For e-commerce retailers, increasing productivity is a constant goal, but it’s difficult to know where to start. What might be even more daunting is deciding which tasks should remain on your plate and which ones should be handed off to someone else. Automation is frequently resisted because employees are worried about losing their jobs to computers. But in the age of computing, entrepreneurs need to constantly assess how work is performed and where opportunities for automation lie, or they risk being bogged down by busywork and falling behind the competition.
Are you wasting time?
The decision to automate is tough because it can be difficult to determine when too much time is spent on completing the work and when that time should be set aside to design a method for automating that work.
The act of automating a procedural task actually does require a lot of knowledge-based work, along with a healthy dose of creativity, which can take up a lot of time. But many startups have a lot to gain by automating certain nonproductive tasks:
A study by Atlassian, a productivity software startup, found that 60 percent or less of work time is actually spent productively.
To prevent feeling like you’re wasting time, you have to constantly assess the type of work you’re performing every day. It can help to regularly ask yourself questions like, “Could this be done by a computer if … ?” or, “How many hours of my day does this task take up?”
Without knowing where your time is spent now, it’s impossible to reallocate your time for a more productive future.
What can be outsourced?
As you’re thinking about how you can be more productive, consider work through two lenses: procedural and knowledge-based.
Procedural work can be broken down easily into steps that don’t require skill beyond access to the appropriate tools. The only things that are required to complete procedural work are a set of procedures, the appropriate tools and effort. These are the types of tasks that could be automated, such as processing a customer refund. The results of procedural work are clearly defined with consistent quality over time.
Knowledge-based work is much more difficult to define and requires a combination of creativity, improvisation and intangible knowledge to achieve the desired result. The result itself is highly variable depending on the skill of the person performing the task and the quality of execution. An example of a knowledge-based task would be drafting an email to generate upsells from a company’s top clients.
In e-commerce organizations, it’s up to managers to decide which procedural work should be automated.
Determining which tasks to outsource
Before you can decide to outsource a particular task, you have to determine whether that task is procedural or knowledge-based in nature. It’s OK if the labels “procedural” and “knowledge-based” feel like generalizations. Look at the designations like a Venn diagram in which the two circles overlap in the middle.
If you’re having trouble, ask yourself a few questions:
- Is the task performance-driven or output-driven? The former means it can create more or less value depending on the skill of the individual performing the task. The latter means that anyone working on the task would achieve the same result.
- Is the task creative or prescriptive? A creative task requires a certain amount of skill and special insight to produce a good output. If it’s a prescriptive task, there will be little variation in output regardless of the input.
- Is the task a high-level or low-level responsibility? High-level tasks usually have a number of smaller components, often involving a team, that need to be completed before the project can be called a success. Low-level work can be completed in isolation, so it’s procedural and, therefore, lends itself to outsourcing.
The process of breaking down the tasks helps you decide what to outsource, but it has the added benefit of giving you a basic framework of deliverables. You’ll want to outsource work that has clearly defined steps with results that are tangible. Instead of creating a deliverable for each step, group the tasks into chunks so a project manager can set deadlines and measure results.
As an e-commerce retailer, much of my early work was administrative or procedural. I found myself uploading products, editing copy, checking stock levels and ordering collateral. This pile of work prevented me from keeping up with e-commerce trends and getting to more important initiatives, such as designing Facebook ads, optimizing my website and creating new products.
Ultimately, outsourcing certain tasks has allowed me to focus on more strategic initiatives and enabled me to deliver far more value to my business.