Finding Good Candidates For Automation

When resources are tight, folks such as myself in the IT world are often asked to “do more with less”, to use a rather contrite phrase. With layoffs looming for many and already a reality for some, it goes without saying that in the coming year, so-called “knowledge workers” will be asked to stretch their capacity as far as humanly possible. So outside of working insane hours and sacrificing quality time with your family, how do we meet this goal and satisfy our clients?

Now, if you’re reading this blog, chances are you are already a productivity minded person, which puts you at an advantage above those around you. But beyond practicing our GTD skills of constant capture and ruthless review, an ability to single out and automate those routine, time-wasting tasks can prove equally as useful.

As a programmer / business analyst in my previous job (and even now as a product specialist / implementations manager), this mindset was constantly hammered into my way of thinking. There’s a saying that programmers are a lazy bunch, and I certainly won’t deny it; I will however argue that is a good thing. If you’re paying a programmer by the hour, would you rather they spend extra time re-inventing the wheel, or make efficient use of existing code? Similarly, if you’re working with a B.A., wouldn’t you appreciate it if they noticed some repeatable tasks you were paying staff to do that could be easily automated. Granted it’s not always quite that simple, since with automation often comes cost as well. It’s always a give-and-take situation, where the pros and cons must be carefully weighed. If it’s going to take 400 hours and $20,000 to automate a process that takes one person an hour a week to do, that’s probably not a good value.

But really, that’s not what I’m talking about here. The fact is, there are people paid lots of money with fancy initials like “P.M.P” after their name whose job it is to do analysis on larger business processes. No, what I’m suggesting is that you take a closer look at your own daily work, and see if there are any easy targets to be scripted or scheduled, so as to free up your time to take on higher value work. Here’s are three adjectives and phrases that describe good candidates for automation:

  • Repeatable
    You perform the same task on a hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly basis, with very little change. It might be running a report and sending it to a client, doing some number crunching in an Excel sheet, or perhaps pouring over one of those dreadful “green bar” mainframe reports and pulling out some data.
  • Rules Driven
    The task performed is based on hard business rules. For example, you open a report, and if a certain number is off by more than a given percentage, you have to send it to someone.
  • Number Based
    Number crunching, by definition, is highly adaptable to automation. If you spend any amount of time manually punching in calculations or summary statistics, you could probably take care of all the work via something like macros (in MS Office, for example).

How far you go with this is totally up to you. I’m a pretty avid scripting geek, so I’ve been known to write VBScripts, AppleScripts, and even (for you hardcore geeks) bash scripts to do just about anything. Over the next week or so I’ll be looking for good resources on how to script / automate common tasks and tweeting them, so tune in! Here’s a few to get started: