Opinion

Automate to eliminate drudgery

As the debate about outsourcing continues, IT directors should be looking for creative ways to eliminate routine, labour-intensive work. Surely the overriding goal for IT is to automate repetitive, uninteresting work and to replace it with intelligent business processes that are faster, more efficient and less prone to errors?

As we look for more value from our IT systems, we must also ask more of our employees. We should be using valuable people resources to do far more than simple-minded paper-pushing and routine processes - the role of people in an organisation should be to think creatively and to add value by problem solving.

At the same time, IT departments should be considering new opportunities to replace expensive processes in the organisation where people add little value with automated processes. This can often be done with the software products that have entered the marketplace relatively recently.

One area where many companies will have a real opportunity is the everyday task of data entry, which is often performed by clerical staff or temporary workers. Document-recognition software can eliminateÊmuch of the clerical work and the cost by automating the process. This software is increasingly being taken up in Scandinavia and Germany, where wages for clerical work are higher, and is beginning to gain a foothold in the UK.

Companies here have shown that a typical investment to replace manual systems can give a threefold return on investment. Some of these savings can come from reducing the headcount for administrative staff.

The processing power of a standard PC is now such that advanced applications using techniques such as neural networks and ICR (Intelligent Character Recognition, which borders on artificial intelligence) can be introduced in any office. The software reads, recognises and categorises documents in much the same way as a human being, but many times faster.

This software can form part of a fully automated workflow process and validate the data against the databases held in an enterprise resource planning system, routing eachÊdocument to its next stage in processing. Capturing data this way is relatively effortless and the result is a tighter control over that part of the supply chain process.

The extreme cost pressures that are leading companies to consider outsourcing to India and China could itself be a widespread force for change as it will require companies to look for other creative ways to streamline their processes.

So although it is currently fashionable to outsource business processes, I predict that the next wave of change will be investment in new software applications through the identification of business applications that have not been automated and which need more innovative ways to make them efficient.

Bob Goodwin is director at consultancy Digital Vision

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This was first published in May 2004

 

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