Automation has a narrow window of recognition
Making sure that automation isn't forgotten about is a non trivial concern for automation professionals. This goes a bit deeper than the general visibility concerns that professionals need to consider in their work. A challenge intrinsic to automation work is that the best automation tends to be so seamless that you forget it exists. The psychology of this creates multiple dilemmas for people working in this area and many challenges on the sales front.
We see good examples of this in many of the earliest examples of automation. The big bulky calculating machines designed by Babbage were an amazing technological achievement of their time. But such computational devices have been completely taken for granted for many decades now. I remember in school long division was being phased out in the curriculum with the reasoning being that "anyone has access to a calculator now". Coming up with good examples of automation is surprisingly difficult, if you take a moment to think about the best examples of automation what do you come up with?
I came across a discussion on legal tech a few days ago that was a perfect example of how good automation first gets forgotten about, then later gets taken for granted. Some people at some law firms were talking about how in the last 20 years they hadn't experienced successful automation in the legal industry. I remembered a long time back when I did work experience for a barrister they had this row of filing cabinets to store the legislation and case law. Even so often a pile of new documents would be dropped off that represented new law and it was a substantial job to just file the changes, a tedious job that quite literally involved pushing a bunch of paper around. This entire job is able to be completely eliminated now by electronic means. Eventually I wouldn't be surprised if the concept of physical filing like this starts to fall out of common language because so few people will end up doing it. Things like using internet services while undeniably a result of an automation project can be entirely taken for granted, given enough time, to the point where people don't make the mental association that the project is even an automation project.
A slightly newer use of automation in the legal industry has been the automated generation of legal documents by computers. In many areas a large amount of paperwork is needed for certain big projects to go ahead and a lot of the work is completely boilerplate (especially document revision management). Situations where there's multiple stakeholders and voluminous data to be integrated into contracts, compliance and legal documents make for automation opportunities. Instead of making all these documents, and managing all the revisions to them manually, it's far easier to generate the documents using templates and computer software such that a lot of time and effort is saved. This may not have been around long enough to be forgotten or taken for granted yet.
Then you get examples of cutting edge automation work like using natural language processing to help in advanced document retrieval for case law searches. This is cutting edge enough to not be taken for granted but is also recent enough to not have been part of many successful automation projects because it's so new.
The phases in which automation approaches are adopted are important in how people understand automation projects. Many automation projects that are established and sufficiently old risk being taken for granted and therefore not recognized as successful applications of automation. Many new projects and approaches that are cutting edge are not widely adopted or haven't had enough time to be successfully integrated into organizations. These cutting edge projects also tend to have rough edges, all factors that tend to lead to not being seen as successful automation. There's some middle ground where automation is not too old to be forgotten but not new enough to have seen widespread exposure that seems to define the space people will consider as successful automation. The more pain was involved in the non automated process tends to extend the amount of time it takes for an automation process that solves the pain point to be taken for granted and the more leniency given to new unproven automation techniques and projects.
This time sensitivity to recognizing the benefits of automation ends up being a huge psychological factor in why people hesitate to invest in automation. This presents a massive branding problem for traditional automation, for which success is achieved in situations where the automation is good enough that it can be forgotten. Many RPA products deal with this issue by forcing the automation efforts to be far more obvious and visible. Which beyond sales efforts may actually not be desirable in many cases since automation that's so good you that people can completely forget about it - and hence remove the cognitive burden of it - can be a good thing.
Many automation vendors selling "RPA products" are very aware of this phenomenon. I'll write more about what they do in response to this in the next few posts in this series. The response to the various marketing challenges faced by traditional automation is the topic of my next post, the great RPA rebranding.
This post is part 2 of the "AutomationAndRPA" series: