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Lessons from the Automation Front

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Early adaptors have paved the way for a refined, targeted approach to automation that will deliver scalable, sustainable benefit and transformative change.

Automation, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (A.I.) – they are concepts that have promised to disrupt the way we do business irreversibly. The hype has been hard to ignore. We’ve been bombarded with visions of a sci-fi workplace where we’re forced to welcome robotic colleagues that could do our jobs blindfolded. Equally threatening have been the headlines warning that any enterprise worth its salt is already automating. A wave of digital fear of missing out has set in and a rush to “automate something” has ensued. What’s followed for those enterprises that haven’t taken a carefully planned, strategic approach is that their initial foray into automation hasn’t gone well. Often the process has stalled. Disillusionment and doubt have set in as the promised payback for their enthusiasm has not happened. However, rather than see these setbacks as failure, organisations should learn from the experiences of the trailblazers and enjoy the benefit of a little hindsight. In fact, The Harvard Business Review argues that companies adopting AI in moderation now, and with aggressive plans for the future, will be positioned just as well to succeed as early adopters. Applying the lessons of past attempts will be crucial.

Transformation: The Automation Opportunity

We believe that one of the fundamental issues that has caused problems for organisations is a misunderstanding of the opportunity automation represents. Leveraging automation is an opportunity to transform. It is an opportunity to scale organisations and grow businesses into new areas, to raise employee engagement and customer advocacy. Many organisations are looking to automation as a cost-cutting measure. Accenture report that 54% of Australian organisations achieved cost savings of at least 15% from automation between 2014 and 2016. There is no question that cost-reduction and efficiency are valid reasons to automate. However, focusing only on cost reduction ignores the fact that automation rewards the bold. If the ambition is narrow the rewards will be too. The key differentiator in our experience is how well the enterprise understands the wider opportunity and can leverage automation to drive transformational change and business value.

The scale of the problem

The problems we see are mainly divided into companies that jumped too fast and those who haven’t moved at all and don’t know where to start. Those who rushed in are now at a point in their efforts to automate where they don’t have the ability or structure to manage the robotic workforce they’ve created. As a result, they are effectively not scaling or maximising the benefit of these technologies. McKinsey describe a similar experience among banks that have launched automation pilots, installed bots and trained developers but “lack the capabilities to move the work forward, much less transform the bank in any comprehensive fashion.” Deloitte, in their 2017 study of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), found that although more than half of the organisations surveyed had started their RPA journey and almost 80% of those planned to increase their RPA investment significantly, only 3% had managed to scale RPA.

These figures highlight an important problem. A key ingredient in any successful automation operation is the ability to scale quickly. The “race to automate” has encouraged a rush of pilots and quick wins. However, rather than sprint with the fast starters just to burn out before the race ends, successful automation needs to be a far more considered move. Automation journeys require an agile mindset, but this will only be effective if it is part of a coherent strategy. As Ernst and Young point out, “Intelligent Automation adoption calls for a well-deliberated, well-calibrated approach along with receptivity to continuous learning and change”. So what is the best strategy for automation? As organisations plan to spend an average of $1.5m piloting RPA in the next three years what is the best way to maximise return for this investment? There are important lessons for future automation strategy in the successes and the failures of the early adopters. We’ve identified four elements that we believe are essential for success:

1.   Clear as Mud: Collect Insights not More Useless Data

In our view, mastering the power of insights is a game changer when it comes to truly getting value from automation. Of course, more unwieldy data is not an idea that will thrill many decision-makers these days. However, what is setting some organisations apart from the rest is that they have realised that there are business insights available from automation that could not be derived from a manually executed process. Critically, these organisations also understand that insights are only valuable if they are business specific and at a very basic level actually in sight, i.e. clearly visible and available to stakeholders in a format that is usable. Regardless of the cognitive sophistication of the technology used to generate them, insights must be actionable, accessible and available in real time. This functionality needs to be carefully planned and designed. What do people want to know? How do they want to see it? Whether it’s discovering a small tweak that will enable a process to function optimally or trying to work out how happy the customers are, the possibility must exist to provide information to those who need it, when they need it. Automation then provides tangible insights that will drive new revenue opportunities, process improvements, and customer satisfaction.

2.   Transformation: Design an enterprise-wide strategy

Successful automation journeys begin by accepting the challenge to transform at enterprise level and designing a strategy to achieve it. By taking this approach organisations do not end up struggling to retro-fit an automation strategy with business goals. They avoid isolated projects and instead execute a coordinated, holistic plan to implement automation across the enterprise. Led by a Centre of Excellence, the transformation strategy is fully aligned with business goals from the start and a clear signal is issued that automation will be the new way of doing things. Change management is prioritised to ensure that the transformation process receives the “buy-in” it needs to succeed. Those that have got this right understand that the task is not a project where automation is introduced, tested, rolled out and the project ends. They see automation as a continuous cycle and they commit to building the organisation’s capability to unleash its benefits.

3.   Planning: You’ll need a scan and a roadmap

In an effort to get started, many companies have simply chosen the wrong processes to automate. It is crucial that organisations conduct a detailed and focused scan of existing processes to decide which to automate. This may mean choosing a process that is likely to succeed quickly and help build support for automation among stakeholders. It may indeed mean recognising that a process needs a solution that does not involve automation. What is essential is that the decision to automate a process is based on its potential to deliver the greatest value according to business goals. The decisions must fit with the overall strategy. Once the processes are chosen, the appropriate technologies should be selected to build the automation solutions and deliver the planned outcomes.

Planning should include a detailed roadmap for implementation and should consider the following key phases of the automation journey:

Define: How will automation deliver the greatest value to the business, to customers and to employees? What are our strategic objectives of automation and how do we measure them? What are the areas of the organisation that will be the focus for the automation journey?

Design: What is the measurable value of the opportunities identified as part of an organisation scan? What is the cost to deliver the opportunities? How do we assess the complexity versus the benefit of using automation?

Automate: What is the right order in which to deliver automation given resourcing and capability? How do we manage the delivery of automation at the initiative level?

Adapt: How do we measure actual benefit against forecasted benefit of automation? Are we achieving the goals that we had identified when building the case for automation? What additional business insights are we able to derive from automation in operations?

4.   Governance: Manage your robots or you’ll soon be herding cats

Organisations that do not prioritise governance from the beginning soon run into problems with scale and sustainability. Forrester spell it out quite simply: you need to manage your digital workers the same way you manage your human employees. However, they report that end-to-end visibility across robots with a ”real-time rolling view” was problematic for 50% of the enterprises they surveyed. A roadmap for implementation should include a clear plan for how the new “virtual” workforce will be managed. This ensures that a piecemeal approach is avoided, and each new development comes under the same well-defined governance system. That system should be capable of measuring the performance of automation against the business case to ensure that necessary improvements are made, and change is managed centrally. Laying the foundations for good governance ensures that the conditions are optimal to sustain a continuous cycle of change and growth as automation is implemented across the enterprise.

Leveraging automation successfully requires energy and enthusiasm. With the right strategy the potential benefits for business are hugely exciting. The experiences of early adaptors clearly demonstrate that automation needs careful planning and a commitment to transform the entire enterprise. It’s time now to apply those lessons and take the time to invest in effective automation strategies. By all means automation is an opportunity you should jump at. Just look before you leap.

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