As a broad concept, the word “automation” seems to inspire a lot of discomfort these days.
Consider the frontline worker who sees automation as a threat to their career. Or the head office that’s grappling with how to use the technology to fend off competition. In these cases and others, the buzzword can potentially become a stress-inducing one.
In spite all of the doom and gloom, however, many experts are excited about automation, suggesting that the benefits are often undervalued while the potential threats are blown way out of proportion.
To help clear up some of these misconceptions, and to help organizations develop a roadmap for implementing an automation strategy, CIO Magazine publisher emeritus Gary Beach and Robotics Business Review senior editor Eugene Demaitre recently hosted a webcast, titled “What Businesses Need to Know About Automation.”
The hour-long presentation stressed the value automation can have, how organizations should approach their automation strategy and how it should be celebrated rather than feared.
Automation isn’t one size fits all
Beach, for one, is a strong believer that the focus of automation should always come back to the customer.
“For me, what being ‘robot-ready’ means is the business capacity to really deeply understand the customer, whether they’re in the supply chain or external customers, and build your robot strategy based on that,” he says.
Beach explains that automation can be used in countless ways, and the right utilization for one organization isn’t necessarily right for another, even a competitor. As a result, he believes better knowing and servicing the customer should remain the North Star that guides any automation strategy.
“Not only does robotics and AI involve multiple industries, but even within an industry it can be adopted in many ways,” added Demaitre. “You need to look at your entire business model and see where you need to derive these efficiencies.”
Automation is (or will soon be) a competitive necessity
Though the media often frames automation as a potential job killer for workers, executives are increasingly looking at a failure to utilize automation as a potential company-killer.
Demaitre explains that proper utilization can help ensure that whatever competitive advantage a company currently enjoys is only accelerated, rather than diminished by automation.
“Whatever your unique competitive advantage is, that’s where you can apply automation to help to excel the things you’re already good at, and might already be better at, than everyone else in a way that is unique,” he said. “That’s where most are exploring automation today.”
You need the right people in-house before making a push
While much of the automation process can be outsourced, licensed or purchased from third-party vendors, Beach and Demaitre believe the successful integration of automation is dependent on the availability of in-house expertise.
“Organizations that are successful in applying, implementing, monitoring and realizing those returns on investment are the ones that looked at what they were doing and made sure the right people were in charge of the right aspects,” said Demaitre. “I’m not saying everyone needs to be an engineer, but you have to have some expertise in your own processes first.”
Be willing to experiment and fail
With so many different ways to develop and implement an automation strategy, Beach and Demaitre stress the importance of experimentation, while tempering expectations at the top.
Though there may not be an immediate return on those early experiments, they explain that it can help save the company in the long run.
“The most successful organizations that have adopted robots, they all started with a pilot project, they started small and they let it fail,” said Demaitre. “Whoever is in charge of automation needs to be willing to change, willing to experiment to find what works best, then work to find robotics partners that understand their business and what they need.”
Talk to your frontline workers first
With the conversation around automation focused on its potential to displace jobs, one can’t blame frontline workers for being less than enthusiastic about their company’s implementation. Yet it is their buy-in that organizations need most in order for the automation strategy to succeed.
While Beach and Demaitre emphasize the importance of busting some of those myths surrounding automation and job loss to workers before implementation, it is also important to get their input on the process itself before commencing.
“Talk to all levels, not just IT,” said Beach. “It’s the people on the floor who know what they don’t like, who know what is tedious or dangerous or slows them down, so it’s a matter of getting buy-in by being as transparent as possible,” added Demaitre.
They believe that working with frontline staff and demonstrating how the technology will ultimately make their lives better, not worse, can go a long way in ensuring a successful transition.