The Art of Practical Automation

You may hear a lot these days about how automation kills jobs. But automation isn’t all bad—the right tech tools can help make you more efficient so you can get away from busywork and focus on the bigger picture.

Elon Musk is the kind of guy who probably has gotten further than most out of a desire for automation, and even he’s willing to admit that sometimes he takes things too far.

“Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” Musk wrote in a tweet to a Wall Street Journal reporter last week. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

Big thing of you to say, Elon! And certainly, there’s some truth to this point. But I do think that there’s a lot of room for automation to benefit those pesky humans you have on your staff.

As I noted last week in my recap of a new Conference Board study, automation is just one of many solutions that organizations are looking at to ease the growing talent crunch that faces their organizations.

Automation need not be something nefarious. It can simply be a matter of cutting down on busywork that gets in the way of broader strategic thinking.

While a lot of folks have images in their heads of robots stealing their jobs or algorithms replacing people, automation need not be something nefarious. It can simply be a matter of cutting down on busywork that gets in the way of broader strategic thinking.

How I Personally Use Automation

As a journalist, I often deal with a lot of things that are effectively busywork, such as resizing and cropping images.

For a while, I used a set of Photoshop keyboard shortcuts to help speed up what can be a repetitive process. But, at some point, I realized that most of the images I uploaded often used a basic frame size, and that, while there are times I needed to do more aggressive cropping or illustration, in many cases, a dead center crop often does the trick.

On top of this, Getty Images added a Dropbox integration, meaning I could set a specific folder for images to land.

So, I used these features to automate my upload process. Now, whenever an image hits a certain folder in Dropbox, the automation tool Zapier will push that image to Cloudconvert, a file-conversion service that it supports, to resize and scale the pictures as needed. After the picture is properly cropped, it then goes to WordPress, where I can choose the image. If I decide I want a different crop, I just grab the original file in Photoshop and adjust accordingly.

Likewise, I often find that there are certain types of text that I’m dealing with on a daily basis that have a very specific form—such as text with straight quotes instead of curly quotes, or repetitive phrases I have to keep typing in. On my Mac, automation often saves the day for me in these situations.

One tool I use is called Rocket Typist, which allows me to set a key command so that when I want to type in tomorrow’s date, I just write “tomo” and hit the tab key, and “April 18, 2018” shows up.

Apple’s own MacOS interface also has a feature called App Shortcuts that allows for some text replacement or modifications of this nature; I’ve set it up so when I run into A LINE OF TYPE IN ALL CAPS, I can use a key command to lowercase it or set it in Title Case.

But often the biggest pain in the neck I run into is when I have a lot of text and it’s not as clean as it should be—say, spacing is off, or it’s organized in an inefficient way. One tool I’ve found helpful for this is called TextSoap, which allows me to take a passage of text and clean it up so I’m not getting extra formatting I don’t want, or it’s in a format I can actually use. I use this tool, for example, to convert credit lines from Getty Images into cutlines for the pictures I upload.

Often, I combine TextSoap with a popular launcher tool called Alfred, which I’ve set up to offer me access to specific TextSoap commands when I need them. Together, these tools probably save me a lot of time that allows me to focus on writing and all the other crazy stuff I do with Associations Now.

Automation for Yourself

All these automations work great for me and my workflow, but your mileage may vary. In fact, you may find that it doesn’t work for your needs at all.

Maybe your flow looks like something else entirely—maybe you use IFTTT to schedule tweets, or you have a great Chrome extension that supercharges the way you use Gmail. Or maybe you find all these extra tools drive you nuts and you’re really into knowing every nook and cranny of a more common piece of software like Microsoft Excel. To each their own.

But I will say this much: No matter your role at your association—whether you’re the CEO, the CIO, the person in charge of membership or communications, or someone working your first gig in the nonprofit world—you likely have ways of speeding up and simplifying your processes. You should spend time analyzing your own work habits, finding ways to improve things, and when you’ve found something good, sharing it with your coworkers or peers.

It might not be easy to find what works, either—all of my little automations came out of a desire to minimize my busywork, the stuff that gets in the way of storytelling and research. Are there things in your daily routine that are like that? Find ways to whittle them down.

Automation shouldn’t be seen as the thing that’s going to lead us to our future robot CEOs. It could be the thing that makes you more effective at your work, so that you can focus on the bigger picture.

There’s no reason that automation can’t make humans better at what they do.

(NicoElNino/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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