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The pitfalls of automation and how to avoid them

Microsoft’s Power Automate platform has been incredibly good at putting low-code automation into the hands of SMEs and mid-market companies for all manner of mundane and repetitive processes. It saves time and resources, it connects different data sources, it lets you integrate and build AI processes, and it’s secure. All in all, it’s pretty impressive. So why is it so many automation projects fail to reach their full potential – even when using automation platforms? And, perhaps more importantly, how can organisations make sure their automation projects succeed?

In my experience, the problem is down to various things. Not least, a lack of knowledge sharing in typically busy and over-stretched IT departments. No surprise when you think that in most organisations the task of “automation” is usually given to one person. As a result, all the knowledge sits with them so as soon as they move departments, change jobs, or leave, no one else really knows what they’ve done or how it works.

 

What’s the plan?

 

This problem is endemic with legacy infrastructure, too. “Please don’t touch the old server/database/network. If it breaks, we’re lost”, is a common refrain in many companies. The result? You end up running automated processes alongside or on old kit nobody really knows anything about. Another danger is that if a company has a licence for Power Automate, for example, it’s tempting and easy to start playing around with automation without really thinking through the why, what, and how of what you’re doing. A lack of clear objectives, governance, and control often comes back to bite organisations later on.

 

Take your time

 

The ultimate aim is to build an automation ecosystem on solid foundations, whereby each piece of automation complements the whole. I always recommend starting with a “known good process” that you understand how to do manually. If you go in too hard and too fast, you’ll just end up with a mess, so start with one thing and expand on it slowly and incrementally, while making sure you have strong governance and controls in place. Also, remember automation tends to encroach on people’s jobs, so managing that aspect is important too. If it’s any consolation, no one’s immune form approaching automation the wrong way.

Before joining BCN, I spent 20 years working for a global IT outsourcing company. Its customers ranged in size from 40,000 up to 200,000 employees, and it had similar problems – different people playing around with different bits of automation – just on a much larger scale. So part of my role at BCN is guiding SMEs and mid-market companies on their automation journey and helping them avoid getting bogged down and writing off automation as a bad idea before they’ve given it a proper chance.

 

Avoid the rabbit holes

 

Another skill is knowing when to call it a day, which is hard when you’re so close to something. I’ve seen a lot of people spend time and money on pet software and development projects (automation included) that really should be canned, but because of the effort invested up to that point they’re reluctant. Instead, they carry on and a year later they’re still not getting the results they want, but continue to throw good money and time after bad and further dilute any possible ROI they began with. That’s where some objective evaluation from an external organisation (like BCN!) can really help.

 

Do the groundwork

 

Before starting an automation project, do the groundwork. At BCN, we have business analysts who’s role is to better understand the case for automation, the scope of where and when it should happen, and the integrations and complexities required to achieve better organisational performance. It’s an approach that answers both the simple and tough questions such as, “Will this bit of automation require an off-the-shelf, low complexity, no-code/low-code solution like the Power Platform?”. “Will it need a fully fledged customised .NET development?”. “Will it need a combination of both?”. “Can we build it using the customer’s existing licence or do we need a new one?.”

Put simply, it’s about triaging the business challenges and making sure the development effort goes into the right place with the right governance and controls. But you can’t do that effectively without first analysing the organisation’s needs and its commercial and operational objectives – for example, what’s it going to look like as you iterate, and how are you going to improve it over time? Only then can you develop an effective strategy and roadmap that includes the right complementary automation solutions.

 

Drinking our own Champagne

 

We know our approach to automation works, not only because we’ve completed numerous automation projects for our customers, but also because we’ve field-tested it internally on our own systems and processes. These vary from automatic proposal-generation tools using the Power platform to using Microsoft AI to measure customer sentiment that automatically flags up negative sentiment, to using .NET to deconstruct and reconstruct emails into tickets. In fact Intellioffice, our proprietary Line Of Service platform, was a huge .NET project in itself and has automation running all the way through it.

We’ve also embedded automation into things like deploying services. Using infrastructure as code (IaC), we template up our services to remove the human element in software configuration and deployment. So each time we deploy software to a customer, we know we’re applying best practice, but without the human effort or cost involved. It adds so much value across our services and demonstrates our approach to automation and how we can help them do exactly the same thing.

As mentioned earlier, to fully embed and exploit automation you need to know who’s doing what and why, what the roadmap is, and how you’re going to iterate it over time and roll it out to other areas of the business.

 

Last word

 

In truth, an automation strategy never really stops, and for us it’s about learning and leading by example. But always the key is to start on the right foot, bake in strong governance, and build from there. By starting small and taking incremental steps, you’re much less likely to fall foul of the common pitfalls, or worse, disappear down rabbit holes you’ll struggle to find your way out of.

To find out more about who we are, what we do, and who for, head over to BCN Group.