Automation has long been a divisive subject, and the divide has only deepened as technology has made automation more accessible to entrepreneurs and small businesses. At XRay, we believe that the goal of automation should not be to eliminate human jobs, but rather to enable people to perform the best work they can. In our last several posts, we’ve discussed how anyone can start integrating automations into their business to reduce the amount of robotic work bogging them down. In this post, we want to look at the endgame of automated work, and show you how building the right automated infrastructure can lead to more effective and fulfilling work for everyone in your team.
For automated work to become an effective component of your overall workflows, you need to build a comprehensive automated infrastructure. In technical terms, automated infrastructure consists of an operational database linked with a suite of SaaS tools and precisely documented business processes. Our documentation post explores the ins and outs of databases in greater detail, but essentially, your operational database should document each of your automations, the tools they use, and the business processes they contribute to. Your documentation should make it easy for anyone at your company to understand how all of your automations work in concert to complete robotic work and better enable your team members to get their jobs done.
While you could potentially create an operational database with any suitable software you prefer, we’ve found that Airtable is the best choice. One of the key features that makes Airtable particularly well-suited to the task is its column IDs. Rather than using letters like other spreadsheet software, Airtable uses unique IDs. This lets you add or rearrange columns without needing to remap all of your automations, which you would often have to do if you added a new column in software like Google Sheets. Your business will always be evolving, and your automated infrastructure needs to have the ability to evolve along with it. Adding or deleting columns in G-Sheets or other apps just creates unnecessary headaches.
Moving beyond the nuts and bolts of setting it up, the goal of automated infrastructure is to weave your automations seamlessly into your business and your team’s daily activity. Establishing an automated infrastructure at your company is about more than just building a whole bunch of automations; it’s about understanding your processes in intricate detail, and knowing which ones can and should be handled by robots. It’s about identifying a consistent order of operations that fulfill your business processes, and using automated tools to enhance and facilitate those operations wherever possible. It’s about creating a documented, transparent, and evolving system that enables the people who interact with it.
Automated work can only be successful if the humans on the other end of the automated work are aware of and enabled by the work that was just automated. No matter what your automation does, it doesn't matter if your team has no clue where things are or what happens next. If your project manager doesn’t know about the automatically generated database of client info that you’ve set up, they’ll still have to go digging for that data whenever they need it. To avoid situations like this, make sure your automations are structured to give your team context and easy access to any content created by the automations. You can use an “auto_updates” channel in Slack (or whichever messaging platform you prefer) to give your team regular updates on what your automation infrastructure is doing, or send DMs to the specific team members who need to follow up on the automated work.
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It’s also important to include the relevant team members from the moment you start planning and building your automations. When you’re considering automating a task, remember that the people who currently perform that task will have a vital perspective based on their firsthand experience. There may be frequent roadblocks they encounter that the automation will need to account for, or extra steps they’ve added to make the process more effective. Give them a chance to share their views and explain what they would like to see from the automation. Otherwise, you could end up wasting a lot of time and resources building an automation that won’t even be useful for your team.
Another way you can fully integrate automated work into your business is by creating helpful on-ramps and off-ramps. In the XRay method, on-ramps are the actions a human needs to perform to begin an automation. In many cases, on-ramps take the form of a simple form or survey that prompts your team to provide the necessary information. When one of your team members fills out a survey to trigger an automation, they know that the automation has started and they can let the robots handle the next stages of the task.
Just as real-world on-ramps get you on the highway where you no longer need to worry about the tedium of stop signs and red lights, automation on-ramps are the transition point between human work and robotic work. To make that transition as smooth as possible, you should make sure that the forms you use to trigger automations are easy to use and understand. It’s often a good idea to include context about why each piece of information is needed, so that your team understands the purpose of all the data they’re grabbing. You may also want to create a swim lane diagram for your automated workflows that will illustrate exactly where human work ends and automated work begins, so your team has an even clearer picture of where the on-ramps are.
As you might assume, off-ramps are the opposite of on-ramps. When the automation has performed all of its steps and produced the desired data, documents, etc., it should alert the relevant team members that its job is complete, and hand off the new information in a neat package. Creating an activity log and automation updates channel will help keep your team apprised of all your automated activity, but it can also be beneficial to send direct messages to relevant team members when an automation is complete, or create an assignment for them in your task management. You can build those alerts into your automations whenever an automation will require an immediate follow-up, or is particularly important for just one or two of your team members. When you’re building your off-ramps, remember that any data that your team members need to interact with should be human-readable. Your automations can work easily with a series of numbers without much context, but your humans can’t. Spending a little extra time on formatting and labelling the output of your automation can save your employees and colleagues a lot of time and hassle.
Ultimately, the purpose of building on-ramps and off-ramps is to create seamless transitions between automated work and human work. People shouldn’t have to put in extensive effort and dramatically change the way they do things to fit the automations; the autos should meet them where they are and just make things easier.
At XRay, we don’t see automation as a replacement for human jobs. We see automation as a way to make humans more productive, and to let them focus more on the work that they’re uniquely suited to. There are a lot of things that software can just do better than people, and that people would rather not have to do anyway. Sending invoices, scheduling and logging meetings, basic reports and records - these are the kind of tasks that can be automated so that they’re not cluttering up your daily to-do list. More often than not, a well-designed automation can perform these tasks faster, more consistently, and with fewer errors. When you build an automated infrastructure and fully integrate automated work into your business, you’ll create time for your team to focus on what they’re good at and what they find fulfilling. When your team spends less time logging and recording data, they’ll have more time to analyze and interpret that data. When your team spends less time compiling and searching for client records, they’ll have more time to actually work with your clients and address their needs.
The goal of automated work is not to supplant people from your organization, but to give them the tools they need to perform better and more valuable work.