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Ask an Expert: Marie Hibbert on Small Business Process Automation

Our team recently sat down with Marie Hibbert, Director of Business Intelligence & Data Analytics at James Moore, to chat about automation for small businesses and actionable steps they can take to begin improving their processes. 

We are undergoing a process overhaul ourselves here at Elevate Funding, and Marie has been instrumental for our team as we go through this practice. We hope you read this advice and consider how you can apply it to your own business.

Please continue reading for the full interview.

What are some of the key benefits small businesses see when automating their processes?

Automating processes in a small business can yield significant benefits. Some of the most impactful benefits include increased efficiency, reduced errors, and scalability. There are also often unsuspected benefits like enhanced employee satisfaction.

Automation of existing processes can significantly reduce cycle time. In addition, because the process is automated, volume increases do not necessarily correlate with a need to increase resources. If your team is currently manually processing invoices, as an example, and you have organizational growth of 50% without automation, you would need to hire additional resources. Automation enables your business to scale rapidly.

Automation is a daunting challenge for many small businesses – what is the first step they can take to begin improving their processes?

The first step in identifying which processes to improve is to identify the challenges in your organization. You can generally identify these processes relatively quickly. Is your close cycle too long? Does it take too long to process a payment or invoice? Do you struggle to get the information you need in a timely matter? Why?

Next, before you begin to build a solution, you need to revisit the process. Often, as humans, we get stuck in a cycle of just doing what we have always done. Automating an existing process without first analyzing inputs, outputs, and the overall requirements will minimize the benefits. Some questions you may want to ask: Are there unnecessary steps in your current process? Are you getting all the information you need, or more than necessary?

Finally, quantify the business value and related cost to automate each process. By measuring the business value (e.g., time savings, risk reduction, and value of information more readily available) and calculating the cost, you can build an opportunity matrix. By doing so, you can often find “quick wins” that have relatively high business value and low cost. There are also projects you will want to avoid or postpone. These projects will have a lower value score but a high cost of implementation.

The James Moore team has put together this quick worksheet to help small businesses decide which processes they should automate — simply click here to download.

What tasks or processes can most small businesses begin automating right away?

  1. Processes or tasks that are repetitive, routine, and time consuming. These processes often occur regularly (e.g., hourly, daily, weekly, monthly) and take considerable time from your resources. Examples include reconciliations, calculations, and reporting.
  2. Processes that are rule based and often require the same process steps. As an example, you open a report in excel and always have to reformat, filter, and sort the same data.
  3. Processes that utilize structured data that is “readable.” For instance, .xlsx, .csv., .txt formats.

Some processes are harder to automate. These include processes that utilize unstructured data (e.g., .pdf, .docx, audio files), are unstable, or require significant human logic and intervention.

What are some inexpensive tools and technologies that facilitate process automation or workflow improvements?

Often you already have tools at your disposal that can enable automation. These include tools such as Microsoft Power Query and Power Automate. Choosing the right tool is often dependent on the skillset of your existing resources, available budget, systems currently being utilized, and the volume of your data. Sometimes it is worth the investment to implement a more robust low-code or no-code tool. These include tools such as Alteryx, Domo, and Qlik.

Marie Hibbert, CPA, CITP, CGMA

Marie Hibbert specializes in helping companies optimize and automate their systems and processes, enabling organizations to harness their data in a more meaningful way. She works with companies to gain insights and provide the information necessary to stay competitive in today's marketplace.

Marie has over 20 years of experience working with some of the world’s largest organizations, focusing on process automation, analytics, and financial technology. Marie has written for CFO Tech Outlook, where she enjoys sharing information on new technologies.