Sensors activate supermarket doors, travelers collect their boarding passes from computer kiosks, and e-commerce customers discuss order issues with chatbots.
These are just a few of the thousands of examples of automation in everyday life. Automation revolutionized the manufacturing and industrial sectors, and now it’s transforming knowledge work and the overall business world.
Task automation helps knowledge workers perform their tasks more efficiently so they can be more productive. In some projects, task automation can completely eliminate human involvement.
The McKinsey Institute predicts that, in coming years, more than 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their processes automated. It may be a long time until robots completely take over every job, but it’s now within the realm of possibility — and coming closer to reality each day.
A brief history of automation
Humans are problem solvers, constantly inventing tools and refining ways to get things done. After the first caveman picked up a stick, our species has racked up innovation on top of innovation — from discovering fire and inventing the wheel to creating the computer, the internet, and artificial intelligence.
Computers have made work easier since they entered the workplace in the 1930s. In the 1970s, they became user-friendly enough for workers who weren’t technically proficient to use them. Even creatives and executives in the advertising industry started using cutting-edge computers to make complex calculations around ad spending and other budgeting issues. This paved the way for modern-day automation.
Here are some of the biggest examples of automation throughout human history.
Fishing in ancient times often conjures up images of people harpooning wherever they saw movement as they walked across riverbeds — an active form of hunting. However, South Koreans in 27,000 BCE turned fishing into a passive, automated process by rigging up weighted fishing nets. Sinkers anchored nets to the floor bed of rivers and streams, entangling fish as they flowed downstream.
One of the earliest recorded forms of automated timekeeping was with sundials, but people had no way of reliably tracking time once the sun went down. That changed with the invention of water clocks in 1,500 BCE Babylon and Egypt.
Designers created water-bearing containers that allowed fluids to leak out in a steady stream, functioning exactly like an hourglass. Users tracked time by observing the change in water level alongside different markers in the container that indicated how much time had passed.
In the fourth century BCE, Egyptians invented water wheels to revamp the collection of drinking water from rivers. In the third century BCE, Greek engineers upgraded these to grind grain, effectively automating the time-consuming and labor-intensive milling process.
The Renaissance is primarily known as a time when art and philosophy flourished, but there were also advancements in science and technology — including the field of automation.
Around 1439, inventor Johannes Gutenberg created the movable type press, kicking off an era of mass-produced literature. In 1642, Blaise Pascal created the mechanical calculator, making the process of crunching numbers easier.
The Industrial Revolution
Automation as we commonly think of it today originated in the 1700s during the Industrial Revolution.
The era saw massive technological headway, including the rotary-motion steam engine, the power loom, and the threshing machine. These inventions reduced cross-country travel time from months to days, allowed for mass production of complex textiles, and streamlined agricultural labor, respectively.
The Second Industrial Revolution
Steam powered the original Industrial Revolution, but electricity spurred the second. This era’s biggest leap in automation came with Henry Ford’s famous assembly line, which allowed his factory to produce tens of thousands of vehicles a month. Ford’s methodology revolutionized mass production by organizing labor and processes like never before.
World War II and the post-war boom
In 1943, engineers created a computer known as Colossus to automate codebreaking processes and quickly decrypt German communications. In the same decade, automation spread like wildfire, impacting every industry and establishing automation as a way to stay competitive. Ford even created an automation department in his company.
The Third Industrial Revolution
The 1970s gave birth to the Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the Digital Revolution. Upgrades in microprocessors, magnetic memory, and batteries allowed computers to proliferate, especially in business. For the first time, individual office workers could perform complex computing and data processing functions that previously required technical specialization and months of lead time.
In the 1980s, personal computers became more widely available, bringing about the Information Age we’re in today.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Since the turn of the millennium, an increasing number of semi-autonomous robots have been used to produce goods at factories or pack items at fulfillment centers. Machine learning and artificial intelligence programs have automated data interpretation processes that power chatbots and virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home.
Many have dubbed the mass-proliferation of automation as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and expect it to have as big of an impact on our society as the previous three. Automation is now part of everyday life, both personal and professional. Task automation is impacting the business world in particular.
In its 2020 global survey, McKinsey found that two-thirds of companies are testing solutions to fully automate at least one business function, up from 57 percent in 2018. To truly remain competitive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, companies must at least begin learning how to implement streamlined processes.
This guide to task automation will cover exactly how to do that and go over the following:
- What is task automation? An overview of task automation and the different types of automation companies are using
- The benefits of task automation. A deep dive into automation’s many applications and how it can benefit different organizations, departments, and teams
- What types of tasks can be automated? A high-level survey of the various automation use cases most likely to increase an organization’s productivity
- How to select the right task automation software. A guide to the various types of automation solutions in the market and which are best for specific organizations
- How to create a task automation process. A primer on how an organization can automate some common business functions, especially with platforms like Jotform
What is task automation?
Task automation is the use of technology to minimize human input in both simple and complex processes. The goal is to streamline workflows by making them faster and more efficient, so employees can be more productive.
Automation is already part of everyday life — ATMs, subscription services, text reminders, and virtual assistants on smartphones are all forms of automation. Business leaders have already implemented automation in some form in most office environments as well.
Reminder and pop-up notifications, scheduling apps, and online contact forms are all automation solutions that get work done faster. Previously, a project manager or assistant had to manually send reminder notifications to their team members — and remind themselves to do it.
Scheduling apps also reduce back and forth with administrative assistants by allowing users to pick available times themselves. Similarly, contact forms route messages to the proper recipients while hiding their email addresses to prevent spam.
Business process management vs business process automation
BPM is a management methodology that provides a framework for organizations to manage and refine processes. While it’s associated with software development, it can apply to nearly every industry, including manufacturing and corporate management. It’s also often associated with the lean enterprise methodology, which gradually eliminates waste in every business process to improve productivity and employee satisfaction.
Business process management is a four-step system to help organizations improve processes:
- Document every process from beginning to end, carefully breaking down each step.
- Assess the process and identify tangible metrics to measure performance. The goal is to improve these metrics over time.
- Improve the process by identifying solutions for inefficiencies.
- Manage the process with communication, information sharing, effective action, and other activities.
On the other hand, business process automation refers to the use of automation tools in processes, simplifying workflows by eliminating the need for human input. Most businesses start by automating basic, repetitive tasks or processes and gradually work their way up in complexity.
Some of the simpler examples of BPA include delegating scheduling to an app instead of an administrative assistant or collecting time-off requests through online forms instead of paper forms or emails. More complex examples include switching from a customer support team to chatbots or using artificial intelligence (AI) for revenue forecasting, demand planning, and other high-level data analysis.
BPA often goes hand in hand with BPM as it can help an organization achieve key performance indicators for improved productivity.
For example, if a company wants to trim its order delivery time, it can organize internal processing through an automated inventory management system that tracks available stock and syncs with the customer-facing e-commerce portal. After checking the system, employees don’t need to manually make sure inventory is available before approving an order and accepting payment.
The growing prevalence of task automation
In business, time is money, so any saved time translates to improved profits. McKinsey reports that roughly 45 percent of current workplace activities can be partly or fully automated by existing technology. Taking these tasks off employees’ plates would save an estimated $2 trillion in wages per year.
Some industries are adopting business process automation more aggressively than others. For example, after COVID-19 exposed serious flaws in supply chains around the world, more companies started investing in supply chain management automation software. Allied Market Research expects this market to reach $52.6 billion by 2030.
In addition, the number of solutions tailor made for specific industries and organization types is increasing. The automation market has become so large that solution providers can generate millions in revenue just from a specialized niche.
The result is that demand for advanced automation solutions is growing faster than most other sectors. For example, the machine learning market, which helps automated processes become more effective over time, was expected to grow 19 percent per year after reaching $15.3 billion in 2019.
AI is growing even faster, poised to reach $58.3 billion this year and $309.6 billion by 2026. Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Consulting Group found that 84 percent of high-level business executives expect AI to help them sustain an advantage over competitors.
Types of business process automation technology
Automation technology has been around in some form since the invention of computers. Some of this technology includes the following.
For decades, macros have helped users speed computer operations with functionality akin to a keyboard shortcut or speed dialer. They allow users to automate repetitive tasks, common processes, and even complex actions by running through them as a script in the background.
Many are familiar with macro programs that record actions they want to replicate later. Macro recorders can track clicks and even keystrokes for advanced automation.
For example, a digital asset manager may be responsible for converting JPG files into PDFs to store in specific folders. To expedite this process, the asset manager may record the steps they take to pull every JPG file, re-save each one as a PDF, and move it to a folder. When they run the macro, these actions repeat in a fraction of the time it takes someone to perform them manually.
In addition to recording custom macros, users can download them from external sources.
IT process automation
IT process automation (ITPA) was one of the earliest niche automation developments and now one of the most advanced. As the name implies, ITPA reduces IT professionals’ day-to-day manual labor. This includes routine services such as configuring new servers and network devices, patching systems, identifying security issues, and conducting file backups.
