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User-driven AI automation - a path to efficiency and job satisfaction

Doug Johnson Profile picture for user Doug Johnson July 13, 2023
Summary:
The transformative power of AI and automation goes far beyond technology - business users play a vital role. Acumatica's Doug Johnson explores the emergence of business process experts, and the different levels of AI-driven automation.

automation

Labor issues continue to plague the business landscape, leaving workforce management in disarray and presenting an ever-mounting challenge in recruiting and retaining skilled employees. Nowhere is this struggle more pronounced than in small to mid-sized businesses, where the pursuit of growth faces formidable obstacles.

One survey finds that 84% of small business employers (with up to $2.5 million in annual sales) experience challenges with hiring new employees, and 45% need help retaining existing staff. These compelling statistics vividly depict businesses’ uphill battle in the relentless climb for a proficient and dedicated workforce.

Navigating the challenging terrain of the contemporary labor landscape is driving businesses to explore alternative solutions to hiring and employee retention. One example is AI, which promises to revolutionize operations while simultaneously stirring concerns about security, reliability, and ethics. AI spans a spectrum including generative capabilities that produce text or images in response to prompts and more practical features that direct or automate tasks and processes. However, it is worthwhile to recognize that adopting AI for business operations does not necessitate an all-or-nothing approach.

Automation, driven by AI, has already left an indelible mark on workplaces far beyond the traditional assembly lines and factory floors, reshaping critical aspects of daily business operations. Nearly 90% of workers said they trust automated solutions to get more done without errors and help them make decisions faster. By saving workers time on mundane tasks, such as data entry and accounting processes, teams can more strategically assign them to skill-based projects. This symbiotic partnership between humans and AI fosters a work environment where professionals can focus on endeavors that demand their unique capabilities, and AI works seamlessly behind the scenes to propel organizations toward heightened efficiency and success.

When properly deployed, AI/ML technology works to make the organization more efficient.

There are three areas of focus:

  1. Zero touch automation: AI-enabled business management systems automatically perform labor intensive tasks to reduce the manual drudgery of repetition so people can focus on higher value work. Examples include data entry, bank reconciliation, route optimization, and inventory replenishment. 
  2. Interactive assistance: The system guides and directs people to streamline problem solving. Examples include natural language search, helpdesk self-support, warehouse shipping and receiving, and guided reporting and analytics.
  3. Intelligent advisor: The system retrieves data needed to perform complex activities and works with people to solve problems. This is particularly useful in areas where the system may not have access to data required to make the decision. Examples include anomaly detection, special approvals, sales suggestions, product recommendations, and customer churn prediction.

An example of zero touch automation is accounts payable (AP) invoicing. 

Imagine you work in a company that receives numerous invoices from suppliers. Typically, someone would have to manually enter the details of each invoice into the accounting system, which can be time-consuming and prone to errors. The process becomes much easier with an AP document recognition capability (a solution Acumatica offers). 

An AP document recognition feature uses AI to automatically "read" the information on the invoices. It can identify critical details such as the supplier's name, invoice number, date, and due amount. Once the system recognizes this information, it can automatically populate the corresponding fields in the accounting software, saving you from typing it all in yourself. What’s more, when an approver reviews the work of the machine and makes changes, the machine learns from the changes. This streamlined process reduces the risk of mistakes, speeds up recording invoices in the system and reduces the level of approval effort required over time.

AI/ML technology can also create efficiencies for customer support teams.

Customer service teams typically receive similar questions, which have been answered in past customer interactions. Instead of looking up the answer every time, AI tools can make suggestions based on past interactions and even provide human-readable answers that can support representatives can customize.

Phoenix Renovation and Restoration experienced these efficiencies firsthand. 

Phoenix Renovation and Restoration restores properties that inclement weather, natural disasters, water, smoke and mold have damaged. In addition to structural repairs, the Kansas and West Central Missouri-based company also handles cleaning with a full-time team of 50 and hundreds of subcontractors.

Eric Hugunin, chief operating officer, said it’s common for Phoenix Renovation to have “more than 400 projects that are active and open at different stages at any given point in time.” 

The company’s line of business requires heavy project management and coordination, which QuickBooks and spreadsheets couldn’t handle. Hugunin said:

I can’t emphasize enough how heavy the use of Excel was across the business to keep it all together. We relied on scanned or hard copy reports that, by the time they were generated, were already outdated. If management wanted to follow up with questions or see what red flags came up on a project, the data was already too old to make any impact. Project managers were dealing with financial aspects on their own, and we had trouble figuring out where we were off.

Since Phoenix Renovation is in the insurance restoration industry, much of its work involves the paperwork required for insurance claims. After implementing Acumatica Cloud ERP, Phoenix Renovation automated its processes and approvals and gained the ability to see data immediately. These capabilities significantly improved the company’s visibility into its operations.

The transformative power of automation has not only revolutionized Phoenix Renovation's ability to handle vast amounts of paperwork for insurance claims but has also positioned its average ERP user as a "citizen developer," capable of achieving automation with just a few clicks.

What's even more exciting is the emergence of business process experts who are automating their own workflows. 

These individuals possess deep knowledge and understanding of their organization's processes and are well-versed in the intricacies of day-to-day operations. Business process experts can directly automate workflows without extensive coding knowledge by using low-code or no-code platforms and process automation tools. These experts have a unique advantage over developers because they intimately understand their workflows’ intricacies, dependencies and pain points. They can identify bottlenecks, repetitive tasks, or areas prone to errors and devise automation strategies to address them effectively.

Empowering business process experts to automate their workflows brings about the practical application of AI through automation. More specifically, the no-code platform allows individuals without programming language knowledge to automate operations. They utilize their business process knowledge, and the AI writes the code.

Anomaly detection demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between AI/ML and workers.

These capabilities are especially useful for anomaly detection. With support from AI, machines sift through millions of transactions and flag potential anomalies. Process experts define the data to sift, the problems to look for and the confidence threshold. Then the machine displays the results sorted so that the most likely issues surface to the top. Low sales margins, data entry errors, unfavorable trends and untapped sales opportunities are just some of the things business process experts can uncover. And with the proper feedback loop, AI and ML can use the results to proactively prevent errors from occurring in the first place.

Empowering business process experts to automate workflows results in meaningful benefits for the organization. First, user-driven automation promotes a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, as the experts are intimately familiar with the nuances of their processes and can proactively drive automation initiatives. Second, user-driven transformation reduces reliance on external resources, speeds up the automation process and allows for quicker iterations and adaptations as needed.

The rise of business process experts automating their workflows brings an exciting opportunity for organizations to tap into the deep domain expertise within their workforce. 

Moreover, this democratization of automation fosters a sense of ownership and empowerment among employees. In this environment, employees can manage how to apply AI capabilities to their own ways of working and, through automation, achieve real-world efficiencies and benefits. These business process experts become not only users of cutting-edge technology but also active participants in shaping and optimizing it. Behind the scenes, invisible to the user – this is where the magic of AI and automation can subtly transform a business leading to higher engagement, increased job satisfaction and the potential for even more innovative ideas to emerge within the organization.

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