Automation saves costs, but can all jobs be automated? Source: Shutterstock

Automation saves costs, but can all jobs be automated? Source: Shutterstock

How do SME leaders and CXOs know which tasks to automate?

AUTOMATION has become a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s one of the first items on the digital transformation agenda for businesses, helping them climb the digital maturity curve quickly.

Since automation is now so simple and has become so affordable, SME business leaders and large-enterprise CXOs are both constantly trying to automate different functions and processes of their business.

However, a recent Harvard Business Review story by talent management specialists at Willis Towers Watson and USC Marshall, companies are rushing into automation without really deconstructing the tasks effectively — causing them to risk significant collateral damage and minimize their ROI.

In order to avoid that, the two specialists outline three characteristics to help SME leaders and CXOs better understand the tasks they want to automate and get the most out of the process.

#1 | Repetitive vs. variable work

Repetitive work has a formula that already works. It’s predictable and unchanging. On the other hand, variable work moves organically and requires workers to adapt to changes as they go.

For example, the work of a data entry clerk is repetitive. It is simply receiving and keying in large sets of data over and over again. Repetition leads to employee disengagement, which can lead to costly mistakes.

Repetitive work is usually compatible with automation with solutions such as Robot Process Automation (RPA). A report said that RPA can perform analyses as much as 15 times faster with almost no errors.

On the other end of the spectrum, the job of a loan processing executive is highly variable.

Every application needs to be independently evaluated, and hence, needs the executives to think, evaluate, review facts, and make complex decisions. Such a line of work is, therefore, less compatible with automation.

#2 | Independent vs. interactive work

Independent work can be completed in isolation and requires no collaboration while interactive work thrives on communicating with others.

Tasks of an accountant preparing reports are primarily independent. They gather data from various sources and synthesize the findings using a fixed set of analytical tool to produce reports. Mostly, there is no need for interaction at all in that process.

In essence, preparing the report is automation and compatible with RPA and AI goals. Automating such tasks would free up the accountant’s time and allow them to focus on tasks that are more productive.

On the other hand, a CEO’s personal assistant deals with a full range of interactions that are much harder to automate. From a C-suite of the employer’s company to their housekeeper at home, interaction level varies and would require different styles of communication.

Interactive work is not easily automated as it would need critical understanding to detect and analyze the emotions of individuals. However, there are advances with AI that are able to pick up on human expressions.

#3 | Physical vs. mental work

Physical work is manual labor that often requires strength to execute while mental work requires one’s cognitive abilities.

Much of manufacturing is physical work. The gathering and assembly of different parts can be completed by robotics. Even the quality control can be taken care of by a combination of sensors, AI, and some mobile equipment.

The manufacturing industry’s dream is 24/7 lights-out operations that do not require human interaction. It eliminates occupational health and safety issues and generally lower costs with continuous output.

Mental work is any part of a job that demands critical decision-making. Answering problems are sometimes not linear.

For instance, leading a company to undergo digital transformation is a lot of mental work. Not only does it request stakeholders to understand each component of the business thoroughly, but also put together the compatibility of the components and different types of new technologies. Sometimes, it takes a combination of solutions to fix one problematic area.

‘Digital transformation’ is not a task that can be automated.

We have to think through the ROI of each new technology when incorporated into the business as well as opportunity costs. It is an eventual process.

However, once the repetitive, independent, and physical tasks are automated, the business will be able to focus on the main thing – the business.