Why autonomy must come before automation

by Yelitza Guerra 25 September 2019

A lot of today’s discussions around digital transformation revolve around automation – streamlining processes, freeing up people for more meaningful tasks, and so on. We hear and indeed talk a lot about automation in our own conversations with customers who want to better integrate work and life in their workplaces. But my own experience working at Ricoh suggests that automation isn’t the key to more productive work and more fulfilled people. Autonomy is.

In an article that Elham, our GM Operations, recently posted on LinkedIn, she wrote about how digital transformation requires nothing less than an end to traditional definitions of ownership and organisational responsibility. It’s a clarion call for us to stop asking “who owns what” when faced with the monumental task of transforming organisations from the ground up, and start asking “who can get it done?”

Elham and Tori, our GM of Marketing, have set the example for many of us at Ricoh. Under their leadership, Operations and Marketing have been continuously sharing responsibilities and resources to tackle weighty issues like the consistency of customer experience, or mapping out complex and often arcane processes that underpin (and sometimes undermine) our daily functions. But putting that example into practice has involved not just closer collaboration, but also much higher degrees of autonomy for those directly involved in the work. As leaders, they’ve given many of us the chance to design our own solutions, jump on opportunities that we’ve observed, and otherwise “take matters into our own hands”. Out of that autonomy, I’ve found, comes a different sense of ownership: personal investment and even pride in the work that we do.

However, I don’t believe this necessarily works in every organisation. It works in Ricoh because everyone actively subscribes to the same values and purpose behind digital transformation: earning the trust of our customers, working together for better workplaces instead of at cross-purposes. That shared vision ensures that autonomy doesn’t end up being abused by those it’s given to. In effective digitally-transformed workplaces, autonomy precedes automation – but purpose precedes autonomy. That purpose, coupled with empowerment of our people, is already making a real difference in how we function as an altogether better business, not just a “digital” one.