Optimization and automation, routing and planning. If you are exploring ways to improve your business performance, you have probably come across these concepts more than once. Let's talk about them in detail.
You may be wondering why it's necessary to discuss these obvious and well-known terms. Well, these terms seem so simple that many people use them intuitively, without a second thought. Meanwhile, in business conversations, differing “intuitive” understandings of the terms may lead to miscommunication.
You may find yourself often using jargon as a shortcut to describe technical terms. Such jargon is industry-specific, and people eventually start using it automatically—and this is what can lead to confusion.
In everyday life it's quite suitable to say “optimal” instead of “the best” or “in my opinion, it fits.” At that moment, the speaker is not likely to mean the mathematical optimum; rather, he or she is describing one's personal view based on their particular life experience, common sense, or emotions.
We similarly use the word “automatically” when something is happening by itself, without any additional effort. But it doesn't always mean the presence of a machine or a robot, like, for example, when we're talking about legal procedures being automatically applied.
A curious fact is this verbal behavior is natural for a human.
The usage of one word to describe several phenomena is called lexical polysemy. It is a natural property of any language that reflects the ability to look for common and binder features between objects — in simple terms, it is a way of exploring the world.
But this is exactly where language can be unpredictably treacherous.
Everyday communications have such a huge impact on human verbality that it may affect how a person uses terms in the business environment. Unconscious switching from technical to everyday meanings is pretty organic; however, it may cause uncomfortable confusion, especially when talking about cutting-edge IT products using complex mathematical language.
When a misunderstanding arises, it becomes hard to...
...set the task correctly.
If you explain the task clearly and in the right terms, you will get the expected result much faster. If not, you may spend months clarifying the requirements and still not end up getting what you wanted.
...find the cause if something goes wrong.
If the product doesn't perform well enough, there should be a particular reason. So, when talking about optimizers, if the customer informs the developer that routes are not optimal, while really meaning that they are not good enough, the customer isn't helping to find the specific cause. The lack of reliable information only delays fixing the problem.
...assess the offer of your contractor appropriately.
Unscrupulous contractors can take advantage of term confusion. If the client uses the word “optimal,” not in a mathematical sense but in the everyday meaning, the vendor may sell him a product that doesn't actually optimize anything. Of course, with a detailed analysis, you will discover that the product, to put it mildly, doesn't meet your requirements, but the money spent would be barely possible to recover.
To avoid the possible risks, explore this guide on some main terms that you have probably already met and learn about their technical definitions. We hope it will help you make our communication more productive.
You have probably already seen that the words optimization, automation, and scheduling may be used as synonyms while describing an IT product. But they mean completely different things.
Let's start with the easier one.
Planning is the process of making a plan.
The plan itself could be optimal or non-optimal, manually made, or automatically made. Automation and optimization can have an impact on how feasible and effective a plan is, but when planning, they are optional.
Their connection is easy to observe in the example of transport logistics, where planning will include making plans for warehouses and drivers.
1. The instructions indicating in what order to prepare the goods for shipment and visit the points can be made manually by a logistician or generated automatically by a transportation management system. This difference defines if the planning is automated or non-automated.
2. Routes can be built by an optimizer or made up by a logistician by eye. The first case is about optimized planning, while the second one is non-optimized.
In marketing materials, automation and optimization are often mentioned together, but these are separate processes that can even be used in parallel.
Automation is the delegation of routine, monotonous, low-level operations from a human to a machine.
The need for automation arises when employees spend a lot of time and effort on repetitive activity, which can be performed by a mechanism, software, or an AI program.
After automation, the system may perform worse than before. But the task of automation does not consist in improving the quality of the work results, unlike optimization, which is a crucial difference between them.
So then, what exactly is automation needed for?
1. To reduce the workload of employees.
2. To simplify scaling.
Contrary to popular belief, automation does not lead to staff reductions but rather gives employees an opportunity to set and perform more challenging tasks.
A case in point is an automatic face recognition system.
Surveillance cameras around the globe are recording millions of hours of footage. In London alone, there are more than 640,000 cameras constantly recording what's happening on the streets. It would be physically impossible to watch all footage manually, using only human resources. And here, AI comes to the rescue; it processes the stream of incoming video data and filters out the necessary frames.
