Anyone who has mastered a new skill or developed a new professional competency will tell you that the personal realizations they experienced during their journeys seem blatantly obvious in hindsight. Ironically, others who are embarking on similar journeys frequently find such insights to be barely credible or even counterintuitive.
An earlier article discussed the critical success factors involved in launching and scaling strategic automation initiatives. This article reveals the secret – and sometimes counterintuitive – realizations of individuals who have successfully led such efforts.
Realization 1 – Business impact is not necessarily correlated with transaction frequency or process scale
Conventional wisdom dictates that automation efforts should be focused on highly repetitive processes performed by large numbers of people. The mathematical basis of this belief is obvious: the more times a task can be performed automatically, the greater the savings of human time and effort. It’s not so obvious that automation can be strategically beneficial when applied to infrequent processes performed by small numbers of people.
For example, international tax filings are prepared periodically by individuals with highly specialized legal skills. Public company financial reports are prepared by individuals with specialized financial skills. Data being fed into machine learning models may be manually tagged or labeled by individuals with specialized data science skills. Automating any portion of these processes not only produces a higher return on the specialized and highly compensated skills of key employees but also minimizes opportunities for human error.
Realization 2 – Process re-engineering produces oversized benefits
How many times has a business partner said “we don’t need to re-engineer this process because we already know exactly how it should be performed”, or “let’s just imitate the way Sally performs her job because she’s the most efficient member of our team”? Current process practitioners frequently believe that 10% to 20% improvements in throughput or accuracy are revolutionary. They rarely stop to consider wholly new ways of performing an existing activity or challenge themselves as to whether certain work procedures should be performed at all.
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As Henry Ford so aptly observed, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. A willingness to consider fundamental changes to existing processes is an important metric in prioritizing opportunities within more advanced automation programs.
Realization 3 – Bad data may limit your automation opportunities
Conventional wisdom suggests that greatest barriers to the effective use of automation technology are posed by the fragmentation of existing processes, frequent process changes and widespread exception handling procedures. These issues can pose significant automation challenges. However, feasibility studies of new opportunities frequently reveal that a significant portion, if not the majority of human effort is being expended to compensate for issues related to data integrity, consistency, completeness or availability.
It may be relatively easy to reach a business consensus on the ideal structure of an automated process but the implementation of that automation solution may be stymied by fundamental data limitations.
Realization 4 – Citizen Developer programs are essential force multipliers
Citizen Developer programs are difficult to establish, difficult to administer and difficult to maintain. Large numbers of employees need to be trained on the use of a new technology (never an easy thing to do). They need ongoing access to automation consulting expertise following their initial training. The solutions they develop need to be carefully governed – with a light touch in some instances but with a heavy hand in others when they potentially run afoul of master data management, information security or financial control issues.
Nevertheless, the need for effective Citizen Developer programs is inescapable. IT groups will never obtain the headcount and business operations teams will never have the bandwidth to address all the low risk/high reward automation opportunities within a modern enterprise.
Many automation vendors will claim that their tools are being widely employed by Citizen Developers. These claims can be validated by spending time with the vendor’s existing customers and asking the following questions. Is their tool being used by a specialized, dedicated team within IT or is it being used across the IT organization by individuals in application support, infrastructure engineering, data analytics and information security? If their tool has been deployed outside IT, is it being used solely within operations teams embedded within individual business functions or has it been adopted more broadly by staff members within those functions? If it’s being employed by business staff members, how many business functions are currently using the tools (i.e. is it being exclusively used within the Finance organization)?
Citizen Developer programs can only be truly effective if the number of business staff developers exceeds the number of all other developers and the ratio of business staff developers to all others is increasing over time.
Realization 5 – Cost savings become a byproduct of success instead of an overarching goal
One of the most serendipitous and unexpected outcomes of achieving automation at scale is the realization that doing business in better ways almost invariably increases profits and revenues. Every CFO will tell you that if you have a sound business strategy and flawless execution, your company will achieve outstanding financial results. Seasoned CFOs consider their firm’s financial performance to be a lagging indicator of sound strategy and meticulous execution, not vice versa.
The same is true of automation programs. As such programs mature they go beyond trying to perform existing processes faster and cheaper. They seek to redesign existing work practices to do things better – better for customers and better for employees. Guess what happens? Companies that have happy customers and engaged employees routinely outperform their competitors.
Benefit tracking dashboards will never go away but there will be a dawning awareness among business leaders that sustained enterprise-wide automation programs are positively impacting their firm’s bottom line. Contentious debates over the accuracy of automation benefit forecasts will fade over time as leaders come to realize that cost savings are simply a byproduct of doing things better than their competitors.
These are the secret realizations of individuals who have led successful automation programs at an enterprise-wide scale. Don’t share them with your competitors!
This article is based on conversations with many automation leaders. Special thanks to Max Cheprasov (CEO, Ubersuggest), Dave Duvall (CIO, Discovery), Andy Fanning (Managing Director, CIGNA), Rich Gilbert (Chief Digital & Information Officer, AFLAC), Prakash Kota (CIO, Autodesk), Cindy Miller (Chief Digital Officer, Hanesbrands), Mohit Rao (Head of Intelligent Automation, Atlassian), Eric Reiner (CIO, Rapid7) and Randy Swanberg (SVP, Automation & AI, State Street Bank).