ITPA developed alongside the increasing demand for technical support. The entire business world depends on network functionality and information security. As a result, IT teams have had to develop better methods to streamline service delivery, and automation was the only way to do it.
Speed isn’t ITPA’s only benefit. It also allows for greater standardization of technology and software available across a company and improves the uniformity of software versions.
Robotic process automation
Robotic process automation (RPA) helps workers automate low-level tasks. In many ways, RPA functions similarly to macros, with “bots” in software performing routine or monotonous tasks, usually without the need to be “taught” how to complete work.
These bots can work across many applications, triggering actions, automatically inputting data, or otherwise acting on an employee’s behalf. This saves a tremendous amount of time and allows an organization to trim its human workforce or allocate employees to more advanced and specialized tasks. As machine learning and AI become more advanced, so too do RPA’s applications and capabilities.
Digital process automation
Digital process automation (DPA) is one of the newest generations of automation solutions. Users can build virtually any type of digital workflow without coding knowledge or other advanced technical skills. One of the most unique traits of this kind of automation is that it directly extends its benefits to users outside the company — including partners, suppliers, and customers — so they can design better experiences around their interactions.
The benefits of task automation
There’s much discussion about automation revolutionizing the way we work and being the way of the future. But how exactly does it help your business? In this section, we’ll discuss what kinds of tasks are best for automation and how automating your processes can benefit your organization.
The best tasks to automate
Think about an average day at work — meetings, scheduling more meetings, taking notes, creating reports, responding to emails, following up on requests, and delivering projects. Imagine if you could hand the most boring tasks off to a robot, giving you more time and mental energy to complete work that matters? Or, even better, live a balanced life?
Robots and software tools have no issue doing humans’ dirty work. The tasks ripe for automation share the following characteristics.
Repetitive tasks usually require you to perform the same motion over and over to complete a process or organize something. As workers get more proficient at the task, they get faster at it over time. But wouldn’t it be easier for a robot to do it? Examples of repetitive tasks include duplicating files and organizing digital assets or documents.
Redundant tasks technically help an organization but aren’t essential. Still, they take time that workers could better spend on higher-level projects. Examples of redundant tasks might include taking notes during meetings.
Low-skill tasks are often required to move larger, essential projects along but don’t take much knowledge or experience to execute. For example, two CEOs may need to meet to discuss a potential acquisition or merger. The discussion requires more knowledge and skill than many people can imagine. On the other hand, scheduling that meeting requires substantially less aptitude.
Time- and energy-consuming
While time management is a major talking point in automation discussions, energy management is just as important. Simple tasks that require one or both are well suited to automation. A great example is securing approval from a decision-maker about a deliverable or request.
A seasoned assistant or project manager is familiar with the nuances of when to approach their boss about a particular sign-off, but a machine is just as capable of sending follow-ups to get the approval.
How task automation helps businesses
Automating some or all of your business functions may seem complicated — but it’s well worth the effort. Task automation offers several benefits.
Nothing can be automated without digitization, and the more an office automates, the less paper it needs. Think about all the forms patients have to fill out at doctors’ offices or the internal documents workers might share daily.
Thanks to automation, patients can fill out forms online. Forms are automatically added to a queue for review and digitally stored for future reference. In the office, employees can submit time-off requests and other forms the same way.
Minimizing paper use isn’t just good for the environment — it also frees up storage space, allowing for a more minimal office aesthetic while also saving time on file organization.
Automation frees humans from doing repetitive, redundant, and time-consuming tasks, so they can do what they do best — use their creativity to find new opportunities, devise new strategies, make important decisions, and build collaborative relationships. The more work gets automated, the more people can take on tasks that machines can’t perform.
Improved productivity goes hand in hand with reducing expenses. Automation systems may have some up-front onboarding costs, but the amount pales in comparison to the costs businesses rack up when employees follow inefficient processes.
A report in Forbes estimates that automation could save a Fortune 500 company over $4 million a year in labor alone. Enterprise software company Unit4 found that office workers around the world spend an average of 69 days each year on administrative tasks, costing $5 trillion in unnecessary wages.
Identify unused or extraneous resources
Task automation gives workers time to reassess workflows, schedules, and other aspects of their day-to-day lives at work. For example, if digitizing records leaves storage cabinets empty, this can open up enough space for an office redesign. Similarly, automation may uncover underused equipment workers have forgotten due to endless busywork.
Humans are prone to making mistakes, so the more removed they are from processes, the less likely mistakes will occur. Common errors include making typos during data entry, incorrectly transferring information from one form to another, misfiling or losing documents, and forgetting to do something. Automation prevents all of these errors.
Better define business processes
To implement automation in a business, workers must have a solid understanding of their business’s processes. Without this knowledge, it’s impossible to streamline tasks because it will be difficult for workers to determine how workflows connect. For small organizations with few or ill-defined processes, automation is the perfect opportunity to formalize procedures.
Improve policy compliance
The ways companies process requests and store information is often guided by strict company policies or even regulated by law, especially in the healthcare and finance industries. The more complicated these processes are, the easier it is for employees to make mistakes.
Automation completes tasks in a way that complies with regulations, without further burdening workers. This saves money both in labor as well as reduced liability for lawsuits or fines. This is why compliance automation is one of the fastest-growing sectors of technology.
Create a visual workflow
It’s easy enough to follow a list of steps to complete a task. However, if these steps are laid out in a visual workflow, it can take understanding to a whole new level, especially for visual learners. Automation tools make it easy to display workflows as kanban boards, task lists, and flow charts — and to switch between these views at a moment’s notice.
Enable process improvement
Workflow visualization capabilities help employees better understand their responsibilities and create opportunities to identify bottlenecks and other inefficiencies. As soon as a problem arises, management can coordinate with their teams to refine their processes, reallocate resources, and make other changes as necessary — including using more automation solutions.
In short, automation and workflow visualization ensure continuous process improvement.
Improve workload management
Visualizing workflows with automation tools is also one of the best ways to understand how much work employees have on their plates. Many of these tools include options to display tasks assigned to each worker as stacked lists, which helps to more fairly assign workloads.
Some automation tools are also capable of enforcing work-in-progress limits, so an employee or team is allowed to have only a certain number of tasks in their queue at a given time. This type of system prevents employees from being overwhelmed while maintaining a higher quality of work.
Shorten approval cycles
Nothing in this world gets done without some sort of approval process. Getting a higher-up to sign off on decisions like payments and orders is important, but in large organizations or bureaucracies, this can be an incredibly complex process.
There may be several decision-makers involved in every approval, or the wide array of conditions may change who needs to sign off on what and when. Another common issue is when all approvals are routed to a single decision-maker, causing bottlenecks and long approval cycle times.
The longer approvals take, the more they impact productivity. Even if each employee performs perfectly and completes processes ahead of schedule, their work can all be for nothing if a decision-maker delays their review or the approval process takes longer than it should. Automating approval processes can significantly reduce cycle times.
The impact of automation
The proliferation of automation technology is changing the way we work and even the way we live. Though some fear automation’s potential to cut jobs, it can be the impetus for workers to learn new skills. A survey by McKinsey found that two-thirds of business executives consider addressing skill gaps in automation one of their top 10 priorities. Almost a third of them place it in their top five priorities.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, automation is changing every industry — and it’s not slowing down. Next, let’s look at how automation is affecting different industries and sectors.
What types of tasks can be automated?
Businesses can choose from a wide array of task automation solutions and applications. Some focus on streamlining workflows across entire organizations while others are designed for certain industries or departments. The real trick is determining what tasks can be automated.
So far, we’ve covered what task automation is and how it can benefit your organization. In this section, we’ll break down the roles that automation can play in every industry.
Task automation for sales
Every salesperson knows their job is all about human interaction and building solid relationships. It may seem automation wouldn’t play a role in their work, but that couldn’t be less true. Here are three sales tasks that are ideal for automation software.
Managing sales pipelines
Salespeople are always sending emails, making phone calls, attending events, or meeting with clients on videoconferences or in online seminars. However, advanced customer relationship management (CRM) platforms can automate some of the work of tracking all the people they interact with.
Every sales process follows a well-designed pathway that takes leads through the journey of identifying their problem, educating them about a product or service, and converting them into satisfied customers.
A CRM with automation capabilities can help salespeople map this pipeline and visually show where each prospect is in the sales process. Users can automate notifications for customer touchpoints like follow-up calls or email announcements about new product features or demo opportunities. This way, prospects are always engaged. Some solutions can even automate the lead generation process.
Specialized pipeline management platforms automatically generate reports through machine learning and AI to predict how many leads will convert into customers, helping salespeople project revenue for the coming months. The visual elements of these platforms also help users identify where drop-off frequently occurs in the pipeline, indicating a problem with the sales strategy.
Finding a convenient time for two people to sync up can be a game of phone tag at best and a full-on chess match at worst. Missed phone calls can easily turn into a series of voicemails that don’t bring either party closer to scheduling, and emails are easy to lose in the shuffle of busy days.
