With rapidly rising technology becoming more a part of everyday life, businesses now have a plethora of options when it comes to what tech to use as more systems are automated. But questions remain. Automation, what is it good for? Is automation a good idea for all businesses? What limitations are there?

Let’s talk…

Inga Latham, Chief Product Officer, SiteMinder

Despite common misconceptions that automation will take jobs away, in the service-led hotel and travel sectors, automation will enable better customer experiences and standards of customer service than ever before. Having the right automation technologies in place can make for shorter wait times at check-in counters, deeper understanding of customers’ needs before they have engaged in a phone call enquiry, and faster changes to bookings and payment information so staff can get on with delivering the level of service that customers want and need. For a business’ bottom line, automation is also a critical enabler of new revenue streams.

When investing in this technology for the first time or in new ways, it will be challenging to know where to start. It’s important to not get distracted by whatever happens to be ‘new and shiny’ and instead have clear goals for automating your business that align with the overall digital transformation strategy. Prioritise end-to-end technology platforms for ease of vendor management and overall business efficiency.  

Mike Featherstone, Managing Director, ANZ & APAC, Pluralsight

Automation in Australian workplaces continues to grow with new applications for machine learning and artificial intelligence being deployed every month. Security is just one of the areas that stand to benefit from this trend. With over 111 billion lines of code written every year, automation of many security measures is required to deliver timely rollouts while ensuring that unknown threats are not introduced into the systems. Processes including vulnerability scanning have been the first to see this new wave of innovation.

However, no singular tool can check every piece of code for every conceivable problem. While automatic tools can be developed to catch a lot of potential issues, tech proficient talent still need to architect the toolset and interpret the results. Ultimately, cybersecurity still requires human oversight to counter a human-led threat. Tools and automation definitely have a role to play, but ongoing technology upskilling for developers must remain a priority. This will allow the prioritisation of complex problems, knowing the basics are taken care of by security-conscious software developers creating higher quality, secure code.

Pieter Danhieux, CEO and Co-Founder, Secure Code Warrior


Cybersecurity is a growing challenge in our economy as every business increases its reliance on technology. The sheer volume of code across hundreds of tech properties necessitates the automation of some areas of cybersecurity to ensure we do not fall behind.

However, the human element cannot be replaced. Human action is required to counter a human-driven threat. No single approach will mitigate every possible gap in security so to tackle this challenge we need to incorporate security thinking into every step of the software development process.

Upskilling developers to mitigate against well-known security bugs early in the development process can reduce the need for patches down the line. In conjunction, automated tools can help stretched security teams address simple issues while they focus on identifying new gaps and threat vectors. The creation of high quality, secure code requires developers and AppSec teams to work together to counter known and new challenges.

Jason Toshack, General Manager ANZ, Oracle NetSuite

Technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, so it’s less a question of what can be automated, but rather, what should be automated.

In most instances, customers still prefer speaking with a human, especially if they are troubleshooting something particularly sensitive or complicated. Having been in sales roles for more than 20 years, I have yet to find a sales rep who enjoys admin tasks. Cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) solutions can automate tasks like quote and order management, while also automating marketing communications, which in turn lets your sales team focus on delivering great customer service.  

Likewise, it is much more advantageous for finance leaders to use their brain power to tackle complex strategic challenges, rather than having them wade in the weeds of invoices and receipts. Your financial software should be able to create reports instantly or automatically create sales invoices when a purchase order is received. 

Ultimately, automation should be used strategically. Routine tasks that can be automated should be. In the end, this is not only more effective for your business, but it also frees up your employees’ time to focus on more rewarding and higher-value tasks.

Sahba Idelkhani, Director of Systems Engineering, McAfee

In the world of cybersecurity, automation is increasingly becoming a technology used to detect and protect against complex cyberattacks—and consequently help alleviate the cyber talent shortage. More recently, the volume of attacks has also surged. In fact, COVID-19-themed cyber-attack detections increased by 605% in Q2 2020

Tasks driven by automation are now addressed within minutes—not months—and allows teams to be proactive and resilient instead of reactive to the highly active threat landscape. Plus, automation provides an operational advantage, whereby, its implementation frees up senior analysts and IT staff from time-consuming tasks (such as data collection from various sources) to accelerate their response time to address an attack and make better-informed decisions.

However, automation is not useful in all contexts, as cybersecurity-related incidents rarely follow the same attack path – therefore, making it harder to automate remediation and responses completely. Response decisions will still need to loop in human talent for this very reason, and this is what we call human-machine teaming. Simply put, there’ll always be a need in cybersecurity for a human’s imagination and creativity to solve complex issues.

Vijay Sundaram, Chief Strategy Officer, Zoho

Vijay Sundaram, Soho, on supporting employees

Innovation and efficiency in business is an amalgam of culture, practices, and technology. Technology drives automation in many ways. Time-consuming work—like scheduling, issue tracking, analysis, and reporting—can be completely automated using workflows that plan, schedule, and automate work. This frees up human intervention for strategic thinking and soft-skill issues that cannot be automated.

AI can help find bottlenecks before they happen, plan best routes, or best times to accomplish something by combing through patterns in data that humans never can. Notifications and reminders can ensure prompt customer service in ways humans cannot keep up.

What automation cannot do is to set a culture that establishes practices and policy. For example, quick and decentralised decision making or customer-centricity are defining corporate cultures that drive innovation and loyalty and have stood the test of time. Automation cannot do that for you. Neither can it intervene to resolve, or even head off, conflict.

Andrew Souter, Area Vice President PreSales APAC, Ivanti

Automation tools can resolve up to 80% of IT issues before users even report them – music to the ears of teams struggling to keep up with the demands placed on their technology assets by the remote working boom. Monitoring for changes in device behaviours and detecting, analysing, prioritising and remediating vulnerabilities and issues can all be automated, strengthening one’s security posture, alleviating pressure from staff, and reducing the potential for human error.

Automating spend management can hugely benefit organisations of all sizes who have bee tasked with ‘doing more with less’ as the events of 2020 continue to impact today’s budgets. Automating the analysis of asset usage, license types, purchases and subscriptions can help teams pinpoint every dollar spent at a moment’s notice. Not only can they then more effectively track usage, purchase history, end-of-life dates and ongoing overall spend, they can automate insights around upcoming renewals as contract expirations strengthens compliance.

Fintan Lalor, Director of Sales & GM APAC, Wrike

To answer that question, you have to look at the areas where humans and robots outperform each other. When thinking about automation for businesses and organisations, we are really looking at responsibilities that don’t require high human value. By that, I mean repetitive tasks and processes, coordination and organisational skills, and processing large amounts of data to extract insights and value from it. 

Our human skills are better used for higher tasks that require emotional intelligence. It allows us to be better leaders and colleagues, using our capacity for empathy and understanding, but also to be more creative, fuelling our continuous thirst for innovation to improve our environment and societies.

The aim of automation is really to remove those low-value tasks from our remit to allow us to focus on higher tasks that need human skills you can’t automate. To keep up with the digital age, there are intelligent platforms that organisations can consider to deal with the nitty-gritty, which is still very time-consuming for our workforce, and allow them to focus on growing and being a better business. 

Jarrod Kinchington, Managing Director, Infor ANZ

Automation helps drive efficiencies and cut out mundane work, but the human element always remains critical. Routine and repetitive work such as data collection and entry, for example, should be automated where possible, since it significantly cuts down time and reduces human error.

Supply chains is one area where automation provides critical benefits. Smart warehousing, automation and robotics transforms supply chains to be more agile, resilient and efficient. Cloud solutions have improved efficiency and risk management in the F&B, logistics and distribution sectors, while also giving clearer visibility into inventory, orders, equipment and people to help drive enhanced service levels and increase product velocity. In the hotel sector, automation can optimise check-in efficiency and eliminate paperwork, improving operating efficiency by up to 80%.

But caution still needs to be taken around automating relationship-based tasks. There are situations where human-to-human contact remains critical. While machines are getting increasingly effective in understanding human queries and generating responses, there will never be a day where the human touch is not needed.

Marco Zande, Marketing & Digital Communications Executive, WLTH

The power of automation is something that many businesses don’t fully comprehend until they start to build out and unlock its benefits. Automation helps businesses remove a number of pain points, especially clunky processes related to client engagement and communication.

Automation comes into its own when a business is looking to scale. By simplifying customer engagement flows, businesses can communicate with clients and onboard large numbers with ease, without having to bring on additional team members to handle the volume. 

However, it’s important to also remember that automation isn’t a good fit for all businesses, and there is a fine line between getting it right and missing the mark. In our business, the human element plays a pivotal role in everything we do, and our tagline ‘Branchless but not faceless’ really drives that home.

Greg Eyre, Vice President, Blue Prism

There has been a lot of conversation about automation in recent times. In the public arena, commentators are warning that robots are set to take over jobs and render the human labour force redundant, but this is simply not the case at all.

