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Automation? How Far Should it Go?

When I first joined the Workday® ecosystem in December of 2007, releases were still named after European capitals. In fact, my first Workday release was called the “Rome” release. At the time, this struck me as a remarkable display of global ambition for a company that only had 181 employees! As a Workday employee, I wrote several of the Workday training courses such as Time Tracking, Absence, Payroll and Big Data. For the past few years I've been working directly with customers, enjoying hands-on practical work. Although much has changed since those early days, Workday has always been driven by the need to automate business and people functions: replacing manual spreadsheets with powerful calculation engines, eliminating paper documents and forms, routing business process steps from person to person, and generating alerts when tasks need to be completed or are overdue. Automation has received a lot of press lately for its potential to increase productivity, eliminate routine work, and free up resources for more strategic initiatives (the positive side of automation), as well as for its ability to displace or even replace workers (its negative form).

I’m less interested here in whether automation is ultimately good or bad (I think it’s inevitable), but in what the right level or type of automation might be, and when automation produces diminishing returns. I started wondering about the best uses of automation after working for a client that had responded to low levels of compliance with time tracking policies – the failure of employees to enter or submit time sheets, and the failure of managers to approve hours worked – by creating a huge number of alerts, warnings, and messages to employees and managers to remind them of their responsibilities, only to find that while compliance ticked up momentarily, it soon fell back down to its original levels.

It appeared that employees quickly tuned out automated alerts they realized were not coming from a real person, and simply filtered them out of their emails. At the same time, managers were lulled into thinking they no longer needed to be as vigilant about what their employees were doing. During this period of complete reliance on automation, the company conducted interviews with managers whose rate of compliance had always been high and remained unchanged. What the company found was that teams with the highest compliance had managers who were highly engaged and involved with their teams in all matters related to time tracking – who made use of information provided to them in alerts and reports, but did not rely on them exclusively. Based on these interviews, the company decided to invest in additional training to emphasize the importance of direct, person-to-person interaction between managers and employees – one that incorporated the benefits of automation without relying on them completely. The best way to realize the benefits of automation is to do it in a way that is sensitive to your company’s culture and the way your work – and that doesn’t hit the point of diminishing returns. I think this is a set of goals many company executives could understand.

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