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Automation Helps IT be a Valuable Business Partner

By Sandy Figurski, CIO, Horace Mann [NYSE:HMN]

Sandy Figurski, CIO, Horace Mann [NYSE:HMN]

Over the past several years of being a CIO, I’ve learned not just the value of knowing the business, but the need to know the processes and tactics that make it work. It is not sufficient to be a technologist. The key is to understand how technology can enable the business, improve the customer experience and drive business value.

I started in the insurance industry as a part-time entry-level clerk in a policy processing unit. I learned the business of insurance through the eyes of a bookkeeper, balancing debits and credits. Shortly after that, I began building and teaching insurance accounting courses to new supervisors. I recently realized what an opportunity that was and how it helped my career. I value those days of learning how things work and how they come together. It helped me understand how the transactions flowed through the systems and how they were recorded on the books. It was a way to learn the business from a different perspective— from the bottom up.

I contrast that with how the use of technology is so vastly different today, with a dependency on ease of use and short-cuts masking the mechanics of how things work. I’ll use a simple example that I ran into a few years ago. I was with a friend who went to use her key fob to unlock her car door, but apparently the battery had died on the fob. My friend was worried for a moment, not knowing how to get in the car. She was quite embarrassed when she realized she had become so used to that click of a button that she had forgotten she could simply turn the key in the lock.

When I translate that concept to the business world, I can’t help but think about the impact of automation on an organization. Automation is an enabler of efficiency and speed. It can eliminate boring manual tasks and free up time to focus on higher-value activities. What happens, though, when there’s no longer anyone who knows how the system works from the bottom up? Technologists move on to different functions or retire leaving an (often) irreplaceable knowledge gap. Often, documentation is limited and not kept up to date. And then invariably Murphy’s Law strikes and what can go wrong will go wrong. What happens then? Is your organization prepared to address the issue?

I remember a situation several years ago when the unthinkable had happened. There was an automated process that required a date to be entered. Unfortunately, the wrong date was entered and the checks and balances that should have been in place were lacking. The situation was not identified until after the entire automated process was complete. To make it a little more challenging, it was time sensitive. There were a few hours of stress when the team wasn’t sure how to fix the situation. Fortunately, there were a few individuals who understood what was going on behind the scenes and were able to address the situation with some ingenuity (along with a few sleepless nights.) This was one of those situations that make a lasting impression. Things will happen. Stay calm, address the situation and take the opportunity to learn and become better as a result.

As a leader, impressing on your team the need to understand the business and how transactions flow helps to mitigate that concern. Ensuring your team knows the business side of the transaction is essential when it comes to delivering value to the business. Aim to ensure your team has or is developing critical thinking skills so that when something goes wrong, they know how to address the issue. And think of the additional benefit of your team knowing the business and being in a position to leverage technology to innovate on new products and solutions.

Automation is a great enabler—it truly does free up time to focus on higher-value activity. To me, that time can be used to learn the ins and outs of the business, develop critical thinking skills within the organization, and become a true partner to the business.

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