A Holistic Approach to Automation

Using the ‘Work Order’ to guide the process November 15, 2017

Workflow, automation. Workflow automation. Whenever anyone uses these words in a sentence, my eyes start to glaze over, so I don’t blame you if you’re feeling woozy. Hang in there with me for a few hundred words and let’s try to look at these from another perspective.

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I like to boil all this down to the essential point and build from there. What is our business? What are our client’s business? After all, one thing we all have in common is the pursuit of profit in the service of our clients. Sometimes it seems we are in the workflow, IT or automation business, but we’re not. Here are some strategies to help achieve our real purpose.

Every time I’ve found myself off in the wrong direction in my career it has always come down to one error. I sometimes work on step four of a 10-step process before I’ve solved steps one, two and three. I suspect I’m not alone here. Businesses are better served if they look at the idea of automation as a holistic strategy and not a point solution. If we look at this holistically, it makes sense to start any automation exercise or workflow analysis at the beginning. At some point, somebody is asking for something. This is the tabula rasa. This exchange should define every other step, be it a simple fulfillment or a 20 system, 200-step, geographically diverse workflow.

I’ve spent a lot of time these last few years listening at conferences where we all are trying to come to grips with the explosion of data and how to solve the issues. I recall a simple lesson I learned years ago working in a record store (for my younger friends, just Google it.). When I moved from a simple cash register to a point of sale system, the data I collected drove almost every decision I made. It was the exercise of “capture relevant data at the time of a purchase,” making the transaction easier for my customer while providing me with a concise, holistic view of the appetite for easy listening jazz in Westfield, N.J. It was higher than I thought.

TWO DISTINCT SPHERES

Let’s take that prehistoric lesson and apply it to today’s media automation needs. If you look at automation from a work order perspective, the opportunities break into two distinct spheres. First, the work order gives us a unique opportunity to completely streamline the onboarding process of work. Using automated workflows and rules engines, the onboarding process should be as simple as a few clicks. For whom are we doing this work? On what are we working? What is the desired outcome? Where does the work ultimately go? 

From this key work order metadata, automated workflows, drawing from a predefined resource pool, can assemble a manufacturing manifest describing what services need to be performed. Also, what system or staff is best suited to perform those services while laying the ground work for remediating any errors, timing issues and delays. Historically, work order systems have only been asked to store data primarily focused on financial and usage results. Today, this repository must store all technical data and the data may also be harvested through interfaces to monitoring systems, harvested from smart networks or manually entered. The idea is we are assembling a database of rich technical data for the workflows to work against. The asset and resource repositories become the variables in the equations generated by workflows and executed through rules engines. This moves the work order system from a cash register to a complete repository of institutional knowledge, allowing us to merge operational data with financial data.

Of course, the work order still performs its traditional function of instantly calculating expenses, applying parameter-based rate cards and preparing either cost recovery journal entries or invoices.

AT A GLANCE

Modern integration methods remove the technical challenge of speaking to others in systems in an audited, queue-based manner, so no integration message ever gets missed. This allows the work order to facilitate the workflows of adjunct systems and aggregate critical metadata—giving users direct feedback about the status of the work order and raising alerts when something goes awry. This also allows the work order system to present holistic dashboards where the aggregated facility data is presented in a usable form. This keeps operations orderly while enabling problems to be flagged early. The real payoff is the ability to leverage a complete picture to make better business decisions. These days, margins are wildly thin and the ability to use data to determine staff footprint, schedules, equipment purchases and cloud strategy can make all the difference.

Of course, work orders are frequently initiated outside the work order system. This presents us with an opportunity to address top line revenue. The same automation, workflows and integration technologies are used to imbed the work order initiation process into whatever tool the user requires. This can be accomplished through integration with outside portals, or more effectively by creating smart adapters to the user base system. For commercial enterprises, it offers the opportunity to simplify work orders and streamline the end of month reporting stress.

Workflows, integration, automation and technology are all moving incredibly fast. What was an economically impossible project five years ago can often feel like an absolute imperative today. If the automation strategy isn’t looked at from a work order perspective, it’s like driving in a 500hp sports car with bad handling and old tires. Sure, you can go really fast, but you might not like where you end up.

Greg Dolan is Chief Operating Officer for Xytech Systems.  

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