Automation, like exercising and reading more, always makes the annual resolutions list but never quite bubbles to the top. 2020 likely changed that. Whether it was to better support remote work, enable scenario planning or remote closes, get serious about ecommerce, improve supply chain management or all of the above, lots of companies at least laid the groundwork for automation.
So, unlike using the treadmill that’s now draped in clothes and shame, the automation resolution is one you can and should keep.
Adding better digital systems, or finally fully using existing capabilities, helped lots companies get through 2020. Now, many are looking at taking the next steps toward eliminating the rote, slow, error-prone, human-based processes that suck the life out of staffers and leave decision- makers with incomplete or suspect data. Once digitalization happens, leaders not only get more timely and accurate insights, they have more staff resources to devote to interpreting and acting on them.
Capturing the 6% expected GDP growth for the second half of the year requires a fresh look at automation — it can be the difference between winning new business versus ceding ground to competitors because you’re too busy reading spreadsheets.
Automation by its nature needs to be a holistic exercise — develop a vision of your perfect system, then chip away at making it reality. Think about self-driving cars. Automating steering, acceleration and braking separately without a plan of how you’ll tie them together won’t get you a vehicle that safely drives itself. In business, operations groups want automatic visibility into activities across the company. Sales wants to acquire new customers and sell more to existing ones. Marketing wants to understand the results of its campaigns. Production wants to automatically monitor supply chains, stock levels and output. And finally, finance wants to automate closes, AP and AR and get more timely data to improve its ability to provide financial planning and analysis for the company.
But to really grow in a scalable way, sales needs to know about inventory and production. Marketing needs to know which products produce the most revenue and profit, and production needs to track sales forecasts so that it’s churning out items that are in demand. And finance needs a high-level understanding of how all these functions are performing so that it can guide the business toward growth and profit. That sort of powerful, integrated business planning starts with a vision of data sharing as a means of empowering each part of the company to be better and more efficient at what it does.
As with automating fulfillment, a customer might get discounts if it maintains a $10,000-per-month spend, for example, while in another company that threshold might be $25,000. With automation, you define these rules in the applications you’re using and let the system implement them consistently and automatically.
Rules can define how you recognize revenue, when you order more stock, how you set production quotas — whatever makes your company tick. What was once manual now happens according to defined policies, including requirements for approvals of various actions. Automated tasks happen faster and with fewer errors. Fraud is minimized. KPIs and dashboards are created automatically for executives, freeing up managers’ time to pay more attention to the business. In the end, you get more consistency, more timely data and more effective use of staff, all of which are needed to capitalize on current growth opportunities.
On average, larger businesses drive more revenue on a per-employee basis than smaller ones, and automation is a big reason why. With automation, marketers can manage more campaigns, sales teams can deal with more customers and finance teams need fewer resources to close the books.
This efficiency accrues with time, so it can be difficult — though not impossible — to lower your headcount through automation. Instead, a growing company shouldn’t need to add employees as rapidly as it would if it hadn’t automated its processes. That’s a critical competitive edge as you compete for talent. And, staff time moves from the tactical job of entering and verifying data to the strategic job of using that data to deliver better products and services.
In other words, the ROI should be apparent early on, and break even on the investment should follow fast.
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