Fortunately, calendar tools in automation software make scheduling meetings hassle-free. They automatically display the salesperson’s available days and times, so prospective customers can click on a time slot that’s good for them. The tool automatically adds the meeting to each party’s calendar, along with relevant contact information and notes.
Whether handwriting or typing, taking notes during a conversation splits attention and can distract salespeople from fully connecting with prospective customers. Advances in audio technology allow for automated creation of meeting notes, and increased cloud storage space lets you save these notes in one place.
The only thing that beats well-organized notes is a full transcript of every interaction. Many automated CRMs can record calls, so users can go back and listen to their conversations again. Others even have advanced AI dictation features that turn dialogue into accurate and easy-to-read text.
Most other aspects of sales require human expertise. By helping salespeople with the mundane aspects of their job, automation gives them more time and energy to make strong connections.
Task automation for marketing
Effective marketing campaigns take more than creativity — they require diligent execution and follow-through to maximize their impact and reach.
But each campaign requires time-draining tasks that zap creatives and strategists of the energy they need to keep coming up with clever, attention-grabbing ideas. Plenty of marketing automation tools are well-equipped to handle many of these tasks.
Social media and blogging
A social media strategy isn’t effective without clever copywriters and image-makers. Scheduling apps can help speed up the tedious process of actually posting. Simply draft each post and input the date and time when you want the content to be published to your feeds, and then move on to more creative work.
Automated scheduling makes it easy to repost for continuous engagement, so you can get more mileage out of every piece of content and gain more insight into the best times for engagement. These programs also allow you to draft blog posts weeks or months in advance and schedule them to post at the perfect time.
Even better, many tools can pull engagement metrics and automatically generate reports that show how each piece of content performed. This visualization makes it easy to identify what’s working and what’s not in a social media strategy.
Staying informed and up to date on the latest happenings in a particular industry is time-consuming, but tools like Google Alerts and other notification apps can simplify the quest to find the latest news. Simply enter the keywords you’d like to “listen” for, and the tool will periodically search for new articles or web pages about those topics and send you notifications.
Marketers have a lot of KPIs to keep track of, including website traffic, clicks, and sales conversions. Automation tools gather these metrics and display them conveniently in a single dashboard. Tools that employ machine learning or AI can even analyze data for marketers and identify opportunities or strategies to improve engagement.
Just like social media posts and blogs, marketers can automate mass emails as part of a campaign. It’s easy to create templates for auto-generated emails to be sent to customers after they sign up for a newsletter or register for an event.
More advanced operations can pull customers’ search and browsing history from e-commerce sites and track what they purchase or look at. Later, marketers can generate email newsletters that auto-populate with products and deals customers will be interested in. This is a great way to directly increase customer engagement and sales through automation.
Finance and accounting task automation
Out of all the departments that benefit from automation, finance probably comes out on top. A study by EY found that more than 80 percent of accounting tasks can be partially or fully automated. Considering that numbers and math present the greatest opportunities for human error, implementing automation here can have a staggering impact on productivity.
Here are some of the most common applications for finance task automation.
Finance and accounting departments have many critical jobs, but ensuring complete and timely payment from clients and customers is one of the most important. Without this vital work, companies will have no revenue or profit, nullifying the impact of every other activity.
When customers don’t pay, accounts receivable teams have to chase down the payments they’re owed. These activities can be largely automated with email programs that automatically send out payment reminders to delinquent account holders.
Follow-ups can also escalate to notifications for finance personnel to contact the accountant who hasn’t paid their invoice yet or even refer the bill to a collections agency.
Another crucial function of accounting departments is paying employees on time every pay period. If this didn’t happen, work could stop and company operations could grind to a halt.
Payroll is one of the most important functions to automate. Paychecks shouldn’t be delayed because someone went on vacation or called in sick. Several specialized payroll automation tools oversee direct deposits, properly withhold employment taxes, and even submit these funds to the IRS.
Receipt input and employee expense reimbursement
One of the many perks of running a business is the write-offs that lower tax liabilities. However, keeping track of these expenses can be a real challenge.
Digital bookkeeping tools allow users to scan receipts into the cloud, so they don’t have to keep paper copies on file. Many of these tools can even read the payment totals and automatically import the numbers for automated data entry.
Another major hassle for finance departments is timely employee expense reimbursement. Many companies require their employees to travel or make business-related purchases but don’t have the infrastructure or resources to provide company credit cards.
