If the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008 taught us anything, it’s that you should never rest on your laurels. Businesses, regardless of size, learned a lot in the aftermath. Some turned to embracing lean operations, while others closed their doors and faced a future of debt and economic uncertainty. Casual observers, perhaps too young to understand the full impact of the downturn, watched as the world of banking turned upside down, and reaped the rewards of the emergence of fintech (financial technology).

Years have passed, many things have changed, and technology has come into its own. Where once we relied on the business practices of traditional managers bound by paper, we are now computerised to within an inch of our lives. It’s a good thing, especially from where I’m sat. Yet, many industries around the world remain resistant to change, especially where it comes to that most modern process disruptor: automation.

I used to work in food and drink trade journalism. I was privy to the production processes of many large corporations, right through the supply chain. I saw product development teams turn innovation into life through the many links involved in the food chain, and it was complicated! As to how it all worked, I saw the good and the bad. The good can explain itself, but the bad needs some light.

Photo by boris misevic

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right? But even a strong chain can be slow and cumbersome, creating redundancy and inefficiencies somewhere in the process. In a lean business where every step is crucial to the next day’s success, a slow link is as problematic as a fractured one.

And while technology has come on in leaps and bounds, not everyone in a supply chain is using it. Lean post-GFC businesses may be better at risk management, but are they as efficient as they can be? This is where robotic process automation (RPA) comes in.

More intelligent solutions

For a process that includes so many parts, each having to be efficient and reliable to ensure a smooth outcome, we are at the risk of human error. We are also at the risk of human lethargy, human insouciance and human characteristics. These are the things that make us who we are! Where RPA helps is in reducing our capacity for error and sloppiness, and for turning slow steps into turbo-charged leaps that make supply chain logistics a breeze.

Routine but time-consuming tasks such as procurement and inventory management, as well as data synchronisation and order processing, can be handled with solid RPA solutions. And when I say solid, I mean more intelligent because of machine learning capabilities. In other words, where once automation did as it was told, it can now understand more nuanced fluctuations in a process and act according to new information.

We can now predict outcomes better than ever before, and make more informed business decisions based on these outcomes. The complexity of supply chain logistics is no longer the obstacle to innovative progress it once was.

Efficiency for innovation

So, this article isn’t necessarily about me trying to convince change-resistant businesses to embrace automation. It’s about admitting to ourselves that there’s always another crisis just around the corner, and being fit and able as a business to survive whatever comes. And when it comes to being a link in a global supply chain, you are only as fit as the rest of the chain. And automation will only work at its brilliant best if it’s working across the whole chain, streamlining routine tasks and helping to reduce the impact of human error.

With real-time data to hand, supply chain logistical processes inevitably quicken, creating a more fertile ground for innovation. Where once you may have imagined RPA, AI and machine learning as resident evils that replace jobs and create uncertainty, rest assured they don’t. Or at least, the RPA won’t decide that for you (I can’t speak for that unscrupulous boss you may work for).

RPA doesn’t replace jobs. RPA replaces tasks. It creates space for your talented workforce to focus on improving your company. When it comes to operating a lean business that relies heavily on the various companies that help to realise your dreams, RPA can be the difference between making it or breaking even. And in the 2020s, breaking even may not be enough.

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