Richard Acreman is a Partner at WM Reply, a company dedicated to building world-class intranets and business solutions with Microsoft Technology. Their mission is to build the world’s best Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365 solutions to help organisations overcome business challenges. Here Richard explains how your business can unleash its creative juices by automating everything else.
Automation is big news and even bigger business. But in amongst all the conversations around automation, AI and the future of work, one group who have a huge role to play have been a little neglected – human resources professionals.
Too many employees in all industries, who have great jobs that they enjoy, find their satisfaction and productivity sapped by the necessary evil of admin – but not for too much longer. Already, relatively simple, early forms of AI, are on the brink of unleashing a creative revolution through potent little innovations like augmented product design. HR has the potential to take this to the next level thanks directly to the turbulence left in the wake as automation steams ahead. How? By reaching out to employees as they are freed from the constraints of admin and giving them the freedom, tools and incentives to capitalise on something that can’t be automated: creativity.
First, it’s worth explaining what we’re talking about when we talk about giving employees back their admin time. The list of automation technology examples is growing fast, and includes clever tools like Microsoft’s Delve app, working out what documents we might need based on who we’re talking to on Skype or meeting with next; or Outlook’s ability to work out when all necessary parties are available for a meeting to instantly pull out the options and rid us of the hassle of trawling through calendars.
In fact, the benefits of automation don’t just extent to low level organisational admin, but in some cases to issues as senior and important as regulatory compliance. In one example, inbuilt online workflows can monitor compliance with data regulations and ensure the collection of necessary declarations, rather than a senior manager with compliance responsibility constantly, monitoring, recording and chasing for the same information and documentation.
The rising tide of automation is not thanks to any one tech innovation, it’s the coming together of piecemeal improvements from online apps to revised workflows that together can free up hours days and weeks of our time.
The dark side of automation
But, before we get too caught up in evangelising, it’s important to remember that there is a dark side to automation, and it’s one that we’re all very familiar with: job losses.
Without acknowledging the fear that automation can and is fundamentally changing the economy in potentially troubling ways would be to skirt around the issue, but at the same time, we must also accept that in a period of change and transition like the one we’re in right now, there will always be plenty of unknowns, plenty of naysayers and plenty of harbingers of doom. What we want to do here is put forward a vision for what comes next that positions HR teams and senior management as the champions of the future, harnessing the power of automation to affect sweeping, positive change within their organisations. And it’s a vision that is firmly within reach.
Automation = creativity
At the heart of such a sweeping change is a simple dynamic by which increased automation directly correlates with more and better creativity.
Humans by nature are creative beings (of course there are some more than others who embody that creativity, but the principle is sound). By definition, automation is only really available on tasks that don’t involve creativity. Robots excel at learning information, processing it and fulfilling repetitive, predictable tasks based on that information. Creativity – the inception of new ideas, angles or conclusions – is another field entirely.
It is these predictable, repetitive tasks that currently absorb so much of our time, limiting our capacity to fulfil our creative potential. Admin tasks alone take up on average 12% of UK working weeks. That equates to well over 200 hours a year per employee. Imagine what could be achieved by thousands of workers devoting hundreds of hours a year to innovating and exploring new ideas.
For that very reason, Google, when on its way up, famously mandated that their staff take 20% of their time out to work on independent creative projects that they think might lead them somewhere or turn up something interesting – essentially guaranteeing dedicated creative headspace. The result was projects like Gmail and AdSense that now touch millions of users and rake in billions in revenue.
Why the opportunity lies with HR
HR may not be all-powerful when it comes to a company’s technology investments, or business strategy, but it does hold the key when it comes to employee attitudes, engagement and enthusiasm. Creativity is a fickle taskmaster, and the one thing more important than giving them time to be creative, is ensuring that employees are motivated to grasp hold of the opportunity – that they have a reason to do so. That’s where internal communications technology comes in.
For instance, in a recent example of a company doing just that – harnessing the collective creativity of the workforce for innovation – a drinks company used SharePoint to create a brand archive available to all employees which served as a repository for past inspiration. Using this carefully selected intranet feature, they challenged employees to redesign its flagship brand. The exercise resulted in a double victory for both engagement and innovation. More than that, hosting the whole event in SharePoint gave HR a framework to simultaneously promote and test the positive engagement of employees from start to finish.
It’s just one example, but serves as a blueprint for how organisation wide objectives can be gamified and opened up to the collective intelligence of the business. And all that can be done collaboratively, online via integrated communication tools like Yammer, encouraging inspirational connections between different areas of expertise and knowledge across the organisation.
Setting up for success
Automation is a divisive topic, and if HR doesn’t work hard to make the automation agenda a positive story of enhanced creativity and the time to flourish, then a more pessimistic grass-roots narrative will undoubtedly emerge, one that likely revolves around the redundancy of human endeavour, rather than a focus on it.
It’s down to the C-suite (senior management) to make sure the strategy supports the message, but it’s down to HR to sell it. Being able to inject strategic creative challenges and incentives through tools like SharePoint at the same time and in the same place as promoting the messaging around the strategy is a huge boost to giving these projects a genuine authenticity, but the challenge of getting large organisations on-board, and shaking staff’s underlying pessimism isn’t a small one.