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Pragmatic automation: Overcoming the stigma surrounding quick fixes and ‘automation debt’

Written by Yad Jaura, Product Marketing Manager at Netcall

Automation has been heralded as a key accelerator in the pursuit of digital transformation over the last few years, with the concept of intelligent automation – known by Gartner as ‘hyperautomation’ – currently forging ahead as one of the most important and intriguing technological trends.

According to Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice president at Gartner, hyperautomation shifted from an ‘option’ to a ‘condition’ of survival when the pandemic forced businesses to rapidly digitise in the face of adversity. Organisations making moves towards automation can quickly reap its benefits, from improving efficiencies and relieving strain on human workers to delivering greater value. For contact centre employees in particular, automation is said to have been ‘a gamechanger’, with 59% agreeing it should be considered a crucial investment in a recent survey.

But as with any trending topic, various offshoots of the term have been circulating amongst industry analysts and commentators in recent months – of which ‘automation debt’ is a rising one. A play on ‘technical debt,’ the term refers to the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing quick, easy and supposedly ‘limited’ automation solutions to solve imminent challenges. The implication is here that you will, at some point, need to go back and stick the band-aids on during times of crisis, paying back what you owe with the threat of accumulated interest looming if the debt goes unpaid. Unsurprisingly, by that definition, the term has been used in a predominantly disapproving manner – but it doesn’t have to be.

With the need for automation growing increasingly urgent, many businesses have turned to ‘quick and dirty’ fixes to tide them over in times of need. Now, a little further down the line, questions are being raised over the long-term impact of short-term solutions. That’s not to say, however, that they don’t have their place, nor their benefits. What’s important is weighing up the pros and cons of these solutions, keeping the balance of short-term gain versus long-term reward front of mind to help thinking remain focused, and choices strategic.

The idealistic goal of digital transformation

As the never-ending goal of digital transformation continues to drive efforts to automate, and quickly, it’s worth taking a step back to consider whether a frenetic approach is truly the most effective. Rather than running on a hamster wheel, attempting to catch up with rapidly innovating technology, sometimes a better and more realistic approach would be to automate what you can, now, taking small steps towards a bigger goal. We call this ‘pragmatic automation’. While it’s reasonable, even instinctive, to shy away from short-term solutions and patch-ups, the idea that we should forego these altogether is equally misguided.

Realistically, you’ll never have enough hours or people in an organisation to solve every issue, address every requirement and automate every single process and application. The problem with shooting for the stars is that you’ll never get it exactly right – first time. So why wait, when something can be done now and still be of real value? Automating pragmatically – starting small, getting it right and generating more ideas off the back of it – will enable businesses to focus their core efforts and resources on fixing the bigger challenges – those that are a must to get right.

Another advantage to this approach to automation is that by tackling smaller tasks, you’re able to prove their value across the organisation much more quickly and readily. This in turn leads to further buy-in, ultimately increasing your budget, which is how you get to where you need to go.

Democratising development

One of the most commonly cited reasons for automation debt– and even technical debt – is a lack of internal resources. It’s not just a lack of people and time, but crucially – it’s the lack of digital skills amongst those people. So, as long as you can service any debt generated, it’s a price worth paying to deliver those benefits at scale across the enterprise.

Intelligent automation technology, including robotic process automation (RPA), when underpinned by platform-as-a-service (PaaS) tools such as low-code technology, democratise both the concept and practice of software development. By doing so, process development is made accessible to all business users, irrespective of their level of technical skill, so that everyone can get involved and make an impact. With this, output capacity vastly increases by decentralising development teams from small cores in IT to large numbers of everyday users. Existing IT teams can then focus on what only IT can and should be doing – optimising strategic processes and supporting business function across the whole organisation.

When organisations talk about intelligent automation – or hyperautomation – and they’re serious, they’re going to try to do it properly, automating every process. But this is only ever achievable if you involve everybody in the organisation; a small IT team alone won’t work. However, if you make the tools accessible enough so that everyone can automate at scale, then you stand a chance of actually getting it done. Rather than reaching for the stars, start plugging the immediate gaps – now. From there – and by tackling automation in smaller more manageable chunks – businesses can work towards a larger impact. After all, and as Gartner explains, hyperautomation is no longer an option, but a condition of survival.