Automation is often discussed as heralding a new era in strategic business management. Executive leaders often hear about advancements in areas like quantum computing and deep learning, and their minds start running, eager to rush out the gate solving big-picture problems.

The general trend within startups, enterprises, and everyone in between is to direct algorithm-driven processes and artificial intelligence towards headline use cases such as developing new products, services, or features, or to automate marketing tasks or business strategy analysis. 

But it’s just as important to use automation to solve “boring,” everyday problems, and possibly even more so. General and administrative (G&A) roles, like legal, finance, HR, and operations teams, tend to be left behind the door when automation tools are doled out across their organisations, and that can be a terrible mistake. 

In my experience, G&A applications are where automation can have the biggest impact within an organisation.

More than just admin monkeys

It’s not like G&A teams go totally disregarded. They are often recognized as vital to business operations and fundamental to the smooth functioning of organisations. However, it’s rare for them to be appreciated as delivering strategic value to the company and contributing as drivers of business growth.

The truth is that G&A teams can fulfil both these roles, but only when free to do so. For example, G&A can help the business anticipate and respond to market demand variations, changes which are becoming both more frequent and more unpredictable. By managing reskilling programs, they help ensure the workforce can adapt to whatever comes.

They can also generate relevant insights for data-driven strategic decision-making, and increase overall business efficiency by driving down costs. This is especially important in today’s volatile economic climate, as businesses look for ways to slash expenses. What’s more, G&A personnel are able to serve as policy and governance hubs that deliver agile responses to changes in regulations, buyer expectations, and more. 

Unfortunately, even the most forward-thinking, creative G&A teams have to struggle against the weight of business as usual. The burden of handle-turning, admin processing, and form-filling can grind them down and leave them with neither the time nor the energy to think creatively and strategically.

The boiled frog experience

No one in a G&A role ever sets out to become consumed by mindless processing work, and it’s not what any organisation has in mind for them either. But like the proverbial boiled frog, this work creeps up on them until it takes up all of their time. 

For example, overseeing payroll using spreadsheets and liaising with an external service provider might take under two hours per month when a company is small. But as the business grows, so does payroll, until it takes three full-time payroll managers to get it done in time. 

Sometimes nobody realises that this has happened, so no one thinks to make changes that could ease the burden. It’s often not until someone arrives from the outside, with a fresh perspective, that everyone realises that this water is boiling.

In my own experience leading operations for companies experiencing rapid growth, I’ve found that even when you are aware of the possibility of becoming that frog, it can still creep up on you. You need to constantly be conscious of what is occupying your time, asking yourself if this is a core task and how you can reduce, delegate, lighten or (gasp!) automate it. 

It doesn’t help that people tend to be assigned specific tasks early on and then stay within the confines of that swim lane for years. The workload can expand to fill – and even expand beyond the capacity of – defined job roles, while strategically important projects go without resources.

Automation can set G&A roles free

As a result of these dynamics, finance, legal, ops, HR, and other departments that depend on G&A contributors get buried under busy work until these people are no longer able to think strategically, plan for the long term, or drive profits for the company. 

Too much paperwork doesn’t only take up time that could be dedicated to other tasks; it also stultifies creative thought and reinforces narrow thinking, prompting disengagement and lethargy. Thankfully, there is something we can all do to avoid this reality, and that’s the smart use of automation. 

Ultimately, if a task is purely deterministic in that it involves routing various inputs to mindlessly generate outputs, it’s probably a good idea to get a machine to do it. This way, you can free up human employees to do more value-add work. With G&A teams often last in line for budget increases, it’s vital to use automation for these purposes. 

No one has enough time, and everyone is being asked to do more with less. Automation can help you streamline processes for payroll; ensure compliance for legal teams; create an audit trail across departments; speed up workflows, and more. Many tasks can become one-click instead of several hours of manual work.

Automation can get rid of the boring problems

Ultimately, G&A automation use cases can help your valuable employees to make better use of their time. If you’re a great finance or people person, payroll is not how you want to be spending your work hours. 

Automation can address it so that you can think about thornier issues that make a bigger difference to the organisation as a whole. At the end of the day, I believe that it’s more important to use automation to resolve boring problems than to add extra juice to the exciting ones.

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