Finding new, productive tasks for staff is the real challenge, not just cutting costs
Automating tasks with technology can save staff lots of time, cut costs and improve morale, but firms need to think about how this free time is used in terms of productivity to achieve the true benefits of automation.
Marcus Austin, an analyst at research firm Quocirca, said at a web seminar hosted by V3 sister site Computing that this planning needs to happen far earlier than it does now.
"There isn't a lot of thought put into the next step for the business when automating," he said.
"They've put systems in to reduce complex tasks, but what do staff do with that saved time? Firms need to understand it's a stepped process. Automation isn't a solution in itself.
"You need to start thinking about [how to use this saved time] as you're putting these systems in."
But this saved time is one of the principal benefits of automation, as Donnie MacColl, director of EMEA technical services at HelpSystems, explained.
"When I ask people what I can do to make their working life better, most say 'time'. They want a single pane of glass. They have multiple screens, devices, databases, applications, and it would be good to bring them all together into one screen," he said.
"So bring all those systems into single pane. Bring in all the messages and alerts you need to do something with. Put them into an easily repeatable, automated task, then non-IT people can be empowered to do them.
"For instance, a sales person might want their sales figures at 5pm every day. If it's automated they can run that task themselves at 5pm. It doesn't need a request to go to IT every day."
Computing's own research into automation found that 69 per cent of respondents cited cost reduction as the main driver, while 66 per cent cited increased productivity.
MacColl, however, pointed to other statistics from the research showing that 47 per cent cited increased reliability and 22 per cent less downtime. "If you add those together it becomes joint top," he said.
He added that automation can reduce mundane, repetitive tasks which can lead to improved employee morale and lower staff turnover.
"That leads to reduced costs, but perhaps not in the direct, tangible way you may have expected upfront," MacColl explained.
So what are the first steps to introducing automation into a business? MacColl advised firms to start with the simplest processes first.
"I recommend people start with mundane, boring, repetitive tasks. That's the low-hanging fruit. It's checking servers are OK, applications are up and running, network ports are open and that people have access to the systems they should. Automate that easy stuff first then move on to the more complex stuff," he said.
Further research by Computing found that 54 per cent of those surveyed said that routine maintenance and patching could most usefully be automated, while 51 per cent cited backups as the top choice.