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To Stay Competitive, Businesses Need to Think About Automation

Doing More with Less

 

At a recent virtual seminar, Delcie Bean asked attendees to think back 20 years and ask themselves, did they foresee a time when phone books and yellow pages would not be a thing?

After all, he asked, every home had one, and they were the primary way small businesses advertised and shared their contact information with the public.

Now, “look at what’s happened to that world,” said Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT. “That’s the pace at which technology is changing. These things we took for granted, that we felt were never going to change, that were part of the fabric of our ecosystem, have changed. And it’s not just phone books. Think of all the landfills that are chock full of technology that, at one point in time, we didn’t think we could live without.”

And it’s not just tools, but the way we do business, he said, pointing out the short jumps between dominant communication methods over the past century. That idea was one jumping-off point for Bean’s virtual seminar on Sept. 15, titled “Automation: the Time Is Now,” and subtitled “How Automation Can Streamline Your Business and Offset the Labor Shortage.”

At this event, presented by BusinessWest and Comcast Business, he said everyone should ask themselves a simple question: “What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?

“What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?”

For example, he went on, “do I have employees entering data into a system that could easily be automated? Am I still doing things on paper forms that then need to be scanned into a system or, God forbid, typed in manually into another system? Do I have antiquated processes that require people to get manual approval and shuffle things around and put things in inboxes and outboxes, and do I still have tasks being done manually that are just ripe to automate?”

The 60-minute presentation focused on the benefits of automation and the ways it can be utilized to save businesses time, trouble, and expense — anything from onboarding a new employee or client to gathering information when someone signs up for something on a website, to the steps involved in the approval process when employees want to request a new computer. All of this, and more, can be automated, Bean said.

One common tool helping businesses do that today is the Microsoft 365 platform, an evolution of the Microsoft Office suite that offers subscription tiers and features including secure cloud storage, business e-mail, advanced cyberthreat protection, and the popular Microsoft Teams program.

“Microsoft has made a very deliberate, very intelligent decision to be the leader in small-business workforce automation, and they have invested infinite money in trying to do that,” Bean said. “And it’s actually paid off.”

 

Perfect Storm

The need to streamline processes through automation impacts most businesses and, as such, is a timely topic of discussion, Bean said — “maybe more than we’d want it to be.” And that’s partly because of the unique set of economic stressors that have emerged over the past 18 months.

“We’re probably all feeling busier right now than we’ve ever felt,” he said. “I know there’s a lot going on that’s causing us to have a lot more on our plates, a lot more challenges to solve, a lot more obstacles to overcome than we’ve had to in the past. So why are we taking time out of our day to have this conversation?”

Well, first of all, businesses are being forced to do more with less. Roughly 3.5 million Americans are not in the workforce but used to be — largely because of the pandemic, but not totally. Population growth has slowed, and the massive exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce has accelerated somewhat.

“That has a huge impact on the ecomomy, one we cannot minimize,” Bean noted — and one that will continue to ripple throughout organizations of all sizes at a time when everyone seems to be wearing more hats than before, juggling more tasks, and trying to keep up with less help. And that leads to more stress in the workforce.

“We’re seeing more employees comment that they feel overwhelmed, people are leaving their jobs, looking for new jobs, changing industries,” he said. “Or they’re managing the working-remote, working-in-the-office challenges, healthcare challenges … it’s a lot of stress and pressure on the workforce that’s still working.”

On the other hand, the workforce crunch has also created a talent shortage and one of the best-ever markets for job seekers, who have more leverage than before, Bean said, making it harder to hire and retain employees.

Wage growth has accelerated, and so have employee demands regarding everything from remote work to more autonomy to relaxed dress codes, he noted. “Employers are working really hard to try to manage and keep up with those demands while also managing the business.”

It’s an incredibly difficult economy, he added, and just for small employers; the situation is really trickling up to larger and higher-paying employers as well. “It’s not ignoring anybody.”

And it comes, Bean explained, in the midst of what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which builds on the third (which began in the mid-20th century and was known as the digital revolution, marked by the rise of computerization). This fourth revolution is melding technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, augmented reality, smart sensors, 3D printing, and many other advances, and promises to transform the way people live and work.

“There’s a lot going on right now that is digitizing and changing the way we interact with pretty much every aspect of our life,” he said. “And it’s happening at a rate we are very unaccustomed to handle.”

As noted, businesses trying to adapt to this fast-changing world are doing so amid all the recent challenges stemming from the pandemic and the labor situation. Small businesses also lament the growing culture of acquisition, and find it difficult to compete with larger companies with more resources, more innovation, and the ability to pay more for talent.

“All in all, it makes you feel like, if you’re a small firm, you’re in a race that’s a losing battle,” Bean said. “Exhausted? I don’t blame you.”

 

No Standing Still

But exhaustion is no excuse for inaction, he argued, before refuting the common myths around automation: that it’s too expensive, too complicated, and takes too long to implement. All are untrue, he explained during the virtual seminar, and again during a sit-down with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien during a recent edition of the magazine’s podcast, Business Talk (businesswest.com/blog/businesstalk-with-delcie-bean-ceo-of-paragus-strategic-it).

In other words, there’s no excuse for any business to avoid this conversation any longer.

“We don’t want to be the next Blockbuster,” Bean told the seminar attendees. “We don’t want to be the company that could see that things were changing, stuck to our guns, hung on, and ultimately worked their way into oblivion.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

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