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January 25, 2022
November 3, 2021

Why am I frustrated by automation in our business?

Oh, yes. Bits everywhere, surrounding us. Digital transformation, automation, industry 4.0. Even the robots prepare to take our jobs! (Do so, please, there is plenty of the boring and repetitive :))

For someone my age, born before the ‘80s, shocking to realise how widespread technology became. We had to drop the cool words of “internet” and “online”, their novelty and uniqueness just faded. Many things reached beyond their Tipping Point in our lifetime, starting from zero.

However, solutions are still far away from being smooth. As an entrepreneur and typical target of software solutions, you, THE DEVELOPER, can clearly explain it to me. Yes, I got it: clear benefits, financials, productivity, ROI - but I am still not in. Something still frustrates me deep inside. And whatever you do, I will somehow dodge implementation despite the suggested high rationality. No, thank you.

The key: we, humans, are all different. Our behaviors originate in various motivations. That is getting more and more understood when thinking of consumers - but the exact same motivational variety also applies to business decision-makers and software developers. With all due respect, software developing companies approach new problems most often through offering efficiency and productivity. Why? That is not the scope of this article, dear Tech Bro. Today I want to share my thoughts about the entrepreneur (tech buyer) side. When human irrationality is eating the seemingly rational.

1. Losing control

One essential and important consequence of automation is that we can get rid of the specific task. I mean: execution does not require our hands and brains anymore. The process is run by a “machine”, or, to go even further, by “a machine built by contractors”. So we, the users, do not really know the underlying deep logic anymore. In certain cases, like some machine learning-based solutions, even the ability can be fully lost to understand what is happening at each and every step.

O-kay, but how can I personally correct if something goes wrong? If I start to see bad outputs? Can I isolate and remove the suspicious parts? Am I able to do anything at all with the process to change it?

As an entrepreneur, I could feel the loss of control over the operation of my own business! I do not like that as someone enjoying being in charge.

This is one of the motivations keeping Excel still central in many companies: it is not the highest productivity at all BUT highly transparent, you can go down to basically any level you want, the control remains.

My personal example is how I deal with financial planning, reporting, and particularly reviewing investments. I love all things digital and automated - but no, thanks, I am a control freak in these particular areas, I feel I need to be able to see everything behind the curtain.

As another interesting example of similar roots, think about how cars evolved over the last decades. It took decades to change the mindset around cars from “you must be able to fix them” to “just drive and trust the experts”. A big leap!

2. Raw data and information

When automation is relatively low, we are directly exposed to many natural signals and stimulations. What our clients say. What our suppliers say. How their handwriting looks. Volumes, amounts, how they reacted, warehouse size and structure, why and why not, reserves. Often we can not even tell why a set of information is valuable, but simply feel comfortable in the business. We just know where to reach out for relevant information - or as I often do, just dive into the sea of data and hope to find something.

Automation may have the side effect of lower-level data not being accessible anymore or getting just too inconvenient to grab. As an entrepreneur (or decision-maker) we lose contact with operational details - let them be technology, commerce, or even administration.

Of course, again, we are all different. The Comfort zone depends on the exact business type and particular person. As for myself, in some areas, I prefer to build my understanding from very low-level data (“to touch the patterns”), which did not always turn out to be a trivial task when working at a Vodafone or Microsoft-sized enterprise.

A recent and living example is our time registration system at AbilityMatrix. For our daily operation and reporting, automated processes are perfect as they are. But when the great “What If?” kicks in - eg, replanning, launching something new, etc - it is only the raw data that supports it.

Irrationality again: maintaining productivity would not require this depth. Keeping strategic agility makes it irreplaceable.

3. Customer Experience / Value-add

Another key potential mindset change: if I transform our processes into being more automated, how will it stay differentiated and not easily copyable in the eyes of our customers?

Before automation entrepreneurs often use small, human-targeting tactics. First name basis. Little interactions. An extra call. Lovely branding tools. Extraordinary discounts. Surprises. Sweepstakes. A bit of favor, here and there.

When automation’s major objective is increasing efficiency, it becomes a very complex effort to design where and how we want the enterprise to remain flexible. Sometimes even the original differentiation’s potential is lost completely. Need to find new ways to outstand and personalise.

From the enterprise world, a personal example: Tesco Mobile in Hungary. As a virtual mobile operator, a significant part of the technical processes were shared with or identical to whatever Vodafone served. We wanted to combine their existing technical efficiency, too - while building our own “Tesco Mobile” experience for customers. However, we faced many deep technical processes, where any branding and tailoring would have meant extreme cost and effort, if at all. Eg. automatic sound messages for rare network troubles. Not our cup of tea then.

Another example: invoicing. In Hungary, content and handover of invoices are strictly regulated - which is useful when designing for efficiency, digital processes, etc. In Austria, from a certain perspective, the standards are more relaxed: so we can brand all documents more conveniently, an important customer touchpoint, let’s leverage!

4. The Grey Zone

In real life, there are many industries where the lack of clear definitions and some obscurity help businesses survive. Yes, dodgy and illegal moves belong to that group… but there are cases, where situations can be monetised by extremely fast solutions and moves.

For example, if an industry’s characteristic is extraordinary demand, but their supply is limited, they simply lose money if their capacity and booking are transparent. Think about popular hairdressers or construction companies in booming economies. They may NOT want to fill their capacity with lower value work, but leverage whenever extra demand increases the accepted prices.

Similar logic: let’s say, some activities are only of secondary importance, a side business for a company. They do it only when capacity allows in a fluctuating environment. In such a case, it makes sense to underplan the automation and allow manual extra for higher demand. This is the exact way we handle pro bono mentoring at AbilityMatrix: we dedicate 2 hours every week, so we remain in perfect control of our activity… but sometimes we provide a bit of extra time from under the counter, manually.

Last example: digital contracts. I am personally absolutely in favour of signing everything digitally, both in business and in private life. But sometimes the other party is unable to e-sign, capability, or organizational reasons. Or they are bigger than us and have a stronger voice in decisions. :) So to keep the business going, we adapt and align - whether we are passionate about automation or not. The show must go on.

Any comments or thoughts provoked? Do you like automation or have reservations? Maybe other observations? Drop a comment or write. We may even print it, who knows.


Adapted to English from Hungarian original at Park: