news / tech talk

Business Automation

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

Technology has pervaded most of our lives by now, so you would think that people would intuitively understand how to apply computers and websites and applications to best fit their businesses. Afterall, people know their business and they know a bit about computers so what’s to know?

Well, in practice it’s tougher than you might think. Knowing how to surf the web and setup your home wireless network is one thing, but knowing the strengths and weaknesses of computers, networks, applications, and databases as they apply to your business – well that’s tricky. For one thing, keep an open mind. By that I mean consider both the possibility that automation could fundamentally change the way you do business and the possibility that automation may NOT actually make sense for your business. These days there is a lot of pressure to automate, almost blindly.

To determine if automation can help you or not, first concentrate on understanding your business. Specifically, focus on understanding and documenting your business as a set of processes. What are the things that need to be done for your business to run? How are these things accomplished now? By whom, when, and how often? If you really understand these things to the point where you can write them down and flow chart them, then you have a good chance of understanding if automation can help you and how much.

Automation involves computers, networks, applications, and databases. While things have evolved a lot, the basics are still true and that means that automation is best at repeated and tedious tasks. If your business processes include tasks that are repeated frequently and are currently done by people, then there is a good chance that automation can help. However, if you’re business requires complex evaluations of rapidly changing or unique conditions, then you may be better off with talented and experienced people because computers are not great at making judgment calls.

Often, people force computers and applications into situations where they offer little value or even cause more problems than they solve. The best way to solve business problems is still to understand your processes, understand the available tools and options, and then see if the tools and options can be made to fit. Throwing automation at a business processes is not necessarily the best thing. On the other hand, automation tools may allow you to fundamentally change your business processes in a better way.

For example, say an existing process involves a person taking orders over the phone on paper, recording that order in a ledger, then faxing that paper to a warehouse where a stocker obtains the item, marks the paper, and sends the item and paper to a person to organize shipping. Automating this process might include adding a web site where people can place orders themselves. The order automatically shows up on a computer at the warehouse where a stocker obtains the items and checks a web button which sends a notification to your shipping company that something is ready for pickup. Now you have a process that collects orders 24x7, there’s less likelihood of human transcription error (the customer knows how to spell their own name and street address), fewer people are required in the process, everything is recorded, and everything happens faster. Now that makes sense.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business