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The New Automation Age

July 11, 2017

There’s no shortage of articles being released prophesying the end of capitalism due to hyper-efficient, job-taking robots. The Technology at Work V2.0: The Future is Not What It Used to Be report listed jobs that were ‘automatable’ as any job that involved tasks that could be performed by a computer. If you think that’s a wide net to cast, you’re right. It encompasses, among many others, lawyers, bankers, taxi drivers, check-out registers, and yes, worryingly for those of us working in the VET industry, teachers! Futurist.com reports that OECD data indicates 57% of all jobs around the world are susceptible to automation. According to Andrew Johnson, CEO of the Australian Computer Society, all industries are going to be affected by automation. That includes the VET industry.

Fear of automation itself is nothing particularly new; in 1811 the Luddites destroyed weaving machinery in order to protest against perceived transformations to the working conditions of English textile workers and weavers. Economist John Maynard Keynes was deeply concerned about a ‘new disease’ he called ‘technological unemployment’ afflicting the working classes in the 1930s. Stephen Hawking has described Artificial Intelligence as being the potential end for all mankind. Granted, that’s a worst case scenario.

Local predictions tend to be gloomy as well. In Australia, around 40% of Australian jobs have a high probability of being automated and over 70% are likely to be substantially affected by automation and artificial intelligence in the next two decades, according to this years Education: Future Frontiers report. And if we’re to go with the CSIRO’s report Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce; in the year 2036, most workers will be casually employed without the permanency previous generations have come to know and depend on, and many of their colleagues will be either strangers or machines.

The good news is that many experts actually believe that Australia will not face massive unemployment in the 21st century due to automation. Rather, Australia will position itself as a leader in the technology charge, according to Adrian Turner, head of the CSIRO’s technology research division Data61. As published by the The Age, Turner says that if the country is to truly benefit from the economic changes ushered in by machine learning and automation, then it must also lead the way in embracing new technologies, in a way that isn’t disruptive or dislocating. Australia’s mining industry is already pushing the boundaries of automation, using an ever increasing amount of robots and remote-controlled equipment.

But what exactly is meant by ‘leading the way’? And what is the answer for businesses transitioning into true 21st century models? One of the key answers is in the way companies undertake workflow systems in the digital age — using innovative new computing systems that significantly alleviate previous obstacles for successful business.

Workflow Automation: Getting a Competitive Edge

Like many innovations of the 20th and 21st century, to describe the genesis of workflow automation is to tell the story of two fields of research running side-by-side throughout the 20th century; business practice optimisation, and computer programming.

Throughout its development, business practice has typically focused on management or improvement, but a better umbrella name for modern day approaches taken by industry leaders since the 1990s is ‘re-engineering’ — building new computing systems from the ground-up that allow businesses to undertake, complete, and evaluate projects using integrated labour silos.

The advantages of this should be clear to anyone who’s worked in a mid-sized company, training or otherwise. Imagine a VET-accredited training business trying to conduct a Cert IV competency assessment for a student in a practical exam. Using traditional educational administrative technologies, the teacher might be required to register the student’s attendance, evaluate performance and then register the student’s grade with other administrative personnel. The admin team might be responsible for issuing a grade to the student, or invoicing the student for the expense of the completed course. In turn, the student must receive his or her invoice and must make arrangements to pay.

As long as different personnel or divisions of the company are doing separate tasks, there is the very real threat that one or multiple aspects of this student’s attempt could be mis-recorded or not recorded at all. Therein lies the attraction of a workflow automation system designed to capture all aspects of the student’s engagement with the training provider simultaneously.

But such transparency is by no means uniform. End-users of workflow automation schemes can customise privacy settings so that specific employees can only see select constituent parts of a grander task. This is especially necessary in large business transactions or tasks that involve stakeholder privacy, where executives may be the only ones required to oversee every part of the process. As with any well-maintained company, key performance indicators are useful — letting users see, analyse and resolve bottlenecks in the business as they emerge.

But workflow automation is more than just using email-based or cloud-based technology in place of paper-based systems. According to Nintex, a leading providers of workflow systems for Fortune 500 companies, it’s the consolidation of traditional workflow and content generation into a new category altogether. As a twenty-first century tool, its primary goal is to support the needs of a digital business. The goal of workflow automation systems becomes philosophical — transforming business structures from old models involving discrete component parts that had difficulty communicating with each other, to new ‘open-plan’ models where all divisions of a business are in constant, and transparent, exchange with each other.

Workflow automation allows companies to streamline their business processes primarily in three ways; their people, their processes and their content. At all times, the outcome is coordination of the activities of different sections of the business — such that at the right time the right person gets the right information about what needs to be done and in what order. And it’s all accountable.

Workflow Automation — Why Every Business Secretly Wants IT

When work is flowing, a provider can concentrate on getting more done and focusing on the things that matter — in the case of an RTO, these are generally providing quality training and ensuring compliance with the regulatory authority. Workflow automation allows RTOs to spend less time on the processes that support the work and more time on the actual work itself.

Anytime there is a repetitive series of tasks to implement, management has a responsibility to identify where areas of their business need workflow improvement. Different workflow programs offer different levels of inter-operability.

Whichever workflow provider is selected, employees must be trained to a competent level on workflow software. To fit the fluidity of modern technology, It should be cloud-based automation, as this allows employees to contribute and engage with the software from any location, and means that valuable data governing the operation of your business can’t be destroyed or lost by physical damage. Users should be able to give approvals, access data and reports from any location, at any time. Users can stay connected via emails or push notifications.

The Education Space — How Automation can Help Learning

Education and training will only go up in popularity at career fairs in the 21st century.

