How automation is the latest wave to carry Welsh businesses

Leanne Owen, partner at tech consultancy HSJ Strato, discusses automation and how technology can be used to shape the way we do business.

In tech, automation is a term often bandied about. To clarify, automation is the process of using self-sustaining software to automatically complete tasks with a little-to-no requirement for human interaction or involvement.

In practice, we implement automation because it can help businesses save time on administration and duplication, whilst reducing unnecessary overheads.

Using smart technology allows the people within a business to focus on tasks that make the business money and be successful, as opposed to just compliant and documented. It raises the bar and makes people focus on what is important.

Rise of automation 

In Wales, the use of automation in businesses has increased enormously; largely driven by a top-down approach led by HMRC. Interestingly, though, it has been the smaller businesses who have fully embraced automation outside of finance.

There have been small steps taken by HMRC, with those steps turning into strides in recent years. 10 years ago, HMRC introduced Self Assessment online, with RTI following five years later. Since then, the introduction of automation, as well as its sophistication, has rapidly increased; culminating with Making Tax Digital (MTD) the kingpin of legislative reform in tech.

What has enabled businesses to gear themselves up for MTD is the explosion of automation software that has become readily available. Over five years ago, automation software would typically cost a small business thousands of pounds; with custom-made systems being an attractive proposition for those with deeper pockets. Over the last three years, automation software that typically costs less than a mobile phone contract has become readily available.

This has led to small businesses becoming the early adopters; with micro-businesses and SME’s on the smaller end of the scale immersing themselves in automation software. These businesses, many in the service-based industry, were the first wave of those who understood what can be achieved with automation.

They were educated about the process and quick to value the benefits. These people are busy fee earners who need to maximise time spent on high-value work, not administrative-focused tasks.

Transforming big industry 

The next wave of industries to take the plunge are those in the manufacturing sector. Seeing what benefits automation can have on processes and task-management really shifted attitudes with businesses buying into tech.

Coupled in with the manufacturing sector are those businesses who work in large-scale construction and engineering. CAD has been at the heart of these industries for a while now, so it was only a matter of time before it spurred the organisations to get its processes and workforce management to follow suit.

Having these highly specialist disciplines embracing automation has seen an upskilling of the workforce; and this is how tech can be an opportunity for jobs, not a threat.

Closing the skills gap 

Freeing up staff to perform more creative and cerebral tasks will naturally increase the demand for a more highly skilled workforce, and that can only be a good thing. With a talent shortage in many areas, tech, specifically automation, can be the catalyst for getting people to perform bigger and better roles.

Yes, the demand for data entry and administration roles will decrease, but that affords people a chance to thrive in a more future-proof and all-round exciting role. We have seen that those in admin roles within businesses who have embraced automation have been afforded the chance to attain new qualifications and experience.

Also, it is clear that automation is a huge benefit to those running businesses, as accurate and real-time data is available at their fingertips; from financial, to performance to productivity. One example of how automation has really helped a business is the streamlining of the expenses procedures.

Welsh success

Tenn Limited is a company that specialises in shop window designs and installations. The designs are manufactured from their factory in Bridgend, but their sales and installation team is based in London along with the director, Joe, who oversees finance. As you can imagine, this business has staff on the road and on location very frequently.

Joe said: “Previously, it would be a job in itself to collate the information as it was all small paper receipts; this could take a couple of weeks in itself to collect the various scraps of paper and get it to the right person because of geographical restrictions.

“Then there would be discrepancies or queries because receipts had passed through so many hands and miles before being reviewed for payment. Now, staff take a photo on the Xero app as soon as they spend any money and this uploads to our bookkeeping system. This sits there prior to approval. When I log in, I can see the expenses submitted for authorisation before payment is made. It is a massive relief and much more efficient to before.”

While these opportunities are open to businesses in Wales, the Welsh Government does have a role to play in nurturing this potential. As a country, Wales does have challenging geographical terrain; so ensuring every corner has access to high-speed internet is easier said than done.

However, it is essential that we have a strong infrastructure of high-quality internet in order to give our businesses any chance of exploiting the tech boom and realising the many benefits of automation.

In general, there needs to be a greater and broader understanding of tech and automation that is available to all types and sizes of businesses. The next wave has already broken, with trades professionals starting to shift from posting their quotes to prospective customers weeks down the line to being able to price up an accurate quote on their phone during the appointment; emailing it to the customer before they’ve even got back in their van.

The public sector and larger private organisations, which have always been slower to employ tech and automation software due to their bureaucratic nature, need to follow the small businesses’ lead. The steps have been comparatively small so far; but now, it’s time to make some serious strides.