Only some processes should be automated otherwise you lose the knowledge you require

Business Process Automation

Since the inception of computing, computers, IT and many other names have been synonymous with “automation”.

Automating payrolls, production schedules, stock records and others business areas were the mainstay of computing for many years.

Now the focus is on ‘automating processes’ (often called BPM) as a major area where IT can contribute to the business.

But, beware. This is an area fraught with danger.

Some time ago, a keen software sales director flew to Australia to try to convince me to use his ‘process mapping’ software for our Business (Process) Simplification process.

His software was good and flexible, easy to use and learn. But, for our purposes, it was useless.

Why? It automated the capture of process maps  and their revisions. Good? Well, no.

In our rush to automate processes we often overlook the consequences.

When you’re re-engineering or simplifying processes you need to draw them manually. Not once, but again and again until you’ve got them 100% right and complete.

Now, I can just see many eager beavers saying, “But, if you use process mapping software the workload involved in redoing the process maps will be greatly reduced.” That may be true.

But we’re not trying to streamline the process mapping process because we want to use the manual mapping of the processes to drum an understanding of these processes into the brain of the person mapping them. Every time they manually update, change or redraw their maps, their knowledge of the process increases and gets further buried in their non-conscious (their deep smarts).

However, if this process is “automated” and they are just moving boxes around on a screen, these 'process experts' are no longer drumming the process map into their brains. They are far more focused on the operational characteristics of the software than the nature and sequence of their process.

The Need for Knowledge

This is just one example of where automation actually destroys value. It converts “knowledge” into “information”. However, the brain can do so much more when it has “knowledge”.

Another example of moving from “knowledge” to just “information” can be seen with ‘to do’ lists. Some years ago I thought it would be great to have an automated, rolling 'to do' list. Each week I’d add new activities, delete completed activities and reprint the list.

It didn’t work. What I lost was an understanding in my brain of what had to be done. I was no longer processing what had to be done into my non-conscious. This is what you do automatically when you rewrite or update your manual lists. This background brain activity processing helps you organize the material and better manage your workload, non-consciously.

However, once you automate your to do list, it exists on your system (and possibly on paper as well) but not in your head.

The Limitations of Automation

Automation is fine where knowledge is not required. Where a series of steps can be driven by information or data to achieve an end; that’s fine.

But where the series of steps is dependent on generating knowledge, then automation will prevent or destroy this.

Therefore, when you look at your business processes, you need to assess which need knowledge to operate effectively and which need just information. Only the latter type should be automated.

Topics: Process Management

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Fev 2008) as "The Dangers of Automating Processes"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections