Click to learn more about author Margareta Chesaru.
While many organizations are already riding the wave of automation, some are just starting their automation journeys. IDC’s Future of Work 2021 Survey shows that 47% of organizations in Europe are planning to implement robotic process automation (RPA) in the next 18 months and 39% are planning to implement other process automation technologies.
Amid intensifying industry competition, automation empowers businesses to work smarter, not harder, so that they can make the most of their talent and resources. RPA, for example, can be deployed to execute routine processes that, while essential to business continuity, require an excessive amount of manual effort or time from employees. As a result, these workers have more energy and time to dedicate toward the more satisfying aspects of their jobs, increasing output without increasing operating costs. Additionally, with the release of more intuitive interfaces and no-code solutions, automation is becoming more democratic and decentralized from the IT department to unlock human potential across the business.
In short, the internal benefits to an organization investing in automation are vast, but there’s even more this technology could deliver with some shifts in corporate mindset. Business leaders need to consider automation’s potential in terms more encompassing and transformative than time and cost savings. Essentially, how can they harness the potential of automation for good (AfG)?
- Automation can be applied to greater missions of the company, from sustainability to community and social impact goals. As discussed, automation facilitates business innovation and transformation by improving productivity and fostering creative thinking. When employees have the space and support to think bigger and bolder, they develop new solutions for improving both internal and external environments.
- At the same time, building trust and promoting transparency in relation to automation efforts will help shape an open and safe environment, in which employees feel included and listened to. Creating accessible opportunities for training and development programs to help employees acquire automation skills and knowledge is another important component that needs to be prioritized.
- Automation also delivers holistic ROI, like enhanced transparency, resilience, and trust. For example, in response to customer and investor demands for more sustainable supply chains, software robots can be deployed as a first point of contact to detail the brand’s sourcing and consumption practices. This offers the added benefit of freeing customer service agents up from repeatedly responding to the inquiries, so they can instead take the feedback collected through conversations with the bots to improve operations.
So, what can organizations do to get an AfG program underway and make these benefits a reality?
Set Overarching AfG Objectives
Understanding automation’s potential as a force for good won’t yield any results if business leaders don’t also create a framework for achieving it. Even if an organization has already launched its automation initiative, it’s not too late to remap it to AfG goals.
To define the “good” in automation for good, organizations can look toward the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This urgent call to action for a more sustainable global future serves as a strong direction, as its goals are already widely understood and acknowledged. When deciding which of the 17 SDGs to align their automation initiatives with, organizations should consider the areas of business they are already looking to improve (or those in which they are facing pressure to demonstrate change).
For companies with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments, that’s a great place to start. In another recent research report from IDC, “Automation as a Force for Good – 6 Steps to Transform Theory into Practice,” the authors state: “However, without clear goals and direction, organizations risk missing the full potential of automation and overlooking its ability to enable social impact. Even more so, it is now easier than ever for automation to be unintentionally implemented in ways that run counter to the positive societal and business outcomes that organizations so often say they want to deliver.”
For instance, many consumers are urging the digital sector to operate more environmentally friendly. The European Commission revealed in 2020 that this sector was responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions – a figure that’s predicted to increase 14% in the next 20 years. Companies looking for ways to address this issue can work towards SDG 13 (Climate Action) by using their automation systems to run more efficient IT and/or supply chain infrastructure and thereby limit energy expenditure and waste production.
The UN itself leverages automation to achieve its goals. The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program, which contributes to peace and development through volunteerism worldwide, adopted automation to streamline various administrative activities. One example is the automation built to help volunteers apply for permits, visas, and bank accounts. As a result, forms are automatically generated, giving back time to both UNV staff and volunteers.
Add Actions to the Agenda
Once organizations are ready to adopt an AfG mindset, they need to define a framework and a tangible action plan for implementation. The following key aspects should help leaders define an integrated approach towards AfG:
- Business executives and automation leaders should work together to shape a vision on how to maximize the positive impact of automation, which multiplies benefits for employees and the wider community. This vision should be in close alignment with the organization’s corporate social responsibility and ESG strategies.
- After establishing the vision, it’s essential to set focus, assign teams, and encourage joint efforts. Who specifically will execute the AfG initiative? How is the organization running its automation projects? If the organization has a Center of Excellence (CoE), it’s critical that its activity is connected to the AfG agenda. In addition, encouraging collaboration between the CoE and experts across the organization should be considered, by constantly bringing in new perspectives and accelerating innovation. For example, by facilitating cross-team collaboration between the CoE and sustainability experts, employees can co-design automation use cases that help minimize the company’s environmental footprint.
- A well-thought-through communication strategy can help maximize the impact of an AfG agenda. To help an AfG initiative flourish, organizations should make sure that their employees are aware and engaged. Sharing the vision and plans for AfG also helps reduce employee anxiety that can occur when adopting new technology within the organization. Communication should also focus on providing employees with training resources and best practices. The more individuals that understand and employ automation throughout their roles, the more good will come of it. To support employees becoming champions of change in the wider automation initiative, organizations should also look at hosting workshops, training sessions, and dedicated hackathons.
- Organizations should follow specific metrics to ensure the investment in automation and employee bandwidth yields its desired outcomes. Most of the time, organizations already keep track of such metrics. However, linking them to the AfG agenda will help measure progress more easily and with greater accuracy. Workforce KPIs regarding employee engagement and retention, diversity and belonging, and workplace training, as well as corporate metrics related to energy consumption, carbon footprint, or supply chain waste will prove essential for the AfG agenda’s effectiveness.
Expand Involvement in the Automation Initiative
Fulfilling these action items also requires a change in mindset regarding who benefits from automation. As discussed, automation has the power to optimize more than costs and time. When conceptualizing how automation can be used as a force for good, business leaders need to consider the needs of all stakeholders – the organization itself, its employees, customers, communities, etc. – to reach its full potential. This holistic view is known as stakeholder capitalism. By considering how automation can deliver more than financial gains, organizations can squeeze greater, more impactful returns from their software investments.
Part of bringing employees into the automation initiative is making sure they feel purpose-led and engaged within it. Fortunately, many workers are already eager to partake. My company’s 2021 Global Office Worker Survey found that 63% of respondents view automation skills as critical to their development. Still, there may be some individuals unfamiliar and, consequently, afraid of what introducing automation into their jobs means for their job security, which is why leaders need to strive to remove any stigma around automation. Returning to UNV, the organization is intentional about keeping its people – and not its software – at the center of its automation usage. Throughout the adoption process, the UNV tried to reiterate its commitment to administrators, articulating how automation would enhance, and not replace, their jobs.
Transforming Automation into a Force for Good Starts Today
With businesses feeling increasing pressure to innovate at an accelerated rate, many have already identified automation to support internal productivity. But whether a brand is new to automation software or already has a program underway, it’s never too late to extend its value to greater societal causes. By articulating a clear, encompassing intention for their initiatives, companies can unlock automation’s potential to not only deliver organizational benefits but also act as a force for good in the world around them.