Innovation is often framed as a eureka moment, but really, it’s more of an iterative process based on short-term needs. I’ve seen this time and again in the world of tech development. Small problems lead to small discoveries, which then accumulate into monumental changes. Ideas from different industries cross-pollinate into major breakthroughs.
Consider the iconic space race. In a 1961 speech, President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would reach the moon by the end of the decade. He urged Congress to utilize resources to speed up progress, and, though this seemed like an audacious idea at the time, in 1969, the world watched the Apollo 11 successfully land on the moon.
In business, we usually innovate to solve problems on a lesser scale, but it’s need-driven nonetheless. Evolving markets and fierce competition make it necessary to find new ways to improve existing processes, and automation can be a powerful force behind these changes. In business, necessity is the mother of innovation.
The Short And Long Term Of Automation
In my experience, companies first automate to improve efficiency or productivity so they can reach a discrete goal. After they’ve met that goal, they continue to rely on that automation technology to maintain their operations and deliver a seamless customer experience. The journey to automate business processes often begins as company-focused, but it tends to transform into a customer-focused endeavor. It’s in this later stage that companies experience the real payoff.
Automation is about the long game, but getting over the initial hurdle of implementation can be a challenge. My advice? Be courageous and don’t listen to the naysayers. Take the first steps, implement a thoughtful automation plan and enjoy the benefits as they develop. If there’s pushback on the upfront costs, be sure to frame an automation upgrade not just as a tool for process improvement, but as an innovation engine that will provide benefits to customers down the line.
Let’s say an insurance company wants to cut the labor cost of its data entry team, so it automates how documents are digitized, analyzed and stored. Labor cost-savings happen over the short term, but at the same time, the company is creating a deep repository of client data. Eventually, it can mine that data to help drive innovation across product development, service offerings and customer outreach efforts. What starts as a bottom-line initiative can easily turn into a top-line growth strategy.
The point is that implementing automation is the beginning, not the end. I’ve seen too many companies settle for good when they could have had great because they were overly focused on immediate gains at the expense of a longer-term transformational strategy.
A Strategic Approach To Automation
Automation can lead to innovation as long as it’s applied to the right processes. Here are the first places to look within your business to determine whether it’s time for an automation overhaul — and whether that transformation will help you innovate down the line.
1. Rethink Treasury Functions For Greater Financial Agility
Your treasury department offers great opportunities to increase efficiency, improve accuracy, free up resources and unify payment channels and financial data. Automating in this area will lead to faster processing and a real-time data refresh, which equates to improved liquidity and financial decision-making. In short, the faster your treasury functions, the more agile your business.
Automating routines empowers professionals inside and outside finance to focus on growing revenue, rather than solely keeping the books. And more than that, you might just prevent a large payment from being lost, which happened to a major client of ours before they automated their remittance processing functions.
2. Unify Communication Channels To Improve Business Intelligence
The mailroom is a perfect automation starting point. Not only is traditional mail processing tedious and error-prone, but it’s also entirely disconnected from your other communication channels.
Automating mail processing and digitizing mail contents can free up workers, reduce delivery times and open the door to enhanced data analytics. More than that, it allows various communication channels to be integrated into a single platform so all correspondence is in one place; mail contents are searchable, shareable, and secure; and downstream workflows can be kicked off at the click of a button.
When mail is digitized and combined with incoming correspondence from other channels like email, fax and EDI, business intelligence and decision-making are improved. When departments are better connected and information is more easily shared, innovation is more likely to happen.
3. Unlock Innovative Potential Through Document Digitization
Beyond the mailroom, there are other valuable uses for automated document digitization technologies. Paper-based forms, records and other workflows move slowly, take up a lot of space and require a lot of labor to manage. On the other hand, these same documents can be scanned, and the data within them can be extracted, indexed, organized and securely stored with minimal human intervention.
Digitizing paper-based workflows saves time and reduces costs, and extracting data from physical records enables you to build valuable databases that are available for advanced analytics. Improved data management can make it possible to evaluate internal processes, better understand your customer base, generate key market research and begin new initiatives.
When Is The Right Time To Automate?
If your business has a solid foundation and you are looking for ways to improve, starting the iterative automation process is likely a smart next step. On the other hand, if workflows are not yet well-defined, you are still building your core customer base, or you simply exist in an industry that relies heavily on customized, one-off products or services, then automation may not yet be for you.
We’ve only scratched the surface here of what is possible. Automation is up there with the assembly line or the personal computer — transformative technologies that enable innovations far greater than themselves if done at the right time. In the end, it's important to do your research and determine the best time for your company to take the automation leap.
This article was originally published on June 10th, 2019 on Forbes
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