Our inboxes and social media feeds are peppered with case studies citing incredible successes in process automation rollouts – X thousand hours saved, Y % reduction in turnaround times, delivered in a seemingly impossible Z weeks. These real impacts are rightly celebrated, but there is also a plethora of stories where automation projects stagnate after a promising yet cautious beginning.
Overwhelmingly, experienced operators and market analysts alike advocate a “just make a start” mindset. We recommend this approach ourselves, but what is going to sustain an automation capability beyond the initial fireworks, or breathe life into a program that’s fizzled out? In our recent conversations with leaders living through transformative automation programs and some of our own customer projects, we’ve identified the following principles that will drive sustainable growth of your process automation program.
1. Apply a lens consistent with the business strategy
The development of a scaled automation capability is just a means by which business outcomes can be delivered. Understanding the business priorities at both the organisational and domain level will enable process automation initiatives to complement rather than compete for resource and focus. Delivering on both business and individual needs will drive momentum and stakeholder support.
This is a broader lens than simply being either customer focused (See 3) or internally focused. Business strategies will typically have one, two and five year time horizons. There’s not much point tying your program to the five year state, unless you can demonstrate the roadmap timeline necessary to deliver on the five year state. In addition, organisations will also have a persona that influences their ambition in expanding their digital footprint. This Digital Ambition may be quite transformational, or more focused on optimisation, and your automation program should be structured accordingly.
2. Broaden your definition of value
Cost-out is a critical driver to getting an automation business case across the line, but it won’t drive sustained growth of an automation program by itself. There are so many complementary measures important to business success that need to be highlighted throughout the course of the automation program. This is necessary to not only support the continuation of the program but also to feed the pipeline of automation ideas.
Customer value is discussed below, but some other value metrics that provide a more holistic view of operational benefits include error and risk reduction, increased resource capacity, reallocation to higher value activity, and employee satisfaction.
3. Adopt customer-centricity
Something that came through strongly from the experts at our recent automation panel was that it is essential to deliberately focus on positively impacting the customer, both for maintaining the momentum and also buy-in for the program. Initiatives can create customer value through any number of metrics – turnaround times, faster submissions, risk reduction – and as such value creation is linked to process efficiency, and cost-reductions tend to ‘come along for the ride’.
For shared service functions including IT, it pays to remember that customers can be internal too (see 7.)
4. Use RPA as an instigator for change and improvement
RPA is an incredible foundational technology that not only drives process improvement but becomes a gateway for more advanced technologies like AI. For organisations without a Lean Process pedigree, the introduction of RPA is often the first time that a business process has been reviewed. For a bot to function effectively, the logic of the process must be consistent and absolute – this therefore uncovers inconsistencies and inefficiencies that need to be addressed as part of the automation.
As process automation introduces a disciplined software logic to business processes , it can provide fuel for AI and other more advanced technologies to be introduced in a controlled environment.
5. Take a scaled approach to governance
The concept of ‘Just Enough’ governance should be considered for RPA. With RPA often starting as a business-led initiative, applying heavyweight IT governance controls too early will stifle momentum and enthusiasm. The focus should initially be on facilitating incremental business benefits before creating ‘Centres of Excellence’. The risk profile of the industry and domain is key here. Typically, security, privacy and performance governance measures are critical, whilst efficiency, serviceability and scalability measures can mature through the lifecycle of the program.
When more complex process automations are being considered using the likes of BPM, a higher level of governance should come about more naturally through a more defined SDLC process. Process design becomes more critical as BPM suites are often creating the UIs that users will interact with. Higher levels of documentation through playbooks and cataloging is also an important factor to provide support for the solution.
6. Proactively manage the lifecycle of automated processes
Automations (particularly RPA which interacts at a UI level with software systems) have a lifecycle which may see their initial benefits degrade over time, and be offset by other risks. Gartner outline a range of risks including decreased organisational agility, scripting updates and the masking of process efficiencies that can offset the initial productivity gains and speed to deployment. It is entirely acceptable to proactively sunset RPA processes for more permanent technology (or process improvement initiatives) over time and redeploy your bots to other processes.
7. Position IT as a business partner
As we’ve established, process automation initiatives will sit to some extent in the business close to the process owners. But they won’t have all the disciplines or expertise that is required for stable and robust technology deployments. Positioning IT as an enabler or Business Partner to the various business units has the benefits of improving quality and security, accelerating delivery and creating resource scale. IT needs to craft and communicate a clear set of value activities it can provide the business (aligned to typical SDLC stages) and also create ‘safe spaces’ or sandpits for business users to experiment.
This will start to create an environment where automation is driven by both top-down and bottom-up initiatives.
Onwards and Outwards
In such a dynamic technology environment, software functionality and maturity is rapidly evolving. As we have experienced in the world of integration, having a technology ecosystem at your disposal improves the ability to respond to new and changed use cases. This means automation like RPA will sit amongst Business Process Management (BPM), AI/ML and other intelligent tooling, and yes, even APIs and web development to improve process experience for users.
This is not an invitation to have ‘one of everything’, rather it is a reflection of the lifecycle of automated processes and impact new technologies can have in the journey of continuous process improvement.