​3 reasons why automation can't--and shouldn't--solve every business problem

Over-automating business processes introduce risks that can hurt, rather than help, your business.

How business leaders can properly invest in network automation

In company operations, technology is often used to cut costs and time to complete business processes. Thanks to automation that's driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT technology, businesses have achieved this with remarkable results.

Successful automation use cases include:

  • Sensors placed on food pallets that can track food goods from farm to table to guarantee better freshness and also to trace and intervene proactively if goods are contaminated.
  • Drones that can fly into dangerous areas to capture key data on typography, incidents, etc., so humans, who used to do this dangerous work, can avoid these trips.
  • Business analytics dashboards that can automatically flag inventory stockouts and reorder or redeploy goods--since software now has built-in AI that can auto-re-provision goods to meet localized customer demand.
  • Automated call systems for medical prescriptions that don't require human intervention.

These systems deliver cost savings and business process benefits to companies, but there are also limits to what automation can and should do. These are the inflection points that IT and business leaders should identify as non-candidates for business process automation.

SEE: Data center automation research report 2018: Despite growth in data, automation adoption remains slow (Tech Pro Research)

3 risky areas

The main risks that IT and business managers face from over-automating business processes fall into three areas:

1. Inability to failover to manual operations if systems and automation fail

I experienced this first-hand while I was CIO at a financial institution. Our banking system experienced problems, so suddenly the tellers at all of our branch locations had to manually process transactions for customers by keeping hardcopy ledgers that would later be input into the system. We had to bring in retirees to do this work--because the new people didn't know how to do this.

SEE: Straight up: How the Kentucky bourbon industry is going high tech (TechRepublic cover story)

2. Limited understanding of the business

The more employees are distanced from the essence of the business operations that they are responsible for, the less they are able to think independently about how the business can benefit from what they do. Automation can breed out business knowledge because it creates a level of abstraction between the employee and the business process. The employee no longer becomes a decision maker. This also creates morale issues for employees, who feel that their talents aren't being utilized.

3. Poor business performance at customer touch points

Most of us have experienced interactions with automated call attendants that make it so difficult to get to a "real person" that we finally give up. This has prompted the launch of Websites that help you navigate through these systems to get to a human. Yet, companies continue to invest in these unfriendly customer systems, even when they are putting customer goodwill at risk.

SEE: Software automation policy guidelines (Tech Pro Research)

Best Practices

So what's the best approach to maximizing automation without overusing it? Here are three best practices:

  • When discussing the automation of any business process make sure to include situations or process points where it is critical for human decisions to be made. If human overrides over machine intelligence need to be made, these overrides can be built into systems and business processes up front.
  • Never forget the human element in every business process. Companies can gain a competitive advantage when they deliver quality service with knowledgeable real human beings.
  • Don't breed intelligence out of the business. It's tough enough to find good talent in a highly competitive job market. A better approach is to develop and retain the talent that you have. This means keeping employees engaged with the company and its business processes. Then, when a business anomaly or exception surfaces, your skilled employees can tackle it, using AI as a tool.

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Image: JIRAROJ PRADITCHAROENKUL, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...