The digital workforce — robots driven by automated processes — are complementing human capabilities. It enables us to work smarter and be more productive, freeing our focus for high-level analytical, creative, and emotionally-driven tasks.

Robots might be able to complete administrative, predictable and tedious tasks through a framework that we, humans, set, but they rely on us to operate, learn and improve.

As a practical example in a healthcare setting, Robotic Process Automation and Intelligent Automation can help its human counterparts to improve patient care by proactively engaging patients with treatment plan updates or reducing wait times on arrival and discharge through automated or digital registration. However, it remains up to clinicians and healthcare professionals to deliver a high standard of care to their patients while also building and maintaining the human relationships that are critical within the healthcare sector.

Simon Le Grande, Director Of Marketing and Product Management, ‎Lightspeed

Through technological innovation as well as exceptional product & service design, some functions and tasks that used to require a human touch are increasingly becoming automated. What we’re seeing in many industries is a removal of the ‘human’ from repetitive and simple tasks, but a reaffirmation that more complex functions, requiring softer skills like empathy, communication, strategic thinking and creativity will never be ‘automated away’.

The hospitality industry provides an interesting lens here, especially given the acceleration of digital transformation in this space off the back of the pandemic. While digital menus, online ordering and contactless payments have automated many touchpoints in the dining experience, meaningful interactions and conversations with waitstaff, sommeliers and chefs that really augment the dining experience simply could not be automated. Humans are now able to focus their energies on value-add activities, while allowing technology to play its part in reducing the scope of their roles and bringing efficiencies that lead to business success.

Stuart Read, Head of Growth, JobAdder

Automation – intended to reduce human intervention in processes – can either be a blessing for businesses, or a true hindrance.

For us, at JobAdder, we embrace automation. Not only does it simplify our processes such as job postings to job boards, but it also helps to streamline our onboarding processes, payroll, and reference checks.  

However, we do acknowledge some aspects of our business that automation doesn’t entirely support, where a human element must be present in order to efficiently complete the task at hand. This can include anything from interviews with candidates, negotiations on money and benefits, the placement of a candidate, and hand-written job ads that can provide a personal touch and insight into the culture and essence of a brand.

Paul Hadida, General Manager Australia, SevenRooms

The accelerated adoption of technology in the last year has not only set new business standards, but has also led to changing customer expectations. Today, automation is a crucial advantage businesses can leverage to not only streamline operations, but meet and exceed customer expectations. In the hospitality industry, for example, there’s a misconception that automating processes could impact the personal, meaningful touches that patrons crave. The reality, however, is quite the opposite.

For customers, automation is both convenient and safe, helping venues glean valuable customer insights and data at the touch of a button. These insights, which are paramount to success, can ascertain a guest’s favourite food and drink, allergies and even their birthday. With that data operators can automate tailored marketing and promotions. Capturing data across the guest journey by automating previously manual processes – from on-site interactions to post-visit marketing – enhances a venue’s ability to provide the memorable and convenient experiences that can boost revenue and retention.

Roger Carvosso, Strategy and Product Director, FirstWave Cloud Technology

Automated technologies and processes come in a range of formats, and the most effective are those that pre-empt what the business needs, followed by taking measured actions to progress the business forward or prevent negative outcomes. One of the most important investments businesses will need to make in 2021 will be in cybersecurity technologies. 

With scams continuing to rise, professionals continuing to make simple errors that can lead to cybercrime, such as re-using weak passwords. And with businesses continuing to be easy targets for phishing attacks, whereby one leak of credentials can lead to the leak of an entire organisation’s data, it is no longer acceptable for a business of any size to ‘wait and see’ how cybercrime will impact them. There has to be a proactive approach, leveraging cost-effective but enterprise-grade solutions, to averting scam emails away from employees’ inboxes, flagging cybercrime to relevant executive and IT teams as it happens, and complying with industry rules and regulations. 

Emma Pudney, Chief Technology Officer, APJ, Rackspace Technology

Automation is part of our everyday lives even if we don’t realise it. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2025, more than 20% of all products will be manufactured, packed, shipped, and delivered without being touched, which means the person who purchases the product will be the first human to touch it. Organisations are automating more and more tasks, from operational workflows to application deployment. These tasks become end-to-end processes that are efficient, reliable, scalable and easier to adapt.

But deciding on whether or not to automate something is multifaceted. It’s not just about the decision-making process, but also part ROI, part morality and other knock-on effects. It’s worth considering, for example, the consequences to the global economy – what happens if we automate all of the tasks performed by an unskilled workforce? It’s not so much a question of what can’t we automate but what shouldn’t we automate.

