Building a smart workplace: Automation for the end user

    In 1913, Henry Ford introduced a concept that would change the face of manufacturing, and society as a whole, forever… the moving assembly line.

    Ford wanted to bring his automobiles to the masses, but in order to do that he needed economies of scale. The moving assembly line was as simple as it was ingenious. The idea was to bring the product to the worker instead of the workers needing to move to the product. This concept gave birth to entirely new industries and formed the basis for what we now call ‘automation’.

    Automation for the masses

    Fast-forward 104 years and there is little doubt that we now live in the age of automation. Devices, people and processes are interconnected like never before, allowing automation to drive efficiencies in both personal and business environments.

    At its core, automation is about one thing – removing or reducing the need for human intervention. Of course, automation has been present in many industries for decades; but building automation into systems and processes has always been something that remained in the hands of few. Now a new phenomenon is occurring – end users are asking for a piece of the action.

    The Internet of Things is driving a self-service mind-set

    One of the most significant challenges facing the Internet of Things (IoT) is a lack of interoperability between all of the things. From Zigbee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth to LoRaWAN, Sigfox and NB-IoT, there are a dizzying array of protocols and competing standards to contend with.

    If one of the driving principles behind IoT is to achieve automation via machine-to-machine communication, it would seem we’ve still got a long way to go before our things all start to speak the same language.

    To combat this lack of ubiquity, there are a growing number of services and tools, which aim to bridge the divide. IFTTT (If This Then That) is a popular web-based automation tool, which allows users to create conditional statements, called recipes. IF your car alarm is triggered, THEN close the garage door. IF the baby’s cot rises above 21 degrees, THEN lower the temperature on the thermostat.

    The service essentially acts as a middleman for all of our things, regardless of whether or not they natively communicate.

    Applying the same concept to the enterprise

    Not surprising then, many end users in enterprise environments now want a piece of this automation action. Most business users utilise a wide range of incredibly sophisticated tools and business technology on a day-to-day basis. Despite the capabilities of these tools, line-of-business users are increasingly seeking ways to boost productivity via automation. Traditionally, it has been left to the IT experts to orchestrate automation. With limited IT resources, such requests often end up at the bottom of the pile, leading to frustration on both sides of the business. Thankfully, there are now a growing number of user-friendly tools, which can give your end users the power to plan and coordinate their workflows. Below are our top two picks.

    Microsoft Flow

    Microsoft Flow is a relatively new and massively underrated tool, available as part of the Office 365 suite. The cloud-based service allows line-of-business users to build workflows that automate time-consuming business tasks and processes across a wide range of applications and services.

    Flow connects to more than 100 data sources out of the box and Microsoft is adding more every day. Of course, all of Microsoft’s core services are natively supported, but Flow can also tap into popular services such as Google Drive, Google Sheets, Trello, Twitter, Box, Facebook, SalesForce and Mailchimp.

    Part of the beauty of Microsoft Flow, is that it is designed specifically for end users. This allows them to create their own solutions, so IT teams and integration specialists can focus their expertise on innovating and pursuing their own business strategies. 

    Zapier

    Zapier is probably the best-known enterprise automation tool on the market, and with good reason. Zapier supports all of the heavy-hitting apps mentioned above, but also supports a number of niche corporate apps, like Recurly, HelloSign, and MySQL

    Another feature that sets Zapier apart from the competition is its ability to support multi-step workflows – what it calls multi-zaps. Most of the alternative web-based services available are binary (if this happens, then that happens). Zapier allows users to build much more complex rules - this happens, then that, that, and that… and so on. 

    Consumer expectations are fuelling the change

    The consumerisation of IT is driving a self-service revolution. Business users are no longer content to sit back and wait for their IT department to make the magic happen. Instead, they are looking for tools and services that enable self-ownership. Much like the moving assembly line, they want to create a smart workplace, where the solutions to come to the worker, instead of the worker going to the IT department.

    Henry Ford would have been proud.

    Why not read What Netflix Can Teach Organisations about Adapting to Changing Consumer Expectations?