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Avoiding the pitfalls of IT automation projects

(Image credit: Image Credit: Cordis Technology)

In this era of digital transformation, automation is one of the foundational pillars for success. In fact, the analysts at McKinsey Research have estimated that half of current work activities could be automated, freeing up employees for other, more meaningful efforts. Though the early adopters have managed to achieve significant value, other organisations find themselves on unsteady footing and unable to scale the benefits. If they do not realise the gains they had hoped for, they become frustrated at having wasted time and money. To avoid these issues, it is helpful to understand where organisations get it wrong.

The common denominators that decrease the success of an IT automation project are:

1. Leaders lack long-term vision

To make the most of automation, enterprise leaders need an innovative vision to address a specific problem. Once this is identified, the tools and solutions either in the organisation or in the market need to be thoroughly validated for long-term ROI. However, many times, organisations look to the newest and emerging technologies for the “wow” factor without really considering the full impact they pose.  Those organisations that have been most successful with new technologies like automation and machine learning are those led by forward-thinking decision-makers who do their due diligence in assuring all key stakeholders are on the same page. 

2. Putting the How above the Why

If deployed in an efficient way, an automation solution can usually provide the benefits an organisation is looking for. In most cases in which these projects fail, the problem stems from diving too quickly into the “how” without spending enough time understanding the “why.”

The “why” is much more fundamental. That’s because, without sufficient due diligence, leaders expect automation will be a "silver bullet" that will address cost reduction and efficiency gains. But that’s unlikely, largely because no solution is a silver bullet. Really digging into why automation is needed is essential and that starts with a good evaluation of the “as is” state. At this point, the gaps are examined and then the desired outcome can be agreed up from there.  Feasibility studies, ROI estimates and benefits timelines are critical before kick-starting any automation initiative. The key is to research and select a tool that is both affordable and scalable, bearing in mind the maintenance costs to sustain the automation initiative.

3. An over-emphasis on headcount reduction

Management instinctively measures the success of an automation initiative by how many jobs it eliminated. Scoring automation in this way is self-defeating and creates division among the non-automation resources. It is better to view the automation solution as an enabler to complement the team and free them up for real value-added activities.

As automation takes hold, the workforce whose repetitive tasks are automated must be upskilled to perform more innovative activities. Management must articulate a clear plan to the workforce. Culture change must be driven from top to bottom. Leaders must communicate this sense of mission clearly and regularly.

4. Believing the hype

Vendors often paint a rosy picture of their automation solutions that create unrealistic expectations. IT organisations are driven by trends and engage with automation products to stay relevant and keep ahead of the curve. An automation solution rendering benefit in one company may not benefit another, since each company has its own process and distinctive attributes. The success of an IT automation project also depends on meeting certain stakeholders’ expectations. These expectations should be clearly communicated and agreed upon with everyone involved.

To avoid surprises, understanding the limitations of a solution or initiative is as important as understanding the benefits. The use cases chosen should contain a mixture of operational and business benefits to sustain and generate tangible and intangible benefits.

5. Expecting automation to fix underlying problems

If automation initiatives try to automate workflows that are not already working properly or undergoing change, the writing is on the wall. Automation is not a magic wand that can fix all issues. What seems like a fix today may not be relevant tomorrow. This is not only a waste of time and effort ; it causes additional problems.

In advance of starting an automation initiative, leaders must evaluate the maturity and sustainability of the organisational environment. Deploying the solution onto an immature or outdated landscape and expecting to resolve the existing issues will result only in wasted time, effort and money. Establishing a long-term plan that addresses the internal problems first before applying automation on top can prevent this from happening.

Automation for the win

Automation has great potential for eradicating many of the manual tasks performed by humans. But enterprises need to steer clear of marketing hype, get clear on what they hope to accomplish and make sure it is realistic. Otherwise, failure and frustration will result. By being aware of the things that can most often derail automation projects, organisations stand a much better chance of implementing initiatives successfully.

Akhilesh Tripathi, global head, Digitate