Why Bill Gates was wrong on automation
by Terry Walby, Chief Executive, Thoughtonomy
On 2nd March 2015, founder of Microsoft and technologist turned philanthropist Bill Gates was declared the richest man in the world for the 16th time. He’s clearly pretty good at what he does, and a very smart fellow indeed. I admire his achievements and respect his intellect. However, he’s not infallible, and in one particular regard, I fundamentally disagree with his position. And that is in relation to his rules of automation.
As you may be aware, the rules of automation – according to Bill – are thus: “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
Well, Bill, the first I will give you. On the second, I’m afraid, you are wrong, and those who support your opinion may in fact be hindering, rather than helping, the advancement of automation.
It is, of course, true that automating an inefficient process won’t produce a perfect process. But it is wrong to say that it won’t be more efficient than its pre-automated self, or indeed that such an increase in efficiency is not of value.
Clearly, in an ideal world, every business would have streamlined processes, interconnected systems, well defined workflow and standards which, if not already automated, would make perfect candidates for automation. And where we found activities that were inefficient and didn’t meet those criteria, in our ideal world we would redefine them so that they did.
But here’s the thing. We don’t live in an ideal world. Processes are not perfect. There are numerous reasons why that is the case. Some we can affect, others not, and the ability and appetite of organisations to spend time, effort and money perfecting these imperfections is often lacking.
The fact is that the technology exists today which could automate vast swathes of “white collar” manual work. It’s tested, proven, and available now – but even bullish estimates suggest that less than 10% of the processes which could be automated, have been. And often, the answer to the obvious question “why?” is due to the complexity involved in applying that technology to an imperfect scenario – because if our Bill Gates endorsed approach demands that we perfect the process first and then automate it, then it’s often the effort in the perfecting that proves to be the barrier. That’s the activity that takes time and effort; which requires the attention of the subject matter experts (often the ones busy doing the work); that turns automation into a business change program, needing budgeting for, planning, managing and delivering. And thus, the very automation evangelists who advocate that approach may in actual fact be holding back, rather than accelerating, the adoption of automation.
So our view is different. Forget perfection. Automate your processes in their current, or near current form. Take the path of least resistance, the one that doesn’t require lengthy redesign or complex re-architecting. Take the human actions, and replicate them in automation. Do it now, and do it quickly.
Will you end up with a perfect process? No. Will you end up with a more efficient process than you had pre-automation? In most cases, absolutely yes. And perhaps that good enough. Or perhaps those resources you’ve just freed up with your automation can be refocused on doing a more fundamental redesign to come up with the perfect process. Either way, you’ve delivered benefit.
So, Bill, I respect your intellect and your achievements. But on this one, we’ll have to agree to disagree.