Automating Repetitive Business Tasks

Jayme Fishman is a self-taught programmer who believes that the future of business coding should involve everyone in the organization – from the mail room to the CEO’s office. Fishman says that “the future of successful, entrepreneurial companies will be to empower employees at all levels so that they can automate workplace tasks, rather than rely on their IT department to do it for them.” Here’s how to make it happen…

Everyone Is a Programmer Now?

When I worked for IBM in the 1980s, they had a “shadow program” where programmers like me could observe secretaries, draftsmen and engineers doing their jobs. I observed one person whose only job was to compile a daily report, and quickly realized that the process could be automated with a relatively simple program. The program took a day to write, and turned an all-day, error-prone process into a few minutes of work.

But today, you don’t have to be a programmer to automate tasks that are repetitive or error-prone. A variety of easy-to-learn tools, macro recorders, and simple programming languages have put this power in the hands of any employee who sits in front of a computer.

Macros and workflow automation

Did your business use Microsoft Windows 3.1 back in 1992 to 1994? If so, you may recall a handy little utility called, “Macro Recorder.” When activated, it recorded every keystroke, cursor movement, and mouse-click a user performed until Macro Recorder was switched off. Then you could replay the identical series of actions by pressing a combination of 2 or 3 keys, i. e., Ctrl+K or Alt-Shft-F8.

Macro Recorder saved a lot of labor and human errors by reliably performing repetitive tasks much faster than any human operator could. Best of all, it required no knowledge of programming. Anyone could create a macro for any purpose.

Macro Recorder went away when Windows 3.1 went extinct (officially at the end of 2001). But the open-source community picked up the ball and ran with it, creating a number of free utilities that do what Macro Recorder did, and more. As a genre, such utilities are called “Windows automation software.” Here are a few examples.

Automation Software

AutoIt was released in 1999 by Jonathan Bennett and a loosely-knit team of part-time programmers. In addition to macro recording, you can also write code line by line in simplified, easy-to-learn scripting language. Today, the AutoIt community includes tens of thousands of users and developers who share their creations and tips. The latest version of AutoIt was released in July, 2015. It works only with Windows XP or higher versions. The installation package includes the AutoIt interpreter (a program that translates human-readable code into machine language); a compiler that turns AutoIt scripts into executable programs that don’t require an interpreter; a macro recorder;

There’s an online book called Learn To Program Using FREE Tools with AutoIt that serves as an introduction and reference guide for AutoIT.

Action(s) is a Java-based automation tool; it will run on Apple, Microsoft, Linux, and any other platform that supports Java. Action(s) sits somewhere between the know-nothing ease of macro recording and the painstaking precision of line-by-line programming. Using a graphical interface, you create actions and organize them by dragging and dropping them in a workflow pattern that accomplishes your objective. You can even create custom drop-down menus that appear when you right-click and bear several of your homemade macros from which to choose.

FastKeys can execute a complex series of commands at the touch of a key, a click of a mouse button, or even a tap on a touchscreen. The ability to expand abbreviations into long-form text is one of FastKeys’ selling points. Type “RetAdd” and your entire return address is automatically added to a letter, for example. Quick, small movements of a mouse can execute complex series of actions. Volume control, macro recorder, and Clipboard manager are built-in functions. FastKeys’ trial version is fully functional but comes with popup reminders to register and support development (only $9.95).

TinyTask may be the simplest Windows automation utility. It records actions for hotkey playback, and even creates standalone executable files. No installation is necessary; just download TinyTask and run it.

Think Like a Programmer

Many people will find macro recording to be a gentle introduction to thinking like a programmer. When recording a macro, it’s natural to think about each step in the process that you are trying to automate and try to make your recording as “clean” of unnecessary actions as possible. That leads to breaking down a task into its smallest steps, analyzing how to execute the steps most efficiently, and ordering steps in the best way. From there, learning to write simple programs is easy.

Macros and simple programming languages like AutoIt can boost the productivity of any organization. Give your employees at every level the freedom to automate repetitive tasks, and see where it leads. Encourage workers to share their success stories, and remind them that it’s important to document what they’ve done to improve their productivity.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

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  1. Gary Matthews says

    Bob, what do you think of AutoHotkey? I’m surprised you didn’t mention it, as it seems a very powerful automation tool. There’s a huge user community and a seemingly endless number of prefab scripts you can download. It claims to have macro recording functionality, though I haven’t checked this. Did you omit it because it’s perhaps too techy and difficult for the average user?

  2. None of the antique photo restorations or graphics I use the computer for are repetitive. Years ago, while working as a secretary, I used the recorder in MS Word, which was very handy.

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