Automate, but not for the sake of it

In Singapore, where labour is scarce and expensive, automating work processes to improve our productivity and free up time for higher-value work seems like a no-brainer.

Yet, it is only in recent years that more companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, in the city-state are heeding the call to automate, due in part to efforts by the government to encourage organisations to improve the productivity of their workers.

Automation, however, is not just limited to factory floors, restaurant kitchens and airport terminals. There’s room for automation in the office, too.

In Singapore, 60% of managers still spend three hours a day processing work e-mails, according to ServiceNow, a supplier of cloud-based automation tools. Many of these e-mail requests, especially internal ones, simply involve the basic processing of straightforward items, like purchase orders or invoices, says ServiceNow’s senior director Chris Pope.

Globally, employees spend 40% of their time on administration work, going by ServiceNow’s 2016 State of Work Survey. That’s equivalent to two full days per week which could be used for high value work.

But why aren’t we automating these inefficiencies out of our organisations? Corporate culture plays a part – some people may be resistant to change. Others might not know that certain manual processes can be automated.

In fact, Pope says the biggest challenge in automating work processes is in understanding all the manual processes that take place within an organisation. “Since they are so ingrained within organisations, often, people don’t have an awareness of every single function.

“Today, with the advancement of IoT technology, there is the ability to build sensors into so many more areas of working life, allowing real time monitoring of systems and then seamless automation of response processes, without human intervention,” he says.

While there’s no doubt that automation will do us good, it also needs to make sense for companies from a cost and technology perspective.

I remember talking to the CEO of a Singapore-based laundry service that switched from bar codes to RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to automate the tracking of laundry items, only to revert to using bar codes again within six months.

The CEO was blindsided by the allure of tracking items in one fell swoop, which made sense from a productivity point of view, but not so much from a cost perspective as RFID chips are still more expensive than printing bar codes.

When you’re only making a couple of dollars from washing a shirt, tagging each item with an RFID chip that costs about 50 cents clearly does not make sense despite the improvements in productivity.

So, yes – go ahead and automate, but not for the sake of it. More importantly, know what you’re getting into. The resources wasted in implementing a bad decision for your company could have been put into more productive use.