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Want to avoid a skills crisis? Get your ERP automation hygiene in place!

Brenton O'Callaghan Profile picture for user Brenton O'Callaghan November 8, 2022
Do we have a skills crisis - or are we in a state of ‘skills paralysis’? Brenton O’Callaghan at Avantra believes the enemy is a failure to automate.

Person cleaning up the desktop folders. Digital hygiene. Computer files. Mess © Nadia Snopek - Shutterstock
(© Nadia Snopek - Shutterstock)

When you are in a constant state of firefighting, it can be tremendously difficult to see how you can find the time to make life better for yourself and your team. That’s a story I hear every week from IT leaders, who feel they’re in a state of paralysis.

This sense of being unable to move is being exacerbated by an inability to truly deliver the company vision, as well as the external pressures of heightened competition, supply chain issues, rising costs and the skills crisis. It doesn’t make for happy times. 

However, I believe, and I know, that if managers spent just half their time for one month focusing on doing something to reverse their fortunes, they would double the time they have available to make effective change the following month.

Addressing the pain with automation

At the crux of the solution is automation. Take away the hideous pain of managing repetitive manual tasks that, for ERP professionals, take at least two hours a day to do (if things are going well, five or six hours if they aren’t), and you can start to make headway. For example, in the SAP ecosystem, I can reel off numerous examples of companies that have saved 40 hours a month (or a week of a person’s time) from implementing basic automation.

It’s changed the daily lives of employees. Using a relatively straight forward ‘out of the box’ implementation, people can trust in automation. In this new world, people will only manage manual tasks by exception. As a result, the long morning to-do list has shortened greatly as people will only intervene if an alert is triggered. Now they can use the ‘free’ time to do more rewarding and valuable things - like even more automation!

So why aren’t companies flocking to do this? The answer is simple. The same paralysis that prevents the team from raising their head above the trenches to see how life could be is preventing them from automating. They are scared that things could go wrong, that interrupting the status quo could put them back, create a revenue hole, or a supply chain bottleneck.

Of course, those risks do exist. But I say this: if you are fully cognizant of the risks then you can manage them. There’s also no need to build Rome in a day. Starting small is always best practice. Begin with some basics, learn from the experience, and before you know it, you’re creating an intelligent snowball!

Dependency of skill

But that’s not the only hurdle. There’s a perception that the skills crisis is an inhibitor too. I don’t buy it. I agree that in the world of ERP, you do need experts – in SAP that’s certainly true – but the sorts of implementations we are talking about are not complex. They are completely within the realm of the existing skill set.

I accept that if you want to develop the functionality to get more out of the platforms you might need a specialist. However, consider that a future step. Don’t let it detract from the focus to get some form of ‘automation hygiene’ in place so you can start on the journey to cutting the painful two-hour job sheet to 30 minutes.

The other related source of friction is job security. I get it – jobs under threat because a machine does it instead. But I have never seen that happen. Not in our world. Instead, people have had the time to go on training courses, develop new skills and make a different contribution to the company and its strategy. People have time to breathe. And that leads to creativity.

Leaders must sell the vision

It's therefore up to the leadership team to not only sell the vision, but get buy-in from their employees. For this to work, leaders need to be brave and commit to breaking the cycle. Commit to changing the ways of working.

In my experience, this takes a special kind of storytelling. You must present the facts and be upfront. Explain the possibility that for a couple of months things might feel difficult because the workload of managing the status quo while also introducing a new system will add to work loads, but counter it with a story of how life will be. Take them on an automation journey.

Using examples of success stories can help no end here. In a hypothetical case, a basic out of the box implementation in a large enterprise where the environment is managed by four people, there’s the potential to make a saving of around 1.2 people each month. That’s a huge amount of brain power that could be focussed on more business critical strategic projects.

CXOs don’t want hypothetical though, they need real to build the case. Examples are emerging as companies become more confident in their commitment to automate. At the recent SAP Insider conference in Las Vegas, UMB, a Swiss managed service provider, explained how it had saved 40 hours a month on automating security analysis alone. It’s an extremely tangible outcome and underlines why automation is so critical for delivering a vision and managing finite skilled resource more efficiently.

Explaining the business case in this way is also a useful carrot for the rest of the business. IT leaders can say to functional heads that they can add the shiny new marketing system they want, and do it far quicker than they would expect, if they give them a couple of months to gear up and do some fundamental changes first.

It’s a tactic I’ve seen used several times and it works brilliantly. What’s even more powerful, is when IT leaders can say to the business that automation means tasks traditionally only carried out by an expert can be moved into standardized IT support processes, using standardized support tickets. This shifts the power and conversation to one of cross functional buy in for investing in automation and supporting the team during a period of change.

Digital native or automation native?

The final point I’d make is that most of us think of ourselves as digital natives today. A product of modernization. Digitalizing processes has shifted how and where we work and the way we run our lives.

But a digital process isn’t always quick or easy – as I’ve explained, managing it can be painful and labor intensive. It’s why I think the organizations that will put clear water between themselves and the competition will be the ones that start to think of themselves as ‘automation natives’.

In these organizations, the mindset will always be geared to considering how a process must be automated as standard. A process simply won’t exist or be tolerated if it can’t be automated.

Gartner has it right when it says automation is a condition of survival. When you compare the before and after stats of companies that have automated, it really underlines how important automation will be – employee scores, NPS, revenue, margin, productivity, innovation and collaboration all tick upwards. For companies doing it, there’s no looking back. Yes, it was a big ask, but the rewards were bigger. 

End note: our recent Avantra Summit delved into SAP automation use cases, and how to overcome the automation paradox in ERP environments.

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