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How to get the most out of intelligent automation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Cordis Technology)

With this pandemic generating a huge surge in operational demand across enterprises, the need for new capabilities that can deliver work faster, smarter, more cohesively and efficiently has never been greater. This demand is being met by intelligent automation running smart digital workers. These software robots enable business people to drive this work transformation – much faster, more easily – and with fewer resources than before.

One of the biggest challenges organizations face when working with digital workers is how to sustain and scale up their activities across the enterprise. In fact, having the right people, process and structure behind digital workers is almost as important as the technology itself. While IT and technical leaders are vital to ensuring smooth rollouts and the ongoing running of the platform, it's down to business leaders who best understand their operational challenges and demands, to make judgments about where digital workers will have the greatest impact on swiftly delivering positive business outcomes. 

The key here is having the right operating model, from the very beginning. These are the critical factors that determine success and failure. Below are proven steps, honed from the most advanced, transformative, use cases in the industry, which ensure that digital workers become an ongoing value generator.

Vision alignment 

A strategy and purpose are required before any digital worker activity commences, with a vision aligned to the wider needs of the business. Ultimately, organizations should adopt digital workers with the aim of making the enterprise smarter, more agile or efficient – rather than focusing on short-term tactical savings. Of course, short-term tactical savings have their value, especially when getting early quick wins, but for long term success they shouldn’t be the endpoint.

Critically, robust change management practices should be embedded from the start, with continuous communication of the vision, clarity about the endpoint, and transparency about the objectives of the program.

Keep IT and senior stakeholders onside 

Getting a digital workforce up-and-running may prove difficult without buy-in from senior IT personnel, so ensure that their early support is gained. IT must also be involved from the start to support on many critical fronts, such as compliance with IT security, building and managing the underlying infrastructure and accessing target applications. Although digital workers are trained, governed and run by the business, not getting IT engagement is one of the fastest ways to curtail an automation program. In fact, working closely with IT must be an ongoing activity to ensure that the digital workforce operates optimally with minimal operational issues. 

For digital worker campaigns to be sustainable, they must also receive buy-in from senior executives who will sponsor and champion it. If they see it as a strategic business project, they’ll help provide the requisite financial and human resources and help remove any obstacles along the way.

Establish a Centre of Excellence (CoE)

It’s important to plan where digital workers sit within the business so they most effectively scale as automation demand increases. While an organizational structure provides the foundation for standard operating procedures, selecting the right design for a digital workforce program is essential and should be based on key information, not gut feel. While each organization will differ, consider these 6 models which are most commonly deployed:

  1. Divisional – where each business area establishes its own Centre of Excellence and there is no cross-team collaboration - with each working independently.
  2. Divisional Alliance - a group of business areas with independent automation teams, but all agreeing to follow a consistent best practice.
  3. Centre of Excellence - a centralized capability that is responsible for automated projects from pipeline to deployment and run.
  4. Centre of Excellence - a centralized capability that is responsible for automated projects from pipeline to deployment and run.
  5. Franchise - a business led and owned implementation team operating under the governance of an enterprise strategic Centre of Excellence.
  6. Hub and Spoke - a business led and owned implementation team operating under the governance of an enterprise strategic Centre of Excellence, with a central team also able to deliver projects independently.

Ultimately, having a Centre of Excellence that provides leadership, best practices, support and training is fundamental, no matter the model, but how this is deployed is flexible depending on your ultimate goals.

Selecting the best processes

The best options are generally those processes involving a high volume of manual and repetitive tasks, or where human error is costly, or where faster response times will pay dividends such as in customer experience. The biggest cause of early project issues can be the initial selection of large benefit, but complex, processes that take too long to define, design and build. Aim for quick wins in the beginning to drive interest, so start with low complexity processes or breakdown larger projects into smaller parts that can demonstrate value quickly.

When prioritizing those process automation opportunities, always select ones that will generate benefits in line with business objectives, but don’t avoid minimal value work if it’s likely to become strategically important in the future. Automating a process to help a new department, or to prove value to a senior executive is worth the time spent over the long term.