The solution is to reimburse employees’ expenses. The reimbursement request and approval process can take a lot of time and energy, especially for large companies, but apps can condense the process to a few clicks from both parties.
Task automation for human resources
HR teams deal with an incredible amount of information and work, which is complicated by the fact that they’re managing people. Automation technology can take care of many of the department’s more mundane processes, so HR professionals can focus on making sure employees are happy.
Below are some of the tasks a human resources team can automate.
Employee onboarding encompasses a wide range of activities — posting job ads, collecting resumes, screening applicants, conducting interviews, performing background checks, negotiating salaries, educating new hires about company policies, and enrolling workers in company networks and health insurance. Throughout this process, HR teams must follow a mind-boggling number of rules to remain in compliance and protect their company from liability.
Automation makes it easier to collect and organize documents, accept electronic signatures, and follow legal guidelines about fair and equitable hiring practices. Even better, HR apps track KPIs so teams can better measure their performance in managing all of these processes.
When employees leave a company, either due to termination, layoffs, or resignation, HR teams must follow similarly complex processes that lead to an efficient and secure exit.
Some of the tasks HR is responsible for during this process include accounting for all equipment and office supplies; finalizing payouts of wages, vacation time, and sick days; educating workers about COBRA health insurance and other benefits; and even assuring that NDAs have been properly signed and filed. All these steps are also governed by strict employment laws. HR automation apps can ensure workers complete them efficiently and legally.
HR departments are largely responsible for managing sick leave, vacation, and mental health days. Many companies have limits on paid time off (PTO), with a set number of vacation or sick days employees are compensated for. It’s up to HR teams to keep track of PTO so that any days that go over these limits are withheld from payroll.
The challenge of processing time-off requests is processing them promptly. HR automation tools streamline the submission and approval process as well as information logging, so PTO records are accurate and up to date for employees, their managers, and the finance department.
With this information on how automation helps each department in your organization, let’s learn how to select the right automation software.
How to select the right task automation software
The more a company automates, the more it saves in time and labor costs. The good news is, you can automate many tasks to help departments, teams, and organizations run more smoothly. The bad news is, there are many automation solutions to choose from.
Finding the best one doesn’t have to be a shot in the dark. In this section, we’ll cover everything that goes into selecting the right task automation software.
How to search for task automation software
Finding the best task automation software comes down to continually refining your search. Not every solution on the market will be the best for every company. To narrow your choices, answer the following questions about exactly what your organization is trying to accomplish with task automation software.
What does your organization need?
There’s a big difference between a five-person startup and a Fortune 100 company. In many cases, there are also many differences between the task automation software programs that would be best for these companies.
The best way to answer this question is to determine what processes you’ll automate. If you’re going to limit automation to just a few processes in a single department, a smaller, more streamlined solution is more appropriate than one made to roll out across an entire company. For example, you might choose a program tailored to human resources automation instead of one with broader capabilities.
Make a list of your needs and expectations to help narrow your search.
What are the must-have features?
Look at the list you developed from question one to identify some of the core needs of your task automation software. Do you need in-depth reporting? Is customization a high priority? What about integrations with specific tools? Don’t be afraid to stick to any features you absolutely want. Chances are, a solution out there has everything you need.
How many users will you have?
Some task automation software has a flat monthly fee that grows with the size of the user base. Others have a strict cap on the number of users. As you take stock of your must-have features, keep in mind the needs of your current workforce, as well as any plans you have for growth in the future.
If you don’t plan on growing drastically (or at all), and you get a better deal on a platform with a fixed number of users, that could be more beneficial than a platform that can scale up from a one-person project into a global conglomerate.
How soon do you want or need to implement automation?
Some organizations are looking to automate processes to keep up with a flood of demand and need to implement a solution as quickly as possible. Others can afford to take their time to ensure a critical process is properly automated and every staff member is trained on how to work with the software before implementation.
Some programs need little setup and can be deployed immediately, while others are designed for highly detailed, lengthy customization phases to ultimately serve customers better.
How much technical support do you have?
Even companies with internal IT teams may not be able to troubleshoot specific tools, especially software as a service (SaaS) platforms. Carefully assess how critical the processes you’re automating are to your organization.
Could your company survive a day or two of downtime while you’re fixing an issue on the back end, or will you need dedicated support working to solve issues immediately? How technically adept are your team members? Can the internal IT department handle the software or be trained to?
Be aware of how much support or time you might need when it comes to implementing automation, and factor this in when researching potential software. Not all tools will offer high levels of support.
What to look for in task automation software
Once you’ve determined what your organization needs in task automation software, you can use those criteria to make a choice. You may need to cull your list further afterward. To help with that refinement, make sure that each program you consider also has these key features.