Stephen Barnes, Principal, Byronvale Advisors

Most things in business can be automated or systemised. Accounting systems can have through processing from receiving an invoice through to lodging tax returns. HR systems can have timesheets based on employee’s physical location. Tasks such as answering the phone can be systemised as easily as taking a video recording. Automation and systemisation have many advantages. The three main ones in my opinion: it lets you guarantee the quality of work, it clarifies your thoughts and relieves stress, and it creates an asset that increases the value of your

There is one intangible that cannot be automated – relationships. In my business of turnarounds, restructures, and crisis management establishing personal relationships and repairing broken relationships is absolutely key to success. This is done by having actual face-to-face (or virtual face-to-face) meetings, and actual conversations – preferably not via email. It establishes an environment of openness and trust – and that is exactly whom people want to be in business with.

Mark Brown, General Manager – Marketing, Konica Minolta Australia

SMEs spend massive amounts of time on manual tasks. Automating these tasks would let employees add more value and experience greater job satisfaction. One example is documents that need to be scanned, processed, and delivered to one or more destinations such as another department, a customer relationship management (CRM) system or an electronic archiving solution. Document capture and workflow solutions make these procedures faster and more productive, and, importantly post-COVID, reduce costs.

Robotic process automation (RPA) can also assist with repetitive tasks. RPA completes mundane tasks such as processing invoices or claims, completing financial processes, or managing HR-related paperwork. This is done faster and with complete accuracy, leading to better outcomes for staff and customers.

There is no doubt that innovative technologies that let SMEs automate will be critical to their ongoing recovery and success into the future.

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While China offers Australian exporters unprecedented opportunity in terms of potential customers, entering the market doesn’t come without risk. One cost-effective way for Aussie SMEs to sell to our biggest trading partner without having to establish a physical presence is through e-commerce. 

Selling online is a popular way to test how a product will be received in a new market. China is only one of the myriad countries to consider, but with a population of over 1.4 billion, it’s a difficult market to ignore.

As well as assessing the political winds, every company needs to review its resources and strategic imperatives before deciding whether it’s the right time to establish sales channels in Asia.  But it’s worth noting that there has been strong growth in the Chinese market in 2020, despite the outbreak of the COVID-19.  Forbes reported that before the pandemic, 35 per cent of China’s retail spend was via e-commerce, and this will have jumped to 50 per cent by the end of 2020.  

The export journey

“You go in steps on the export journey,” says Dianne Tipping, Chair of the Export Council of Australia. “What often happens is that a business has a website and sells domestically, and then all of a sudden, its products gets picked up by someone overseas. Then the business looks at the size of the overseas market and realises that this is 7.8 billion people compared to 25 million in Australia.

“There are several ways of selling online, and I recommend firstly creating a website suitable for an international market,” says Dianne. “All the usual rules apply – the website should be easy to navigate, feature current content and high-quality images, and be mobile optimized. It needs to explain your products and tell your story, something that is difficult to do in a crowded online shopping mall.”

Even with pay-per-view marketing, driving overseas traffic to your website takes time to build up. Dianne says that’s why many companies adopt dual systems: a payment portal on their website for direct sales, and a presence on an established platform with a large customer base.

The good, the bad, and the profitable of Chinese e-commerce

A major advantage of entering the Chinese market via e-commerce is that the barriers to entry are generally lower than a bricks and mortar presence. The setup costs, regulatory compliance, and customer acquisition can also be significantly cheaper and faster than when a company establishes a physical presence. 

The sales potential in China is undeniable. Euromonitor reports that in 2019, China’s e-commerce sales reached USD $1.47 trillion, or 37 per cent of global e-commerce sales. However, the ease of participation has resulted in a crowded market, so for some brands, a hybrid model where e-commerce can open the path to bricks and mortar is preferable.

The most successful retailers in the large Chinese online shopping malls are the brands that control the narrative.  E-commerce requires significant attention to marketing and communications and constant engagement. The popular retailers cultivate a community of loyal customers who ultimately feel a part of the brand’s success.

“The Chinese online portals are very busy, and it’s hard to stand out,” says Dianne. “You have to have good photography and well-worded product explanations, and maybe something extra like a video or an online blog.”

There are several things to consider before entering the Chinese market. Registration of all intellectual property (IP) is crucial, including trademarks and marketing collateral. China is a first to file jurisdiction for IP, making early registration essential. And managing IP security is necessary.