Next up, plug into the owners of your target applications. Make sure you’re aware of any planned maintenance or other changes, so you can take the appropriate action. This transparency should extend to the automation pipeline too. Having a pipeline of process opportunities that’s easy to view and submit to, will enable the wider business to see how work is progressing. This helps avoid the perception that these efforts are falling into a black hole – especially if a submitted process is pushed back for higher priority work. This feedback loop really helps to effectively manage the automation pipeline.

Finally, capture the benefits by agreeing a set of measurements such as; financial, process, quality, and performance related KPIs. Establishing meaningful measures of digital workers’ value, in alignment with the objectives of your digital workforce - such as hours returned to the business or revenue, will help drive intelligent automation across the wider organization.

It’s critical to plan how you generate demand for automation within the business. Effective routes include defining automation champions, consistently working to a communication plan, and providing employee incentives for identifying suitable processes.

Establish a governance board

A governance board should be created that’s responsible for setting and delivering the strategy for digital workers. The board is chaired by the person leading intelligent automation and attended by business and IT personnel. Responsibilities of the board should include; 

  • Managing all demand generated via the pipeline - defining and prioritizing the digital worker change schedule.
  • Promoting the benefits of digital workers throughout the organization to identify and qualify automation opportunities.
  • Tracking the resulting benefits of automation and communicating this success across the organization.
  • Identifying opportunities to drive greater value from digital workers and providing sponsorship for these initiatives.

Careful delivery  

To start automating processes, it’s essential to capture detailed information in the process definition phase, so working with knowledgeable subject matter experts (SMEs) is critical. Hold process automation walk-throughs for the process owners and SMEs and discuss how the solution design might differ from the human process. Once this has been agreed and signed off by the business owner, and the design authority has approved the proposed design - development can begin.

There are many methodologies for developing process automations, from agile to waterfall, but whichever one is selected the key is to have a well-established set of best practices and standards which the delivery team can, and do, follow. The focus should be on creating reusable, reliable and easily maintainable solutions. 

Maintaining operational continuity 

Once processes are in production, they need the right support around them. A simple support policy that explains which issues go where is key. Ensure that digital workers are handing back business referrals to the operational team for manual intervention, and that a technical capability is readily available in case the digital workers experience any system exceptions.

Ultimately, to ensure continuity and availability of automation resources, there must be a robust, supporting IT infrastructure. Give some thought to monitoring for the desired end-to-end result. Support is the most overlooked aspect of most new digital workforce capabilities, but over the long-term it’s one of the most critical elements to get right so give it early focus.

Build a talented team 

Having the best human talent with the appropriate roles and skills is critical to running a successful digital workforce. There are many roles that make up an intelligent automation service, but the core functions are:

  • Head of RPA is responsible for setting up the capability and assumes overall responsibility for the digital workforce.
  • Developers design, build and test automated processes. They follow best practices to deliver reusable, reliable and easily maintainable processes for the business.
  • Process analysts identify processes for automation and then capture the detailed requirements for each process to be automated.
  • Controllers support and administer the day-to-day running of processes in the live environment.
  • Technical architects design, maintain and manage the underlying platform.

When setting up a Centre of Excellence, some roles will be merged into one, such as developers and controllers or head of RPA and process analysts. Over time, however, as the capability grows these skills split out into separate roles. Those people involved in running and managing digital workers require some key personal skills. We’re talking about those with logical minds, problem solvers and being personable. The latter capability is key for managing change, for winning cooperation from employees who fear the digital workers and for driving cultural adoption of automation across the business. 

Final thoughts  

Ultimately, to gain the best results with digital workers, having the best methodologies and human talent is key to success. Once an operating model is defined upfront, including an ambitious, inspiring vision of desired outcomes – backed by senior stakeholders – you can start delivering and widely communicating achievements. This allows the digital workforce to really thrive as it scales across the business.

Emily Bristow, Customer Success Director, Blue Prism

Emily Bristow is Customer Success Director at Blue Prism and was previously Head of RPA Development for CGI’s UK Centre of Excellence operating across multiple disciplines including automation and infrastructure services.