Understanding and making use of automation-oriented strategic alternatives is essential for manufacturing firms of all shapes and sizes. It is particularly important for smaller companies, which often enjoy inherent advantages in terms of operational nimbleness.  But experts note that whatever your company’s size, automation of production processes is no longer sufficient in many industries. The computer, in its hardened and non-hardened forms, has made it possible to control manufacturing more precisely and to assemble more quickly, factors which have increased competition and forced companies to move faster in today’s market. But now, with the aid of the computer, companies will have to move to the next logical step in automation – the automatic analysis of data into information which empowers employees to immediately use that information to control and run the factory as if they were running their own business.

Indeed, industry analysts proclaim that automation of information is clearly where the opportunity is, not in automation of labor. The work that is being done now in advanced manufacturing is work to manage and control the process, not the automation of the added-value aspect of the process. Small business owners face challenges in several distinct areas as they prepare their enterprises for the technology-oriented environment in which the vast majority of them operate.  Three primary issues are employee training, management philosophy, and financial issues.

Employee Training

Many business owners and managers operate under the assumption that acquisition of fancy automated production equipment or data processing systems will instantaneously bring about measurable improvements in company performance.  But as countless consultants and industry experts have noted, even if these systems eliminate work previously done by employees, they ultimately function in accordance with the instruction and guidance of other employees. Therefore, if the latter workers receive inadequate training in system operation, the business will not be successful.  

All too often, the information specialists who designed the software and installed the systems say that the employees are either unfamiliar with the technology or unwilling to learn.  The employees’ side is that they were not instructed in the how to use the system, or that the system is so sophisticated that it is unsuitable to the tasks at hand.  All the managers see are systems that are not doing the job, and senior management wonders why all the money was spent for systems that are not being used.

An essential tool to automation success for small business owners, then, is to establish a quality education program for employees, and to set up a framework in which workers can provide input on the positive and negative aspects of new automation technology. The application of new technology may be growing, but the human factor still remains paramount in determining organizational effectiveness.

Management Philosophy

  Many productive business automation systems, whether in the realm of manufacturing or data processing, call for a high degree of decision-making responsibility on the part of those who operate the systems. As both processes and equipment become more automatically controlled, employees will be watching them to make sure they stay in control, and fine tune the process as need.  These enabler tools are changing the employee’s job from one of adding touch labor to products to one of monitoring and supervising an entire process.

But many organizations are reluctant to empower employees to this degree, either because of legitimate concerns about worker capabilities or a simple inability to relinquish power. In the former instance, training and/or workforce additions may be necessary; in the latter; management needs to recognize that such practices ultimately hinder the effectiveness of the company. The people aspect, the education, the training, the empowerment, is now the management issue.  Management is confronted today with the decision as to whether or not they will give up perceived power, whether they will make knowledge workers of these employees.

Financial Issues

It is essential for small businesses to anticipate and plan for the various ways in which the new automation systems can impact on bottom-line financial figures. Factors that need to be weighed include tax laws, long-term budgeting, and current financial health. Once new automation systems are in operation, business owners and managers should closely monitor financial performance for clues about their impact on operations.  Unused technology or underused technology is a big tipoff that something is wrong. Many ideas for applications with few in actual operation is another. Watch for cost overruns on new systems, and look out when new systems are brought in predictably late.

The accelerating pace of automation in various areas of business can be dizzying. Technology is causing ever faster movement, with cost variations and fluctuations that defy even contemporary financial tracking. It will be a challenge for small businesses to keep pace – or stay ahead – of such changes. But the forward-thinking business owner will plan ahead, both strategically and financially, to ensure that the evermore automated world of business does not leave him or her behind.

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