The people you choose to partner with is the most important choice you will make for your China market entry strategy. The right partner can assist with fulfilment, payment, and will help quantify your costs. China is generally not a cheap place to do business, so having a well-considered market entry strategy is essential. 

“It is critical to make sure you work out a logistics plan before you start selling,” says Dianne. “This is particularly important during COVID-19 when the prices of air movement have increased, and the availability of air movement has reduced.”

When it comes to B2B portals, they don’t come any bigger than global juggernaut, Alibaba. The Group runs several e-commerce platforms, including Alibaba.com (B2B), Taobao (C2C), and TMall (B2C). 

But there are many alternatives portals for Australian exporters to consider. JD.com, which competes directly with TMall, allows Chinese consumer to buy overseas products through its cross-border service, JD worldwide. Sites like Pinduoduo and Vipshop compete on price and are suitable for products that can be discounted. There are also specialty Chinese marketplaces; for example, Austrade has a list of the portals that sell imported food and beverages.

When it comes to choosing the best online environment, it’s a case of horses for courses: Australian exporters need to research the different portals and decide which will be the most suitable for their products. It’s important to note that brands need to be ready for several years of investment before starting to win in this market.

Are my products suitable for the Chinese market?

Australian products have a reputation in China for being pure, eco-friendly, safe and of high quality, and the pandemic has only served to increase the country’s desire for these attributes. The most successful Australian brands in China are those that have leveraged these strengths.

“Chinese consumers have a high demand for ‘clean and green’ products,” says Maggie Zhou, Managing Director, Alibaba Group (Australia and NZ). “Many Australian brands and products excel in this area, particularly when it comes to products such as healthcare products, healthy packaged and snack foods, and natural cosmetics. 

“As a result, Australian businesses continue to perform well on Alibaba Group’s platforms,” Maggie continues. “In fact, during last year’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, Australia was the fourth most purchased from country, with Australia’s Swisse and BioIsland brands ranking in the top five most popular cross-border brands by Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV).”

Breaking the figures down by the number of buyers, Maggie says, “The results showed that the top 10 product categories among Chinese consumers buying cross-border from Australia included health supplements, adult milk powder, infant and toddler nutrition, emulsion, powdered drink mixes, dairy products, facial masks, baby toiletries, and facial serums.”

Understanding Chinese mobile consumer behaviour

E-commerce has delivered products from around the world to the smartphones of Chinese consumers, and their loyalty is hard-won and fleeting. The convenience of online shopping makes it easier for consumers to discover you, but also easier for them to discover your competitors. 

Chinese consumers, particularly younger consumers, generally have lower levels of brand loyalty, simply because it’s so easy for them to try new products. Brands that can cultivate a genuine community of fans are the most successful online in China, and again, brand management is key. Just as e-commerce and digital marketing can amplify your message, it can also serve to highlight your missteps, so digital tools need to be treated with respect. 

Social media is vitally important when it comes to successful online retailing in China. It is important to remember that your social media strategy will need to be redeveloped for Chinese platforms which differ from those in the West. Engaging with the consumer in their language and on their platforms is the only way to build a brand presence in China. 

Livestreaming, in particular, has become a mainstay on Chinese e-commerce platforms. According to iiMedia Research, approximately 504 million people in China watched online live streaming content in 2019, and this is expected to rise to 526 million during 2020.

Livestream sessions host real-time broadcasting of video content presented by social media Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), who model or test products. Viewers watch a video and can purchase featured products through embedded online links.

The journey continues

While many companies will be happy to sell to China through a shopping portal indefinitely, Dianne says that for some, it will be a stepping-stone to a larger presence. “Blackmores started selling online to China,” she explains. “Then it exported container loads and put them into bonded warehouses, and then it sold directly in China from bonded warehouses. Now Blackmores manufacture all over Asia. But it’s important to realise that we are probably talking about a 15-year journey, not a one-week journey.”

Where to go for assistance

A good starting point is Austrade’s overview of the Chinese market on E-Commerce in ChinaAustrade also offers a range of services to assist companies in engaging with potential business partners in China, including through virtual meetings and digital platforms. This is particularly useful given the current restrictions on travel and the impact of COVID-19. Austrade has set up an e-commerce landing page, which captures all the e-Commerce webinar recordings, guides for online exporting, e-commerce reports for different markets.

Export Council of Australia provides practical education and training, advice and advocacy to the Australian export community. 

Export Finance Australia is the government’s export credit agency. It supports SMEs, corporates and governments to realise export opportunities or contribute to the export supply chain. 

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