Not too long ago, software installation was limited to specific machines. To use a particular program, you needed to access the equipment that housed it — a major problem if you wanted to work remotely.
Cloud-based technology makes software platforms and all corresponding user data accessible from any machine. This technology offers many benefits, including
- Convenient access to critical programs and information wherever you are
- A centralized database that automatically reflects all user changes, so everyone is always on the same page
- Instantaneous data backups that won’t get lost from hard drive failure
Often, cloud-based software requires less overhead, since there’s no need for onsite servers or hard drives to store the program and its associated data.
It may seem counterintuitive, but storing data on the cloud is more secure than storing it on a hard drive. If someone steals a computer with software installed natively, there’s nothing to prevent them from accessing it. However, a data breach in the cloud can usually be handled by changing passwords and other login credentials.
Still, make sure that the task automation software you use offers encryption and other fail-safes to keep your company data safe from unauthorized users. Another helpful feature to look out for is a protocol for how the program detects breaches.
Even the most powerful, customizable task automation tools should have an intuitive interface. Look for low-code platforms that are easy to use with little to no instructions.
To gauge usability, sign up for a free trial of the software. See how long it takes you to figure out how to create and implement the automation you want to deploy.
After that, see how simple it is for you to show another employee the same process. If it’s easy for you to remember all the steps you took (or even better, easy for your coworker to figure it out), that’s a good sign that the task automation software you’re trying is well built and easy to use.
Be sure the product you’re trying has built-in tutorials that show you exactly how to accomplish what you’re trying to do. Most task automation solutions on the market will have help sections, but make sure each one will work for you before you buy.
Part of having an intuitive and easy-to-use interface is that users don’t need coding knowledge to use the app. Even platforms that allow for heavy customization don’t require users to know any coding languages or have advanced technical skills. Remember, the more user-friendly your tool is, the easier it will scale across the entire organization to automate tasks and processes.
At the very least, the best task automation software will provide crystal clear transparency into the task workflow and the speed at which it operates. Any user with authorized access can view this information. In addition, the program should log process changes by user, creating a clear record of when they were made and by whom.
In most organizations, this type of information would be tracked and recorded anyway. Software makes it faster and easier by automating it.
An added benefit of software transparency is advanced reporting capabilities. You should be able to access KPIs like how quickly the software performs each task. This will help you determine if you should further change processes to improve cycle time.
Another benefit of reporting is that it can help build a case for even more automation. If an organization kept track of how long it took to perform processes manually, it would be easy to calculate how much time automation saves and translate that into labor and other cost savings.
Even without automation, the business world is largely digitized — organizations depend on several tools and apps every day. Project management platforms, payment portals, and online forms are just a few tools that keep companies running smoothly in the information age.
Whatever task automation software you choose should integrate seamlessly with every other platform you’re already using to avoid more complications or disruptions to automation.
Businesses can measure scalability in two ways:
- The ability to accommodate your company as it grows in number of employees
- The ability to accommodate more complex processes
If growth is important to you and your organization, look for a task automation solution you can use for the long haul. The right solution helps you avoid the later challenge of switching to a different program when you’ve reached a certain size or hit a growth threshold.
The most important thing to look for in a task automation solution is how well-suited it is to your industry. As previously discussed, many platforms are designed for specific sectors. Make sure you choose one that’s compatible with what you need it for. Otherwise, you’re bound to run into major implementation issues.
Often, automation solutions help companies follow industry regulations. For example, all software used in the healthcare industry must be HIPAA-compliant in the way it stores, collects, and transmits private patient data. Using task automation software that doesn’t follow these rules can leave an organization liable to lawsuits in the event of a data breach. Similarly, if a marketing firm uses automation software made for the healthcare industry, the company may be forced to work within unnecessary limits, since it doesn’t need to protect patient data.
Good software can’t work well unless you have a good process to go along with it. Next, we’ll look at how to create a task automation process.
How to create a task automation process
So far, this guide has covered the benefits of task automation, where it’s most helpful, and what to look for in automation tools. But how do you implement automation in your workflow? In this section, we’ll cover how to put automation to work — including how to use specific tools — by creating a task automation process.
The automation mindset
At the most basic level, an automation mindset is thinking about how to complete a process rather than who does it. Putting this into practice is relatively easy.
Simply break down a project — or the procedures of a specific department or team — into a series of tasks. Review each one and determine if it requires a person. You can automate the tasks that don’t necessarily require human involvement as well as those that need minimal intervention.
