins: laborious, menial tasks soaking up your team’s energy. For example, contracts can be a pain to keep track of. But document workflow automation systems like airSlate allow you to automate much of this.
Be aware of the complexity involved in the automation. Start with simple cases (e.g., where the rules or logic are straightforward). Starting this way will yield more manageable costs and employee morale returns.
2) Specify automation goals
Next, specify a goal or set of goals that you hope the automation will deliver. What do you wish to achieve?
Be specific and concrete – saying “to improve efficiency” just won’t cut it. Instead, you might specify how much time you expect your team to save through automation. Or link it to an aspect of customer experience, such as achieving a particular order fulfillment time.
3) Select the right workflow automation tools
These tools make workflow automation accessible for all businesses, even small ones with little IT expertise. True, some IT knowledge is still required (to set the system up, for example). But beyond that, they enable your team to become citizen developers.
Automating a process can feel like a simple drag-and-drop exercise to the user, sometimes taking just minutes. The code is still there – and is crucial, but software acts as a mediator, hiding it behind the tool’s user-friendly interface.
4) Roll out the workflow automation solution
Identifying potential workflows for automation, your desired goals, and the best tools for supporting this in your business is a great start. Next, you need to roll this out across your business.
Whatever tools you have selected must be incorporated into your IT ecosystem. And your teams will need training on how to leverage it. Remember that the low-code/no-code approach is about using the skills and insights of your team to embed automation.
You’ll find a motivated audience here. For example, a recent report has found that 90% of HR professionals are already looking for cost-effective workflow automation tools to support workforce management. The appetite is there.
Nevertheless, continual oversight and guidance are crucial to ensure the business uses it consistently and beneficially.
Which operations workflows can be automated?
A handful of areas particularly lend themselves to automation:
1. Data management: This encompasses a wide range of tasks, from straightforward data entry to advanced automation using technologies like Spark Streaming. Learn what is Spark Streaming to discover how it can optimize your data workflows.
2. Notifications and alerts: Whether it’s stock alerts or notifying when specific actions are needed, this category ensures timely communication.
3. Communication automation: This involves automating various communication tasks, such as sending automated customer emails to enhance customer engagement.
4. Report and document preparation: This category focuses on automating the creation of reports and documents, whether it’s generating analytics reports or breaking down customer data for analysis.
5. Approvals and authorization workflows: Streamline approval processes for various tasks, including contract approvals, eSignatures, and managing holiday requests with efficient workflows.
Learn more in our recent blog on how to automate eSignature and document workflows for purchase orders using API.
The possible applications are, in fact, vast and will vary from business to business. As a rule of thumb, always start by looking for tasks that are:
- Potentially menial (e.g., a drain on your team’s expertise or morale)
- Security or compliance sensitive (e.g., where accuracy and standardization are crucial)
Of course, such criteria do not restrict the limits of automation. Far from it, the rise of more advanced artificial intelligence pushes the potential scope of automation even further.
Generative AI, such as GPT-4, is already helping many businesses write their emails as well as distribute them. However, this is consistent with the logic of starting with the quick wins.
Automate for a more robust and agile business
Thanks to the development of more user-friendly, low-code tools, workflow automation is possible for businesses of all sizes. The benefits are compelling, too. It can improve your team’s productivity, speed up processes, and embed a more secure, standardized culture.
Crucially, it is about more than just doing things quicker or cheaper. Look at automation as a way to build a more agile, robust, and motivated business.