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All over the world, entrepreneurs are turning to a powerful tool to improve their efficiency and raw output: automation.
Often hailed as the ultimate weapon for increasing productivity, automation certainly has a lot of advantages. But it’s not guaranteed to be effective. In fact, when used incorrectly, automation can end up working against you.
To use automation effectively, you need to understand its strengths and weaknesses and build a strategy around them.
Why automation is useful
These days, you can automate a variety of work functions and activities. If you’re producing a physical good, you can likely automate production with the right machinery. If you’re working in a digital space, you can automate your sales, recruiting, customer service and even your marketing campaigns.
Benefits of automation include:
- Time savings. It is a bit of a no-brainer that automation saves time. If you spend 15 minutes a day on a task that can be completed automatically by an algorithm, introducing automation could save you one hour and 15 minutes each week. That adds up to more than 60 hours a year.
- Error reduction. We’re all capable of making mistakes, but robots don’t have the same weakness. If you send a series of onboarding e-mail messages to new clients from memory, you might forget a step or omit customers occasionally. But an automated drip campaign will never make such a mistake.
- Scalability. Automation makes all your workflows scalable. Instead of hiring and training new people one by one, you can use the same algorithms and the same tools no matter how large your company grows.
- Safety. In some settings, automation also leads to increased safety. Dangerous or risky tasks can be automated to prevent human workers from having to do them.
The pitfalls of automation
Before you get too excited, know that there are also weaknesses inherent to automation.
- Capital expenditure. Automation doesn’t always come cheap. You may be able to procure a tool that can save you hours of effort, but if it costs several thousand dollars, it may not be worth the money. This is especially important to consider if you’re going to manage multiple subscription-based tools.
- Time expenditure. Automation is designed to save you time, but it still requires time to set up. If you’re automating a task that doesn’t need to be done often, it can throw off the balance of your time savings.
- Rule dependence. Most automation tools rely on an algorithm to operate. This is a complex set of rules that define the operations of the machine. This is the heart of why automation reduces errors, but it also introduces a vulnerability; if any of the rules are wrong, the output will also be wrong. At scale, this can be devastating.
- Depersonalization. Not all tasks and situations are improvable through automation. For example, customer service is often best managed with human-to-human relationships. Automated algorithms and chat bots can lead to depersonalization and isolation.
- Lack of flexibility. At times automation may be limiting. Not everything can be automated, so the rest of your workflows must adapt to fit your new automation strategy.
How to use automation correctly
To use automation effectively — maximizing its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses — try the following strategies.
- Know that not everything should be automated. It’s tempting to try to automate everything in your business, but it’s easy for this strategy to backfire. Aim to have a blend of automated and manual tasks, and only use automation where its advantages truly shine.
- Choose the right systems. Not all automation tools are created equally. Do your research and make sure you’re relying on systems that are dependable, well-reviewed and cost-effective. If you’re building your own automation tools from scratch, make sure to test them before taking them to a live environment.
- Calculate the savings. Don’t assume that automating something is going to result in net savings. Figure out how many hours you’re going to save, how much money you’ll save and how much you’re going to pay. It’s not always worth it.
- Scale up gradually. Don’t take your automation algorithm to scale until you’ve tested it in a small environment. If possible, scale up gradually to save money on expenses and discover bugs and flaws before it’s too late.
- Install backups. Finally, install both automated and human backups. If your automation systems fail, you should have a clear route to resolution in place.
Automation isn’t just a buzzword. It’s a powerful tool that can help you save time and scale your business more effectively. But you can only capitalize on these benefits fully if you learn to recognize the weaknesses of automation and compensate for them fully.
Originally appeared in Entrepreneur