Which should you do first? Automate or digitalize


The two terms, automate and digitalization can be confusing.

  • Are they not just buzz words?
  • Does automate not mean the same as digitalization?
  • Are these necessary in today’s world?
  • Can we not just use them interchangeably?

Unsurprisingly, the answers are no, no, yes, and no in that order.

A discussion like sorts takes my mind to arguments about who would win if Terminator and Robocop were to face off. Surely ____ would win.

If you want to know who I think would win, then read the entire post. I would like to take us through, and with simple examples show how automation and digitalization are distinguishingly different from the other.

What is automate?

“Free up your time by delegating the mundane tasks to a bot or machine.”

Automate is to execute tasks without any interference or prompt of a human being. Activities that we would have used up the precious minutes from our day can be prudently outsourced to a machine or some sort of contraption. This tool can then do the activities on our behalf. In short, the activity is triggered to happen by itself.

Automation is about working smartly. A benefit of automation seen is efficiency. This gives us more time to those activities that are at most very difficult to automate or at the least very sensitive and consequently we will never delegate to a machine.

We end up leaving the more mundane items to be done by systems or technologies whilst human beings do the soft side of the business. We give more time to people to do the most important items, such as strategizing, empathizing, and more.

What should be automated?

These can include the following.

  • laborious tasks
  • activities for which we want to reduce or eliminate human intervention.
  • activities that require consistent and correct calculation every time

Everyday examples of automation

These can include the following.

  • Rice cooker
  • Washing machine
  • Microwaves

What is Digitalization?

It is the train that delivers value upon existing products to the customer.

Digitalization is when we can convert information into text, photos, videos, audio as well as other multimedia options. When we digitalize, extract even further value from the primary solution we are offering the customer.

A big part of digitalization is service orientation. Digitalization can.

  • making it easier for the customer to get access to your product.
  • helping the customer know how the product could be beneficial in his own life.
  • breaks down walls of objections on why the customer would not pick up the solution.

This can be seen in intelligently offering, presenting, packing, or assisting the customer with the product or service. The benefit of digitization is about creating more value, merits. It gives us more reason to use the underlying product.

What should be digitalized?

These can include the following.

  • When we seek to add more value to an already existing task. Value creation is key here.
  • When you want to keep information forever. For example, scanning your old photos to keep them forever. As you can imagine, physical photos can burn, but the digital ones can remain forever, at least once you have backed them up well.
  • When we seek to easily get access to information.

Everyday examples on digitalization

These can include the following.

  • Scanning and taking photos
  • Typing information or data entry
  • Making home videos

Comparing both

An automation and digitization scenario

For example, there is a tailor who sews. He delivers shirts to his customers via bicycle. With every delivery he sends a thank you card to the customer. How can we automate and digitalize this process?

  • The product is the shirt.
  • He makes his clothes available on an online store ( for instance Jumia ).
  • Digitization is the offer on Jumia. Now customers can simply purchase the shirt online.
  • This package can be delivered promptly to the customer not himself but by a courier.
  • After the payment has been confirmed the customer receives an automatic response with predefined text acknowledging the purchase and thanking the customer. This is automation.

Frequently asked questions

What are the differences between both?

By now, I am sure you have a pretty good idea of the differences between each. Automation is about process flow. It is about letting that process begin, end, and repeat without you in the picture. On the other hand, digitization is about new value-added on top of already existing service or product.

If I take a manual process and build a workflow for it, have I automated it or digitalized it?

In this case, you would have digitalized the process since it is more beneficial to all involved. You converted the paper process to a virtual one. This makes it easier for other stakeholders or role players in the business to utilize that initial service. If you go ahead to set triggers on actions in this workflow, then you would have automated it as well.

Can something be both digitalized and automated?

Yes, something can be both automated and digitalized. For example, when you purchase an audio book online it may have been because you saw the offering in an online store. When you proceed to purchase the audiobook, you may most likely receive a digital receipt as well as a digital thank you card.

Can something be digitalized but not automated?

Yes. An example is scanning a page to a pdf. It now has more value to the reader. That is the digitalization portion speaking. Unless this pdf is now sent automatically to specific recipients then or something else is done with it to minimize workload or improve task efficiency, then automation is not present here.

Can something be automated and not digitalized?

Yes, something can be automated and not digitalized. An immediate example that comes to mind is the washing machine. The washing machine spins and turns without my intervention.

Do I need special skills to practice digitalization?

No, you do not need special skills. You too can do this right now. There are many solutions online which you can use. For example, if you seek to sell a solution online, you have a myriad of options to choose from.

Which one comes first? automation or digitalization?

Usually, we may have to start with automating first, and then digitalization next. This may include capturing the physical information we have into the form of a digital copy. This digital copy can be used, reused, and re-shared. We then follow up by ultimately extrapolating as much value out from this digital copy. In the instance of the tailor, he had to first take photos of his goods and then put them online. Taking the photos and placing them online for potential customers to get see. Afterward the automatic receipts they received give witness to the automation portion of the tailor’s operations.


Now I believe you know the difference between both. In your, every conversation use each term in its appropriate context. Both bring consistency and speed into business and home life.

And yes, on the issue of who would win in a Terminator versus Robocop bout, I am certain it would be a draw.

Until next time, take care.

Anthony Eli Agbenu would love to get in touch
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