For example, an invoice approval process may include these steps:
- Notifying decision-makers they have an invoice to review
- Comparing an invoice to a purchase order
- Verifying that services were performed or products were received
- Approving or denying the invoice
- Remitting payment
Traditionally, specific personnel in accounts payable would receive an invoice and then notify a manager or other department member with authority that they needed to review the invoice. However, finance automation software can now automatically notify decision-makers they have an item in their queue to review. Other bookkeeping tools can easily match POs and invoices, and scan the documents to make sure all the numbers are correct.
Putting automation into practice
With a better understanding of the mindset it takes to automate business functions, you can apply automation to whatever area you want to streamline — a specific project, a department, a business unit, or your entire organization.
- Make a detailed list of tasks in the process
Within the area you want to streamline, make a list of every task your team needs to complete on a regular basis. Also account for how frequently these tasks need to be done (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.), what tools your team needs to complete these tasks, and how long it currently takes to finish each one.
As mentioned in the previous section, ask yourself whether or not each task requires a human to complete. To help you stay organized, also consider categorizing each task. Encourage other members of your team to participate in this analysis, as they may remember tasks you’ve forgotten or introduce new possibilities for automating steps you hadn’t considered.
- Explore which tasks to automate
As you assess all the tasks on your list, determine which ones to automate. Perhaps your goal is to automate the most crucial tasks within a process. Or maybe you’d like to start with automating the easiest tasks and slowly expand in complexity over time.
Whichever route you choose, carefully consider the task automation software you’ll need for the job. You can refer to the questions from Chapter 5 to choose the best option.
- Map the new workflow
Once you’ve determined which tasks to automate, redraw the process workflow with your new software. Your map should allow you to keep track of your new automation protocols, such as who completes specific tasks, approvals, or submissions.
In most cases, the workflow will become shorter and more streamlined than when it was manual, but it may be necessary to add steps to make sure you’ve covered all your bases — or to account for occasional exceptional circumstances. Regardless, it’s important to show the process and its different branches visually if possible so other members of the team can remain on the same page.
- Build the workflow
Use the task automation software of your choice to build the new workflow. The way you do this will depend largely on the solution you’ve chosen. Use any tutorials and customer support available to ensure you’re taking maximum advantage of your platform’s capabilities and creating the most efficient workflows.
5. Test the new workflow
Never deploy automation unless it’s been tested numerous times — especially if it’s for a critical function like accounting. After you’ve built the new workflow, try it out a few times with different variables to make sure there are no errors or to see if you can streamline it further.
From there, have the team members who will use the automation most often test it. Since they directly engage with these processes daily, they’ll easily spot potential issues or have insight into how to make the automation even better. Once the automation passes their testing, enlist them to train other workers on how to use it. That will be the ultimate test of how user-friendly it is.
Create better automations with Jotform
Much of automation comes down to the data that’s input into systems. That’s exactly where a platform like Jotform can help organizations.
One of the most powerful online form builders, Jotform offers more than 10,000 form templates that can help every organization with invoicing, purchase orders, employee onboarding, vacation requests, email marketing, and hundreds of other processes. These forms can even be turned into PDFs.
Every form submission is an opportunity to start an automated workflow with Jotform Approvals. Using conditional logic in a drag-and-drop interface, users can program forms and actions to submit data to the appropriate employees and stakeholders, assigning them to approve requests or take further action. Plus, users can complete steps in their workflow on any device through the Jotform Mobile Forms app.
Jotform Approvals also makes it easy to build a complex approval workflow with its stock of more than 100 pre-built approval workflow templates you can easily customize according to the scale and needs of your organization.
In addition, Jotform Tables helps users set up databases that track every submission, creating an easy-to-navigate dashboard for task management. All information input into forms is automatically added to the table.
It’s a myth that automation will take jobs and put people out of work. If anything, automation is redefining what it means to work. More companies are choosing to go agile and focus on delivering greater value — the kind of value only dedicated and focused human beings can create.
Automation isn’t the future of work — it’s the present, and it’s completely transforming the world that we live and work in. The new levels of efficiency attainable through automation are redefining productivity and changing the traditional ways workers are expected to get their responsibilities done.
Plus, automation is saving valuable time and money. These transformations will continue through the coming years as we get deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To remain competitive in today’s busy world, implementing automation is imperative.
Automation doesn’t just make work faster and easier — it frees people to fulfill their potential. No one was born for high-volume data entry and processing hundreds of invoices or applications every day. Automation takes grueling, time-consuming work off our plates so we can focus on our missions.