Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Automation, BPM, ethics and competition. Or serving customers better.

A recent discussion on the ebizQ Business Process Management forum asks: “what percentage of processes should be automated?”. In any given company, how many of those routine processes that get work done should be taken largely out of the hands of employees and made into software, or painstaking converted into automated manufacturing production lines? An interesting response came back came back from Emiel Kelly on the ethical implications of full automation. What happens to all the human-beings that previously had jobs and have now been phased out? This is not new news, but it did touch a nerve for me, as I was just reading George Orwell’s 1984, filling the huge gaps in my school history classes with some time skim-reading Wikipedia about Marx, and thinking how to avoid the “race to the bottom” in the world of software development as the low-cost offshore talent pool continually grows.

So, is there an ethical issue to automating business processes that can be fairly automated? The question is perhaps, “who benefits from business processes being automated?”. Should an organization be holding back improving its products and services, and providing a better customer experience because it is afraid of the moral implications of significant organizational changes? Or is it just hoping to cut costs to be more profitable and serve shareholders with larger dividends? Really the ethics of a corporation are guided by its own policies and mission statement, within the very loose boundaries of the law. If corporate governance suggests “employees first” then it can have an ethical issue with large scale automation.

The reality of the situation is that automation of processes and using BPM to reduce waste and improve efficiency are not big evil entities, out to strip every experienced employee of his or her pride. If BPM doesn’t improve the way a business performs and serves its customers, competitors in the marketplace will certainly ensure that hard working people in an 'overly' ethical company lose their jobs. Or those competitors will force that company into a position where business process outsourcing or offshore manufacturing become the only option. From the standpoint of supporting the local population with employment, outsourcing is no better when it comes to your complex ethical quandary.

Companies have to decide for themselves the right balance between:
  • responsibility to their local labor-forces as potential employers of people
  • responsibility to existing employees providing value to the company
  • responsibility to shareholders to ensure continued investment to operate and improve
  • responsibility to customers to meet obligations and attract new customers.

At the end of the day, the majority of people want a secure job for a secure wage. Free-market economics, the social safety net, government (big or small) and technology all have a part to play in meeting the needs of the local population. There is no easy answer. But you can guarantee that by avoiding automation and organizational change for fear of facing such ethical issues, a more ruthless competitor will walk in and still serve what were previously your customers better than you can. A company remains in no position to employ people when it has no customers.

Automation and BPM can help a company advance to serve customers better, at a lower cost. This subsequently ensures the ability to survive, thrive, innovate and subsequently employ a greater number of local people.

Chat with @consected on Twitter if you think I'm missing the point. 

A post from the Improving It blog
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