Process Automation for SMEs

Process Automation for SMEs

Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) can be any company around your daily activity: from the small management firm that helps you in bookkeeping, to the last mile delivery company that you use to sell your products. According to public data, SMEs represent 99.8% of the total number of enterprises in Europe, with 66% of the jobs. That is a lot.

Nevertheless, SMEs are struggling to stay competitive and profitable in spite of EU concerns and recent implemented measures (e.g., Next Generation EU recovery funds). A fact: during the period 2019-2020, 300,000 SMEs closed down. And even thought we are entering the post-COVID era, the stress over the SME sector is here to stay. Against this negative tendency, the European Commission has identified digitalization as a key element for the recovery and revamping of the SME sector.

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SMEs are a group of people (from 1 to 250) working together for a particular business. Remarkably, a significant share of SME employees, regardless of the SME primary business, sits in front of a computer, often working with an heterogeneous software ecosystem: spreadsheets, word processors, accounting systems, emails, enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management(CRM) , are just a few examples of applications that SME employees use. Nowadays, the daily activity of an SME employee working with these types of software is a mix of repetitive, intelligent and creative tasks.

Creative tasks are scarce and not always needed for all types of business, but when required they are essential. For example, a design company will certainly need talented designers to propose the style of its client’s new product launch campaign. It’s hard to replace human creativity with current technology.

Intelligent tasks assume non-trivial reasoning, sometimes acquired by humans by some form of cognition or learning. An example of intelligent task could be analyzing the finances of the company for two consecutive years, to understand why there has been a drop in the profits. Another intelligent task could be extracting the necessary information (e.g., amount paid, applicable taxes) from a complex invoice for the corresponding accounting. Intelligent tasks are often needed in the daily activity of SME employees. Current advances on AI and in particular deep learning are devoted to partially/completely solve some of these intelligent tasks; for instance, the most popular accounting software have some AI to automatically process invoices without human intervention.

Finally, repetitive tasks are ubiquitous in SME employees daily activity. There is a very wide range of repetitive tasks, including human interactions (emails, instant messaging, planning physical/virtual meetings, …), structuring data for later processing (e.g., creating spreadsheets, filling forms, …), scheduling activities (“at the end of the month do …“, …), connecting app’s data (email → online form → spreadsheet, accounting → CRM, …) and many more.

Hence, if the bulk of tasks for people working in SMEs are repetitive tasks, one can see a huge potential in improving the operation of the company when these tasks are monitored and coordinated by a machine, instead of a human. In other words, when the process is digitalized. This brings me to process automation.

Automating processes in organizations is not a novel trend: workflow or business process management applications appeared already a few decades ago to facilitate this. Those traditional workflow technologies were mainly focused in the process itself, and gave less coverage to the software ecosystem where an SMEs operates and needs to be integrated with. More recently, integration and automation software, like Zapier or IFTTT, has received a lot of attention, where the bias is more on the later (Zapier integrates with +4300 apps), but less on the complexity of the process itself (the average automation in Zapier consists of only two steps).

For readers already familiar with related technologies, notice that although related, I’m not talking about Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which is clearly another way to adopt automation for particular tasks. I do not deny the benefits of RPA technology, but in this article the focus is more on the active role of employees to proactively detect and automate their processes; RPA can be seen as a post (reactive) process, where a machine mimics very particular actions done by a human.

Interestingly, in spite of the huge market that it represents, the aforementioned process automation technology is far from widespread in the SME sector. Why ? Some hypotheses are listed next, feel free to disagree !

  1. Process automation technology is focused on a particular user with a very technical profile, thus unreachable for the average SME, which either doesn’t have that technical staff, or lacks the financial resources to subcontract their services, or both.
  2. Even the simplest processes must often be integrated with other apps running the SME business. This poses challenges on the data flowing through different apps and the automation engine, where identification, integrity, privacy, and many other concerns must be taken care of.
  3. To make things worse, one should remember that processes are not static but instead evolve continuously. In practice, an SME will not adopt process automation technology if a week later it is unable to introduce modifications and changes.

Roughly speaking, SMEs do not adopt process automation because they don’t have the skills nor the money to afford it. And this in turn implies they cannot become digital, which at the end of the day means they can only operate in an old-fashioned, suboptimal way, with the corresponding risk of failure.

Any possible solution to escape from this ? The only way that I see is empowering SME employees so that they become their own developers. For that, a technological solution that ultra-simplifies the access to automation is needed. The main ingredient for this disruptive technology is a natural language interface that substitutes the highly technical UI/UX of current process automation software with one that diminishes the cognitive effort needed to create automations to the minimum, e.g., a highly user-friendly platform that anybody can manage by simply uttering the needed instructions in their mother language (do I have to mention Alexa’s uptake ?).

In Process Talks, we are working on this innovative technology which will be made public at the end of this year. If you are interested to know more, please contact us.