To emerge successful along their digital transformation journey through the COVID-19 crisis, SMEs need to address this silent killer constantly prowling at the workplace.

500 hours – that’s roughly the average amount of time spent on repetitive tasks each year by a single employee. 

While we remain understandably preoccupied with COVID-19, this recurring threat is not something businesses can afford to continue putting off. In fact, almost 90% of employees feel burdened by repetitive tasks, and it is estimated that a single employee can lose roughly US$3,000 a year on duplicate tasks. 

This is why, across the globe, 1 in 4 employers are starting to invest in automation for the first time, while 40% are increasing their investments in this year.

Automation can help to significantly reduce costs and processing time, while improving compliance and accuracy across a multitude of industries such as accounting and finance, healthcare, HR, supply chain, F&B, and more.

DigiconAsia discussed with Hidir Koh, Head of Process Automation, Paloe, how SMEs in the Asia Pacific region should deal with the silent killer of businesses in the region – repetitive tasks – and how business and process automation can be a key strategy for SMEs along their digital transformation journey.

With many organizations in Asia Pacific investing in automation to cope with COVID-19 restrictions, which industries and business functions do you see benefiting the most from their automation investments?

Koh: Any organization can benefit from investing in automation. In the short term, automation can alleviate labor shortages or significant loss of employees due to cashflow difficulties. 

Automation can also allow companies to retain industry knowledge that would otherwise be lost when employees leave the company. In turn, this would also reduce the time needed by new hires to learn existing processes, cutting down on the cost of turnovers. 

In the long term, we see that automation brings the greatest benefits to processes with large compliance requirements. These are industries or business functions where products will need to be delivered consistently, and in a fashion that is both timely and adheres to strict regulations. As such, supply chain and finance functions in particular can benefit quite significantly from the consistency of bots in meeting those demands. 

Considering the costs involved in deploying automated systems, how could SMEs attain the same benefits from business automation?

Koh: SMEs have the advantage of being more agile. They typically have flatter hierarchies with shorter chains of command, and knowledge is distributed amongst a smaller group of people. To leverage this advantage, SMEs should focus on equipping their employees with the skills to better recognize and communicate automation opportunities within their organization. 

Additionally, employees whose work has been replaced by automation should also be upskilled and redeployed to fully reap the benefits of the manpower, and reassure them of their value at the organization. 

When automation processes are encouraged and executed well, any organization – no matter the size – will stand to benefit. And these are benefits that far exceed the initial costs. The prerequisite for this is of course a culture that encourages growth and bottom-up contribution.

In what ways can digital transformation through automation and AI level the playing field for SMEs?

Koh: I believe that there are two ways in which these emerging technologies can level the playing field for SMEs.

The first is in risk reduction. The potential of AI lies in its ability to provide more accurate insights through statistical models. This includes insights that will improve the accuracy of risk reduction models within organizations. As this technology develops, it’s improving accuracy will allow SMEs to lower costs by reducing their exposure to risks. This can already be seen in the use of AI in fraud or payment default detection bots.

The second way is in predicting customer needs. In a digital world, customers expect customized and immediate results. AI and automation can help organizations to meet these needs. Using a detailed history of customer behavior, these technologies can help to predict and anticipate their needs. This is already observed in algorithms that are used to recommend products or even advertisements to potential customers. 

Please share some key considerations and best practices for an organization trying to put in place a digital business automation strategy and action plan.

Koh: Firstly, digital automation requires a holistic view of the company’s processes. Without this, tech experts often have a myopic view of the issues at hand that are faced by the organization. A successful action plan requires businesses and tech functions to work hand in hand – A joint effort across the organization’s business function allows tech experts to be better equipped to execute a successful digital transformation campaign.

It is also important for organizations to keep the end goal in mind. As extensive as the benefits of automation may be, automating the process as it is may not necessarily be the best solution. Organizations need to understand the end-to-end process of servicing a customer and optimize these processes before considering automation. 

Finally, automation by nature will only address certain steps in these processes and as such, priority should be given to automating bottleneck activities first. In consequence, companies should anticipate that additional workload may be generated downstream of these automations, and be prepared to redeploy sufficient resources to cater for this increase.