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AUTTO co-founder, Ian Gosling looks at how even the smallest of businesses can harness automation within their business.

You don’t have to look far to see an example of a company taking advantage of advanced technology within their business today.

From Zara’s AI powered consumer analysis on the high street, to Amazon’s robot-powered warehouse, terms like Robotic Process Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, are now part of everyday business conversation, and heralded as delivering a step change in productivity and cost reduction. In fact, according to an Accenture survey, 45 percent of organisations believe that their pace of innovation has significantly accelerated over the past three years due to emerging technologies.

However, while the enterprise market has stormed ahead with the adoption of these transformative technologies, the SME market has been slower off the starting blocks – with research suggesting that adoption rates among large enterprises are up to 10 times higher than in small businesses.

Barriers to implementation

Automation is an interesting case in point and the most accessible of these technologies. A recent report by the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee found that SME adoption rate of automation lay at a mere 4% in contrast to a 28% adoption rate for enterprises, despite its obvious benefits.

To date automation in SMEs has largely been confined to two areas:

  • Marketing automation – increasing the number and value of marketing leads and their management and follow up through platforms like Salesforce and Hubspot.
  • Accounting automation – automating the book-keeping, preparation of management accounts, tax returns and payroll using applications like Xero, QuickBooks and ReceiptBank. 

These are areas where the needs and processes are very similar across the majority of SMEs and so the off the shelf products are good, are accessibly priced and, as such, serve many businesses well.

Where large enterprises have taken leaps ahead of SMEs is in automating processes that are not common across lots of firms but that are unique to a particular business, customer group, sub-sector or even individual customer. 

Big firms with big budgets and teams of technology managers have either built their own solutions or have used software like Blue Prism, UIPath, Oracle, or SAP as platforms upon which they can build bespoke automating systems to meet these needs.

The cost and complexity of the enterprise technology, and the expense of the staff or consultants to set up and maintain the software make this approach simply out of the reach of most SMEs.  Some SMEs, often with founders from a software development background, have written their own software but this is expensive, risky and time consuming.  Again it is out of the reach of most SMEs.

New Easier to use tools

Due to these cost and technology barriers, automation is often overlooked and perceived by many SMEs as not applicable.  However, there are nownew platforms which are low code solutions,or even no-code solutions, which make automation more accessible.

There generally come in three different types:

  • Integrator platforms – with varying degrees of technical complexity and sophistication these allow you to link one existing web application to another, so an event in one application triggers an action in another
  • Database fronts – these are low-code platforms which are targeted at building simple front end tools on databases.  Useful if you already have a database and need to put something together that is functional but not particularly user-friendly for internal use.  Usually these require the same kind of technical skills used to write an SQL database query.
  • Automation platforms – these are self-contained, no-code process management tools,  They make it easy to automate through drag and drop workflows and require technical skills of the level of a Microsoft Excel user to automate.  They also generate a simple, user-friendly workflow for the people using the automations who may be customers or colleagues.   

Start small not big

So now accessible tools are beginning to become available what should SMEs seek to automate?  After all, isn’t automation something for the manufacturing sector? SME business models are often unique – each tailored to an individual client’s requirements. Surely automation – with its regularity – can’t apply here?

Yet it can. By looking at existing large processes within your business and breaking them down into smaller units you can identify the repetitive parts of the process. Look for the little routine, necessary processes that take a lot of time and effort to achieve but are not generating revenue, such as:

  • Creating and signing Sales contracts and NDA’s
  • Approvals processes
  • HR onboarding and off-boarding
  • Regulatory and compliance processes and checklists
  • Updating databases and records

These are the micro-processes that can easily be automated to increase accuracy, efficiency and free your staff for more important and satisfying work.

Overall, the key to success lies in starting small and keeping it simple. By starting small, it is both easier to overcome the challenges in an organisation and quicker to realise the rewards. Instead of jumping straight into a large scale, cutting edge technology implementation, which will be both costly, time consuming and risky, SMEs can take advantage of the new, more accessible automation technologies that are quick to implement and cost-effective.

Rethinking automation

Contrary to expectations, solutions exist in the market place which are SaaS-based that require no technology (other than a laptop and an internet connection) and little specific tech knowledge that enable SMEs to be automating processes within an hour and at costs that makes sense to this market.

Simple automation has the potential to revolutionise working practices.  It improves productivity, through automating the daily and repetitive processes that waste up to a third of skilled employees’ time within organisations today.

This is even more important as SMEs are operating in an increasingly challenging business environment, competing against larger players with bigger budgets and higher head-counts in turbulent economic times. 

And while it might not have been on your radar until now, it’s certainly time for a rethink. Automation is no longer just for big business. It’s here, and in these volatile times, it’s never been more accessible or essential to SMEs.