Doctor on computer

NHS payroll ‘human error’ was avoidable with process automation

By: Neil Kinson, Vice President EMEA at Redwood Software
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013 - 12:36 GMT Jump to Comments

The payroll ‘human error’ which resulted in 8,500 workers at South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust being paid late could have been avoided with the right automation strategy.

It’s time for the public sector to take a fresh look at its IT processes. The latest news that thousands of staff at South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust were not paid on time because of a payroll ‘human error’ should be an eye opener.

Most organisations rely on their IT processes more than they realise. However, many still support important procedures, such as payroll, with manual ‘human’ activities, which as we all know aren’t always perfect.

After all, it only takes one little slip-up to destroy the whole workflow. Whether it’s the wrong account data being manually entered or simply the accounts team triggering payment on the wrong day – any mistake could have a knock-on effect, which not only inconveniences the payee, but also damages the reputation of the organisation in question. 

In the case of the South Tees payroll glitch, the board of directors understands that payment delay may cause “real hardship” to a number of affected staff and has promised to honour any bank charges caused by the delay.

Considering the circumstances, this is the best course of action that the NHS could take to resolve the situation after it had occurred. However, one of the best long-term solutions would be to take a step back and look at how processes can be permanently improved, so that this situation never happens again.

Of course, the most obvious solution is to remove the possibility of ‘human error’ altogether. Using process automation it’s possible to easily eliminate manual tasks, freeing up staff from repetitive mundane roles, which inadvertently, but inevitably lead to human errors.

This isn’t about making staff redundant either - it’s about giving them the time to work more efficiently across the wider organisation.

Automation Facts 

I’ll return to the topic of people enablement in a moment. However, first I wanted to explain some of the reasons that organisations, including elements of the public sector, are turning to process automation.

First and foremost, the automation of repetitive processes ensures that organisations have the correct level of accuracy, speed, efficiency, consistency and quality they need every time.

For example, instead of using staff to manually complete payroll data entry, businesses can now automate the process so there is no need for human intervention or risk of ‘human error’.

Automatic, repeatable processes also ensure that organisations have standard practices in place, which results in faster, more reliable and cost-effective workflows.

With the ability to guarantee that the same processes are conducted in the same manner and to the desired specification every time, it becomes possible to ensure quality and consistency in every step, regardless of whether you’re collecting staff data or arranging payments.

Enable rather than replace a workforce

As promised, I want to discuss one of the most common myths associated with automation – its reputation as a replacement for people. This is particularly pertinent in the UK public sector today.

With pressure currently on the government to display greater efficiency and results, but at a reduced cost, many parts of the public sector are looking closely at automation. However, while many are approaching this from the angle of automating away the need for staff, from my experience I know that the long-term value of process automation depends on how people use it.

Sure, replacing your workforce with automation can reduce costs in the short term, but a far greater return on investment comes from using automaton to drive human innovation, and this requires coordination between people and the technology they use. This is because when highly skilled and knowledgeable staff are freed from repetitive, mundane tasks, they can refocus on more strategic activities.

If the NHS was to empower its staff with automation, rather than replace them, it could divert its resources to updating and improving both human and IT processes across its entire operation.

The long-term value of automation is to see it as an enabler—not a replacement—for people. Automation is the brawn of any enterprise, and this includes the public sector. However, human beings should still provide the insight, leadership and brains behind the operation.

‘Fire-Fighters’ in the NHS?

With automation, the public sector can move from ‘fire-fighting mode’ and avoid repeats of serious errors like South Tee’s August payroll issue. Instead of cleaning up after a glitch, it becomes possible to avoid it altogether.

However, while reduced manual intervention eliminates ‘human error’, ensuring organisations get their steps completed right first time around, intelligent automation of payroll, or any other business and IT process, goes much further than this.

Imagine a system where IT users automatically receive notification of tasks errors. Public sector staff would be informed of any potential issues before they have time to cause a delay. 

For example, if the payroll data entry isn’t correct for one employee, this can be flagged and resolved before it is passed further through the workflow and causes an issue when it reaches or doesn’t reach the correct payee. 

Today, many businesses already benefit from the improved visibility and control provided by automation. For example, automation of IT processes enables retailers to improve their stock replenishment processes because they can pool greater quantities of sales data and more effectively share it within a 24-hour window.

In addition, intelligent automation elevates IT teams from time-consuming, daily fire drills and manual process patches.

Smart automation, can even be supported by a mobile phone app so that IT users can actively monitor and manage business-critical processes anytime, anywhere. There is no need for an alert notification to be missed ever again.

Time for Change

With plans to digitise court rooms and make the NHS paperless, the public sector has committed to considerable investments in technology over the past few months, as they seek to make the most of the resources available to them.

Now it is vital, particularly in light of the South Tees payroll glitch, that it looks at improving the processes that support its critical IT activities.

Manually completing repetitive tasks is risky, costly, inefficient and unsustainable. However, when organisations automate standardised processes, they take the best possible route to reduce error, use staff wisely, accelerate processes and improve efficiency.

As with private companies, the public sector has to innovate if it wishes to remain at the top of its game. It’s time to change.

Neil Kinson leads the Redwood European Operations, as well as having global responsibility for the development of the RunMyJobs partner Ecosystem. Prior to joining Redwood, Neil was part of the EMEA Leadership team at OpenText, holding a number of executive roles.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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