We would be the first to encourage a top-down approach to redesign of core business processes. But often, that is out of reach for a post-conflict government. It´s expensive to hire a world-class design house. Aid-financed public procurements don’t always stimulate creative problem-solving, or investments may have been recently completed, but the tech doesn’t deliver quite what was envisaged.
Time for the bottom-up innovation.
When choosing the bottom-up route, we would encourage leadership to enable some macro-coordination and structure around the efforts. There are effective ways of doing this, without stalling the good initiatives and creative processes that you would like to encourage.
Now, for the practical concepts:
1. Spreadsheet automation
The mother of all business automation is Microsoft Excel VBA. VBA is the acronym for the programming language that has been built into Excel from the very beginning. Business analysts can’t live without it. Professional programmers find it primitive and distasteful. The audience for VBA has always been the front-end user. Basically, any process that involves doing something with structured data, numbers mostly, can be automated. Clever combinations of formula templates, pivot tables and VBA code can enable very complex operations to performed quickly, repetitively and without human entry error mistakes.
There are some important constraints. First, that the solutions will be tied to desktop execution triggered by a user. While it is possible to run VBA automations remotely, or triggered autonomously, it is not designed for this and Microsoft discourages it. This was perhaps more important in the old days, when scripts stopped during operation for no apparent logical reason. Its less of a problem today, but remains a practical constraint. Second, operations outside of the Microsoft suite of office softwares is difficult and often not possible. It is not impossible, but generally requires some borderline hacking approaches.
2. Cloud based spreadsheets, databases and scripts
The practical leader in this domain is google docs. The others are trying to catch up. Basically, a suite of office softwares served entirely online, and everything is programmable. This overcomes one of the major constraints of the desktop executed scripts.
Here you can program activities to be triggered remotely, time-based or by any other digitizable event. Get input data from some source, perform calculations, deliver outputs.
The script engines allows for extending beyond the office software suite, can connect with all kinds of external databases or web apps through standard interface concepts.
Beyond the consumer-grade office packages, the steps are not overly complicated to transfer into more robust solutons that may need real databases and powerful servers – hosted in the cloud.
3. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software
This is a specific set of softwares designed to interact with other software. Basically, open a program, do something, and open another program and do something. Very typical repetitive activities in an organization. UiPath and Blue Prism are market leaders.
This is principally helpful when trying to create more efficient solutions to patch gaps in the core business or legacy softwares that the organization may use. Mostly executed by a user on a desktop, but can also be programmed as serverside for more autonomous processing.
And then, of course, linking two or more of the above together can create some really powerful solutions.
If going down this route, managers should be a little worried about proliferation of chaos and a portfolio of uncoordinated solutions. But there are ways to build some structure around the bottom-up approaches to ensure they are more sustainable and coordinated.