What it’s like automating in a consultancy
If you take stock of what you do in a day, how many of those tasks are repetitive? Sometimes all but a glorified tick boxing exercise? These types of manual tasks that are repetitive, can be templated, are perfect candidates for automation. But how do you know what automation is worth?
Digital automation costs. From the beginning, it’ll be an expensive process but equally, from the beginning it will add value to your business. The journey through automation is often a long and winding one. If you’re aiming for that moment where you can say ‘we’re 100% automated’ — you’ll be waiting until the end of time.
But all is not lost — let us tell you about our journey at Optimal Compliance. How we started small, automated one thing at a time and built momentum. We will discuss why as business consultants we decided to automate our best practices, how to get started, how to get your team who may not be software engineers to participate and what products we used.
Before Automating — Get Your House in Order
Any decision to begin to automate parts of a business is a huge undertaking, the vision of which may mean different things to different people within the business. Educating and informing people of the direction of travel is key in keeping everyone engaged and on the critical path.
One of the great things when everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ is that colleagues are more likely to be involved. In our scenario, our consultants are pivotal for educating non-consultants, the digital team. This is a scenario that slips under the radar all too often — ‘a digital team is so closely linked to their industry based counterparts that building successful automation is impossible without the other’. To a more or lesser extent, our consultants are our stakeholders, they are the drivers for the direction of travel.
Next up, ensure that the business is communicating effectively. The challenges of effective internal communication have never been more crucial. It has long been the norm for digital teams to be somewhat remote, but in a post-COVID world it has quickly been realised that all arms of a business can operate remotely — but this should come with some basic ground rules. Enter enterprise level instant messaging services, for us Slack does the trick.
All colleagues need to know when other colleagues are instantly available, this can be achieved by using the online/offline features of instant messaging. As the name implies, responses for online/available colleagues should be near-to instant, and colleagues should understand that. We also use Slack’s vacation feature to signify if someone is likely to be offline for an extended period of time. It’s about openness in communications. If you’re not around, don’t pretend to be around. No one is micromanaging this. However, if you are online, we expect a response pronto.
Instant messaging and remote working are 2 contentious issues, and it was no different at Optimal Compliance. Between them, they can blur the lines of the average work day, giving rise to ‘unconscious overtime’ or ‘unsociable working hours’. Whilst some employees may not be too troubled by this, there are just as many who want to switch off at a certain time and not have to think about the daily grind at all. The business should respect both of these attitudes and should set itself limits as to how it utilises instant messaging.
At Optimal Compliance we had to make a choice, prescribe rules for every minute detail of using instant messaging, or, set some solid baseline rules and see where the culture takes it. We took the latter and that approach worked great for us. We can only put this down to a strong, fair and pragmatic culture that runs straight through the core of Optimal Compliance.
Finally, procure a low cost cloud-based document storage and editing service. We use Google Drive. Apart from having endless storage, it allows multiple consultants and digital colleagues to work remotely, in parallel on the same document which is an extremely efficient and free flowing approach to co-authored documents.
Types of Digital Products For A Consultancy
Over the last year we’ve been able to carve our business into 3 broad categories. Internal and external facing, and data/insight based products.
External facing products are those that are public and end-user facing. I.e. A stranger to the business can find the product, sign themselves up and begin using your product to their own advantage. The benefit of this type of product usually manifests as real revenue, usually in the form of a monthly subscription. In terms of roadmap/direction, this would usually at first be set internally within the business, with the aim to have a user driven roadmap in as short a time as possible. You can try out our answer to automated R&D Tax Relief, called Novel — available with a 3 month free trial.
Internal facing products on the other hand are for use by the business. The aim of a product like this is to make internal practices more efficient. By combining third-party data sources we can create digital processes that speed up consultant workflows ten-fold. This is a project that we’re just about to embark on at Optimal Compliance — as a business we’ll then be able to increase our client base without compromising the quality of the work or overextending our current staff. The roadmap of this type of product is primarily set by internal stakeholders.
Lastly, data/insight based products. Using the skill and experience of the consultancy in combination with third-party data sources it’s possible to create data sets that are more useful than their vanilla source versions. It’s common practice to then integrate your own application data with the collated third-party data to offer enhanced data sets that no other competition can offer. This will allow us to effectively target existing, and even new clients, and recommend other products that would benefit them, for example — one of our automated R&D clients may also profit by reinventing themselves as a partnership and vice versa.
Building your Product and Team
Now the rest of the business understands the vision and the direction is set, it’s time to start building your product. Or is it? Who’s going to build it? Wait, what are we even building? Before starting out a team needs to exist and that team needs to adhere to a certain style of project management.
The de-facto standard for digital project management is using agile methodologies, more specifically various strains of scrum. This allows the roadmap to be broken down into smaller chunks of work called sprints, most commonly 2 week sprints. It’s also worth noting that most engineers will be used to working in this fashion which makes recruitment and onboarding more simple. Basic scrum teams must appoint 3 core roles: a product owner, scrum master and engineer(s). In addition to that a team may contain: a designer and internal stakeholders. (Which sit on the periphery of the team)
Now everything is in place, it’s time to start building out the new product. The main focus for the initial phase of the project is to get it to a Minimum Viable Product as quickly as possible. This will allow users to begin using the product to a certain extent, for us it ingrained a good practice of iteration culture. When end users begin using the product, it can still be extended in any which way — however, altering the underlying data store structure is much more difficult. We suggest that the data structures are well set before handing over the reins to the end user. It’s a gentle balance.
The first major technical hurdle that will be met is how to host your product. We suggest using a public cloud, the ambition is to get a product in front of a user as quickly as possible, using valuable time on lower level configuration is probably not desirable. AWS offers many services and generous promotions for businesses starting out, founders and entrepreneurs. It is worth researching some of the promotions they are offering and taking advantage of them as they can significantly reduce your hosting costs. In addition to the speed that a public cloud offers, it also supports a wide range of programming languages. This will give greater flexibility in future recruitment.
The best way to get started with digital automation is by starting small. Automating your best practices is worth the investment and if you can get some of your current team on board to help, it will make the end product that much more suitable to your business and your working methods. Don’t expect instant results or even gratification right away, it’s a long process. However, like all good things in life, sometimes they are worth the wait.