Complex Made Simple

Automation technologies: perspectives, challenges and opportunities

Reinventing the business through automation requires enlisting the entire organization, but many companies struggle to overcome the hurdles

Increasingly powerful types of automation are rapidly emerging Few companies have mature, democratized automation programs operating at a large scale CEOs need to convince their executives that automation is central to reinventing the business

The imperative to sharply improve business processes, and even reinvent the business, using automation technologies is gaining steam. One way to automate is through teams: Set up a project team, or an automation center of excellence (CoE), identify the right activities or tasks, reimagine a business process, and then automate the activities. Another way is to get automation technologies into the hands of a broad swath of employees who can, in turn, automate work on their own.

While involving a wide range of employees in automation isn’t new, increasingly powerful types of automation are rapidly emerging. These include robotic process automation (RPA) and cognitive automation tools deploying machine learning, natural language processing, and other forms of artificial intelligence. Unlike earlier tools, these new technologies hold tremendous promise for automating an even greater amount of manual work and simultaneously giving organizations resources to support effective collaboration and governance.

To harness the potential of these new technologies, companies need to grow automation in both ways—through project teams and CoEs and through employees interacting with the tools and automating their own work. Until now, the former approach has been more prevalent.

This presents a challenge: How can companies empower employees to more enthusiastically embrace automation, with flexible and easy-to-use tools that have strong governance, without creating more complexity for IT teams to manage?

Democratizing automation

Sustained success in automation requires enlisting the organization more broadly to set the right goals and generate new opportunities. Most business users may not have specialized technical backgrounds, yet they’re capable of using automation software and tools. They can automate work through self-service tools or even participate in more sophisticated initiatives, including developing automation and submitting them for approval. This won’t happen in a vacuum, and it goes beyond giving employees access to tools. The organization must make people aware of automation possibilities, evangelize adoption, create clear guidelines, build training programs, and offer incentives.

Today’s movement to democratize automation stems from a few recent trends:

  1. Slowing growth in labor productivity
  2. Scarcity of technical talent
  3. Digitally savvy employees
  4. User-friendly technology

While plenty of organizations have automation CoEs (centers of excellence), they have struggled to expand beyond a few processes. Democratized automation can attain greater scale by targeting use cases that a CoE otherwise wouldn’t have the capacity to build or would miss due to limited familiarity with business processes. It also fosters a more productive and skilled workforce. 

What’s impeding democratization

Despite the clear need, few organizations have made meaningful progress toward democratizing automation at scale—primarily due to four perceptions:

  1. Fear of job loss – Many managers perceive that employees are reluctant to automate their work because they fear losing their jobs.
  2. Increased data and IT security risks – Some companies don’t want to place automation in the hands of business users, perceiving an increased risk to data and IT security. This is particularly the case in highly regulated industries, such as financial services and healthcare.
  3. Lack of confidence in employees – Not all managers believe that employees can learn to develop and use automation effectively because they perceive the tools as complex and requiring deep technical knowledge.
  4. Disruption and higher costs – Current processes would need to change, and managers think employees might not have the time to learn to use new tools. Organizations worry that new tools may also add expense and require additional IT resources to manage and maintain.  

Many of these perceptions haven’t been formed through actual experience, however. Few companies have mature, democratized automation programs operating at a large scale. As a result, many senior leaders may not fully understand how employees feel about automation.

Hurdles to employee adoption

Three categories of impediments contribute to slow adoption among employees, despite high interest:

  1. Cognitive – As the data shows, trust in automation is not an issue for employees. However, they struggle to identify use cases for automation in their daily work, and many are not certain about how automation adds value to their workdays.
  2. Organizational  Employees shy away from using automation if their company has not formally sanctioned it or does not offer a formal training program.
  3. Product and training – Employees frequently perceive products as difficult to use, and companies lack effective, consistent training to familiarize employees.

Four guidelines to achieve scale

Stepping back, it’s clear that different perspectives come into play as companies develop automation initiatives.

Business users want to free up time to do more valuable work and improve their skills. But they often feel hamstrung by IT and CoEs. Those who are eager to use and even develop automation may struggle to get the necessary support.

For their part, IT and CoE teams don’t want to cede control over identifying, building, and managing automation to business users. They have concerns about quality, security, governance, training, tool proliferation, scalability of automated solutions, and cost.

Senior executives, meanwhile, care most about enabling growth, increasing productivity, improving service quality, and enhancing customer satisfaction. They are only interested in automation if it will deliver significant business value.

With those perspectives in mind, the experiences of leading companies that have overcome the automation paradox suggest four themes for success.

  1. Break through the noise. Most companies have numerous, often competing, business priorities. Why pay attention to automation over other priorities? CEOs need to convince their executives that automation is central to reinventing the business. And reinvention requires not only that business and functional leaders, supported by an automation CoE, identify and execute automation ideas, but also that every employee contributes to achieving the automation goals. Business leaders will need to adjust the traditional view of automation as an initiative imposed on employees to an initiative alongside, or in collaboration with, employees.
  2. Inspire employees. As mentioned, awareness is low. Just as a CEO must rally the senior management team to the cause, automation leaders need to inspire employees to take an interest in automation for their everyday work.

As automation takes hold, quarterly performance goals may include digital adoption scores tied to automation tool certifications. Organizations could establish digital personnel records that allow them to update and track milestones throughout a person’s career. Just as companies get consumers excited about buying a product, they can use similar marketing techniques in service of selling automation internally.