A piece of good news for teachers and trainers in the VET industry is that they’re not as dispensable by the onslaught of computerisation that is occurring in other industries. According to the Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne report The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?”, teachers had only a 0.95% chance of being supplanted in the computer age, with an automation risk assessment of ‘totally safe.’ Compare this with 3.5% for lawyers or 65% for librarians.

According to Education: Future Frontiers: The implications of AI, automation, and 21st century skills needs, education in all its guises — including the VET space — will be a key driver for the delivery of an ‘innovation economy’ that incorporates workflow automation practices.

So what does automation look like, right now, for an RTO? Well, we’ve grouped RTOs into four progressive ‘stages’ of automation, based on our experience with the market.

Stages of RTO Automation

Stage 1 — Basic task automation:

The first stage that most RTOs will implement automation is for basic functions such as automated tasks or ‘event-triggered’ automations. An example of an event-triggered automation is where someone completes an online form on a website, say, and clicks on the ‘Submit’ button. The action of the user submitting the form ‘triggers’ another action in the system to happen such as the sending of an email to another system user (usually a client service or business development user) to notify them of the new enquiry (‘event’). It is also usual for event-based task automations to also trigger other notifications or emails such as an email to the user who made the initial enquiry.

Basic task automations are usually ‘hard-coded’ into the website logic or database system that controls the automation so the configuration or tailoring of such an automation by a system user or administrator is limited. Another example of a basic task automation is where a student submits an assessment task response or uploads evidence (usually a file with supporting information either related to their course of enrolment or their personal details) and notifications/alerts are sent to their nominated assessor or student support contact.

Stage 2 — Advanced task automation:

The second stage of ‘automation maturity’ incorporates the development of schedules and date-related course enrolment information with additional business rules (filter logic) to trigger automated tasks. In the case of schedules, the RTO would typically create a series of schedules which can be used to trigger a range of different tasks based on the scheduled interval. Examples of scheduled automations would be the running and emailing of specific reports to specific users once a week on a Monday evening at 6:00pm or once a month on the first Monday of each new month with data from the previous month. Another example could be the sending of an end of course survey to all students with a status of ‘Completed’ once a month for completions in the previous month.

In the case of date-related task automations, the ‘trigger’ for the automation to do something relies on a student’s (or other user’s) course or enrolment-related date data. An example of this type of task automation would be to send a ‘Welcome to the course’ email three days prior to the student’s course commencement date. The capability of the system to enable customisation of different ‘Welcome’ email templates for different student statuses, different course types and different date triggers determines the extent to which the end-user to tailor (program) the system to meet their specific business requirements.

Another example of how RTOs at this stage might use task automation is with marketing/CRM. Organisations at this level of automation will have implemented a structured and automated method for handling outbound communication with both prospects and clients using a series of ‘nurturing’ emails to encourage the prospect through the sales pipeline or with automated follow up emails for clients regarding updates and new features. This approach could loosely be called ‘sales automation’ but is not true sales automation. It would more accurately be called ‘automation of sales tasks’.

Stage 3 — Workflow Automation

At this next stage of automation or maturity of embedding automation within an RTO, workflow automation usually involves the incorporation of automation technology across a wide range of business functions, not simply for discrete business tasks within one or two business functions. The RTO at this level would usually have workflow automations across the main business functions of marketing, sales, client service (which could include both student service as well as employer service), course management, trainer/assessor management, finance management (think automation of invoicing/payment plans, etc.) quality improvement, compliance management and reporting.

A key difference between advanced task automation (stage 2) and true workflow automation (stage 3) is usually in configurability of the business rules (programming) that the user has at their disposal. Typically with task automation, the automated task is setup to run and once it runs, that’s it. With workflow automation, a series of automated tasks or workflow ‘steps’ can be chained together so that the success/failure of one step can then pass control to the next along with workflow parameters (variables such as a student’s course start date or status of their enrolment). Using this type of automation an RTO could:

Run a report of all students with invoices due to be sent this week (step 1)Send a customised email to each student (from the report) with their invoice attached (step 2)Send a ‘success’ email to an RTO finance user (based on success of step 2)Send a ‘unsuccessful’ email to the RTO finance user & system administrator (based on failure of step 2)

With Stage 3 implementations, the level of sophistication is not just the breadth of business functions that automation touches but also the sophistication of automation tools and the business analysis involved in getting to this level. It is highly likely that the RTO has invested a significant amount of time and resources to get to this point but is now reaping the rewards in terms of time savings, increased accuracy and client responsiveness.

Stage 4 — AI-assisted Automation

This stage of automation involves the blending of complex workflow automation processes with machine learning. This is where the filters, triggers, and criteria powering workflows are in the themselves dynamic — updated and adjusted on-the-fly by algorithms which seek to continually optimise both their accuracy, and their relevance to process goals (which in themselves may be dynamic). Prominent examples of this are the Google search results that appear near-instantly when you plug a term in, Amazon’s Echo device range, which optimise themselves to more accurately and quickly facilitate purchases through the Amazon website, and Siri, which Apple recently announced will be taking a more proactive role in organising your schedule and tasks.

Let’s be real — there are probably a handful of companies in the world properly utilising this level of automation. However, as is often the case with trickle-down-technology, we’re likely to see a rapid rise in these sort of tools targeted at all business sizes, across a range of business functions.

RTOs (and education providers more broadly) cutting into this space, will likely be working with Adaptive Learning Platforms — systems of learning content and delivery that are self-optimising, aimed at maximising student engagement and success. To read more about this, somewhat academic, field — check out our previous article on Adaptive Learning.

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