Advanced digital systems are able to recognize faces, silhouettes of people, and equipment on video in real-time. This helps the police find missing people and solve crimes. Meanwhile, applying AI does not cause the police staff to be reduced. On the contrary, while using the abilities of AI, police employees get an excellent opportunity to increase their clearance rate.
Traditionally this term may be interpreted both too broadly and too narrowly. The first interpretation describes optimization as an abstract improvement of everything at once, while the second one confines this concept to the reduction of costs. Of course, both are wrong.
Optimization is an increase in the efficiency of a particular process or its part.
Optimization is never performed separately from the task because, while solving a real business challenge, you always choose a specific indicator or set of indicators you want to optimize. For example, in transport logistics, you might need to optimize the transport costs, mileage, travel time, or service level.
Basically, optimization and automation are both tools to improve your business performance. Depending on what goals the business sets, the performance can be expressed in money, product quality, service level, innovation, or viability of the company.
As an example, imagine a company that set a goal of opening new branches in 20 cities. To do this, you need to increase the number of employees by 20%. Thus, the recruitment strategy might be as follows:
The first stage: — automation of searching for, hiring, and training new employees. The company integrates new recruitment technologies, finds competent recruiters and curators, and builds an onboarding system.
The second stage: — optimization of the created system. If the costs are too high, the company analyzes the work done and phases out less successful ideas in favor of better ones. For example, it may outsource the recruiting and focus on adapting the newcomers to the workflow.
Let's take an example from transport logistics. Imagine a local online store opening several outlets in a neighboring region. Now, its geography of shipping has tripled. What solutions would help to improve the quality of delivery?
The first stage: — automation. The store implements automatic delivery planning, installs a digital system for qualifying and distributing requests, and launches a mobile application for couriers.
The second stage: — optimization. The company analyzes the work of the transportation system, determines its strengths and weaknesses, and implements specialized software helping to build efficient routes.
Routing's meaning differs depending on the field it is used. However, all definitions include the same key point.
Routing is the process of building routes.
The term's meaning is determined by the specific subject area and the particular task. For example, a route in transport logistics is a path from point A to point B, while a route in web technologies is a path that data travels from the sender to the recipient.
In fact, routing does not mean anything else but building the needed path. Routing itself does not deal with, for example, the distribution of requests and the selection of a specific car to deliver a package. These tasks are optional, and you need additional services to perform them.
Routes may be built both automatically by specialized software and manually by a logistician. At the same time, routing can be either optimized or not optimized.
Let's look at one more example. All major mapping services allow you to build a route from point A to point B, taking into account certain conditions. Let's say if the user is riding a bicycle, then their route can be built along sidewalks but not along highways. The service, at its discretion, optimizes the travel time or distance. But the fastest or shortest route may not be consistent with the intentions of a person for any reason, so they choose a non- optimized route.
If you are looking for a technology partner for your business, you might find the terms pretty confusing. It's natural since no standards are prescribing which terms developers should use to describe their products.
Many companies are searching for a planning tool for transport logistics while expecting to get a multi-optional platform able to optimize routes. At the same time, planning software may not do optimization at all and, therefore, does not meet expectations.
How to avoid a misunderstanding
1. Try not to use basic technical terms with an everyday meaning.
As you can see, for developers, many ordinary words are not what they seem. To avoid being misunderstood, strive to avoid using cliches and generalized terms. Instead of “optimal,” you can say “cheapest” or “most reliable,” depending on what you need.
2. Feel free to describe your problems in natural language.
If you require a product to help you reduce delivery costs or free your call center from making extra calls, simply say so. If the developer understands what business challenges you plan to solve, they will be able to offer a specific solution.
3. Describe the problem, not your vision of how to solve it.
The same problem can be solved in different ways, but some of them would be more reliable, more durable, or less expensive. Delegate the choice of an approach to the developer. Their professional competence will help them find the best solution.
4. Clarify every detail you don't understand. Ask questions.
If you don't understand how a particular technology works, feel free to ask for details. The better you understand what you pay for, the less you risk. For example, the software description may say that it “considers certain data”. You should verify what the process means, what data it takes into account, and what it is needed for.
5. Set specific tasks for the product.
Clearly formulated tasks make it easier to choose the right product for the needs of your business. You may read our article on how to compare different schedulers to know what to look for when choosing a solution.
6. Don't take a description for granted. If in doubt, check.
If possible, test the product with your own data and evaluate the result. This way you can be sure you've found the product you need — or keep searching if you're not satisfied with the result.