Automation and Headcount

Most of us are always reviewing org charts and work flows in search of ways to become more efficient. Over time businesses evolve, economic climate changes and technology advances, often spawning automated solutions that can do what was once manual. On the surface automation seems like a no-brainer trade off of human capital. And why not, machines don’t call in sick and in the long run are generally faster and more accurate.

I’ve seen departments propose technology solutions that automate manual processes in formal allocation committee sessions. Inevitably a senior manager will ask, “Automation? How many FTE’s can we reduce once we get this in?” Usually the answer to this question is no one will be cut or redeployed once the new software is installed. Which doesn’t compute because they know that automation adds overhead for IT in the form of care and feeding, and so are looking for a way to re-balance the org. Senior execs will always (and should) push hard to understand why you aren’t willing to reduce heads in a machine swap. But the corporate ecosystem is complex and I believe it’s important to take a longer view of the situation before making a hasty decision to cut or redeploy staff. Be ready with a solid response when asked this question.

A Different Approach

Departments are handed more to do every year. Compliance, new products or services that lead to additional BAU, all those tasks that the senior managers themselves insisted they “must have.” Over time the same number of heads do more and more. This is natural, as people become more experienced, acquire training, and learn best practices. But eventually the demands on time and the sheer number of tasks weighs heavily on the team and managers search for new solutions. Some activities are tossed out, which is great. But others cannot be cut loose. In all cases businesses want to do more. Suddenly a technology solution pops-up that provides tangible assistance by relieving man hours and improving processes. Next step, build the business case for the software. But here’s something you may want to map out as a bit of a kicker.

Include in that business case all the new things your team has taken on over the years. Show that in relation to the headcount growth (probably not so much growth) in the department. Now juxtapose that slide with the new things that you want to accomplish to move the business (include the business value) and your argument dramatically shifts from defending headcount, to a discussion of updating legacy process that subtract efficiency and ultimately rob the business of progress. A very different conversation will take place from there.

Some things to consider when you are looking at automation solutions.

  1. Cost, not of just the install, but ongoing.
  2. Will the solution provide you with new insights or metrics?
  3. Speed to market of solution.
  4. Training effort needed across the company.
  5. Burden on IT.
  6. A sobering look beyond the software sales pitch to, asking just how much time will this free up?
  7. One more thing to ask. Can it be built in house?

I’ve seen this approach have pretty good success over time.

Robot images from VectorVaco, Free Vector Downloads.

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