June 10, 2019

Business Process Automation vs. People Power - What's Best?

Brent Chism

Business Process Automation vs. People Power - What's Best?

During a recent World Bicycle Relief webinar on barcode scanning, an attendee asked a good question about business process automation (BPA): In countries where the cost of labor is low, when does it make economic sense to use technology rather than people?

That question reminded me of this common sight from my years in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

business process automation
Image: Roadside grass cutting. Source: Brent Chism

In Tanzania, for the use case of cutting grass, many employers decided that the labor cost savings didn’t justify investing capital in a technology solution. I’ll bet that even when the robots come to take all our jobs, it will be a long time before the Tanzanian gardeners need to worry.

Nonprofits should ask themselves this question when considering new systems, because deploying technology is not always the right answer. As Ron Miller wrote about the trend of business process automation replacing people:

“Technology marches relentlessly forward, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise, but some things remain fundamental, and people-to-people communication will continue to be one of them. Just because the tech is available, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the best option in every situation.”

Hundreds of nonprofit and social enterprise customers have used TaroWorks – a mobile, offline field service management solution. From our experience with the many who have been successful, and some who have not, we’ve developed general rules of thumb for using technology to drive business process automation vs. people to power field work. While TaroWorks is an app designed for the Salesforce.com CRM and cloud database, these observations apply regardless of type or brand of technology used.

3 Times To Use Technology

Sometimes, spending a bit of capital on technology can drastically improve your staff’s productivity and often, their quality of life. We’ve found the payoff is significant when organizations are trying to rapidly scale their operations, encourage collaboration between groups or maximize return on large capital investments.

Bridges to Prosperity
Image: Completed footbridge in Rwanda. Source: Bridges to Prosperity;
Photo: Collin Hughes

Rapid Scaling

We often begin working with nonprofits and other organizations when they change their scope of operations, say from operating in a single town or state to operating country-wide or broader.

Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a nonprofit that builds footbridges to reduce rural isolation and its economic consequences, decided to digitize its business processes as the result of a strategic need to scale the number of bridges they build from hundreds to thousands.

During a recent webinar, Abbie Noriega, vice president of evaluation, said that B2P’s paper forms and Excel tracking system

“… actually worked pretty well for us for a really long period of time but we’re looking to scale as an organization. Once we had a staff that was bigger than a few people at headquarters and a few people in a program country, that is when we really started to feel the burn of paper.”

They implemented our field service app and Mogli SMS  into their Salesforce.com CRM system and have used business process automation to significantly increase the pace of their bridge-building work.

Field and Office Collaboration

I’ve written before about how small details like a bad power cord can stop your agent network in its tracks in emerging markets. Particularly for social enterprises and nonprofits who rely on field staff, a collaboration platform can break logjams that would otherwise stop their progress.

Eshrat Waris, former manager of the BRAC Skills Development Program, built a continuous improvement program across 140 offices that allows field staff to communicate field realities quickly to the headquarters management team. Said Waris:

“It is a very much a field heavy operation and for us data was absolutely critical for understanding what was happening on the ground, to make decisions … We are using the data at every level to drive the data back into the operation design and really improve our productivity and our efficiency and our effectiveness as much as possible.“

Digitizing your business processes and data collection enables you to make more informed decisions, more quickly and find efficiencies that you can use for business process automation.

Making and Monitoring Big Investments

Alisha Myers, director of M&E for World Bicycle Relief, had an interesting response to the question of why technology made economic sense for their program. She pointed both to the need to track the investment they have made when providing a large number of bicycles to a school and also to see how to get the most out of that investment:

“Looking at the overall value of the bicycles going to the school … investing in a tablet was a fraction of that …. For us, the importance is getting the data we need for program quality improvement, … overall continuous improvement, … data for communications, and PR and marketing and all of that, it just made sense. We’ve built a system that helps us get the data we need regularly and make more targeted decisions around where do we need to focus our energies …. We haven’t replaced any individuals … we’re just enhancing efficiencies.”

Business Process Automation
Image: Barcode scanning bicycles. Source: World Bicycle Relief

2 Times When People Are Better Than Business Process Automation

When you’re still figuring out your business processes or are not sure you’ll have the resources to sustain the technology you’re piloting, people can do the job better than hardware and software.

Still Figuring Out Your Process

Trying to figure out your business or project operations? These are instances where technology can actually slow you down. Sales is a classic example. If you automate a bad sales process, technology just enables you to make more mistakes, more quickly.

The IDE Cambodia Sanitation Project avoided this pitfall by spending a lot of time at the start on finding and training their sales agents, said iDE Cambodia WASH Director Michel Dauguet.

“All of the processes that go around sales are really purely human processes. There is no such thing as sales automation and sales force automation … [Only after understanding them] could we move on to the next stage which was adding a better information system to support those human processes,” Dauguet said.

Business Process Automation

Image: iDE latrine sales agent and potential customers. Source: Whitten & Roy Partnership

iDE waited until after they had figured out a sales approach that worked for a few hundred toilets before embarking on a business process automation effort that included an offline, mobile CRM system. This patience allowed them to scale their network to a country-wide operation that sells more than 6,000 toilets per month.

If you’re still figuring out your operations, don’t deploy a CRM. Pencil, paper and spreadsheets are great for iterating and making changes as you learn. Use the insights from The Lean Startup and create a minimum viable product version of the CRM system you will need.

When You Don’t Have A Commitment to Maintenance

If you’re not committed to sustaining a new system through staff turnover, you’re better off not starting with that technology in the first place.

Manuel Wiechers, CEO of our client Ilumexico, a provider of solar power, told me that the highest turnover position they have is their IT admins. They’re a well-run organization with a great mission and a strong and well-paid team. But IT staff have lots of options and many like to move around.

Image: Ilumexico solar panel being installed on building roof. Source: Ilumexico

Ilumexico has a process to bring new admins up to speed on their system, but too often, we see organizations stumble and sometimes stop using their systems when the original technical person leaves the organization.

IT platforms must change as an organization evolves. So the investment decision has to go beyond just license cost to consider the people, resources, training and other requirements to sustain them when IT champions come and go.

Business Process Automation Can Be Force Multiplier

Given the many challenges operating in less-developed economies, there’s no iron-clad decision rule for when to use people and when to make capital investments in technology that enable business process automation.

And it’s true that some things in business, like field agent sales and high-touch customer support, will always ultimately depend most on finding the best people and following a good process.

But technology like a field service management application and customer relationship management software can act as a force multiplier by enhancing that human contact and enabling you to scale.

Like most investments, it comes down to making a bet. Sometimes even when you have strong foresight, success isn’t always guaranteed. But if you can find the right people and a proven process that technology can amplify, I like your chances.


About the author...

Brent Chism


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