Planning your intelligent automation journey for the best chance of success
"People want progress but don’t want change."
This quote is credited to Eva Burrows and is one my favourites when thinking about digital transformation or any project that brings large scale organisational change. Over the past two years I have seen it also holds true for Intelligent Automation (IA) projects, where the enthusiasm for a new technology needs to be balanced against the ability to manage and maintain a digital workforce.
First, a bit of context. IA (also known as Intelligent RPA) is growing rapidly, with more demand than ever across a wide range of industries such as health, higher education, local government and the housing sector. Uptake has spiked in the UK over the past 12 months, partly thanks to growing awareness of IA across all industries, but also driven specifically by the pandemic. This is due to many organisations needing to push through digital transformation quickly so that their staff can work remotely and, as is often the case with large shocks to the economy, the fact they are now having to do more with less.
While it’s a good thing that organisations have chosen IA to unlock productivity improvements, there are some issues with it all happening so quickly.
The pandemic has meant that a lot of organisations are looking to use IA to deliver quick, tactical solutions to achieve immediate productivity and efficiency gains. While IA can be used in this way, it leads to organisations missing out on the full benefits of the technology and of their wider digital transformation efforts. It can also cause problems when the impact that this change will have on staff is not appropriately considered.
Automation, done right
Even when automating only a few processes, to maximise the benefits of IA it is crucial to consider the bigger picture in advance. Questions must be asked around everything from why the technology is being implemented in the first place, to who will manage and maintain the digital workers over time. The importance of strategically managing this process cannot be overestimated, particularly since introducing any kind of automation will have a big impact on staff.
Here are some key things organisations need to be aware of to place change management at the centre of their automation strategy, and thereby give it the best possible chance of success.
1. Define vision and objectives early
It’s really important to ensure that you are implementing IA for the right reasons. As we all know, it is often easy to be seduced by the latest piece of technology before understanding the problem that you are trying to solve and whether that technology is the right tool for the job.
To be sure they are heading down the right track, those interested in automation solutions must meet with the relevant business teams early on to discuss the issues these teams face. Developing a problem statement from these conversations helps provide a clear description of what's going on, and should include how you will address it.
The best way to arrive at this is to hold problem identification workshops with business teams, and to frame the problem as a question through the ‘How Might We’ format. Asking questions in this way allows you to be broad enough to consider a wide range of issues, but narrow enough that specific solutions can be created for them. For example:
- How might we significantly improve accuracy and ensure compliance in our gas certification processes?
- How might we reduce the error rate in our invoice reconciliation process?
- How might we free up time for our staff to enable them to work on more complex cases?
- How might we improve our customer response times for standard requests?
- How might we better manage peaks and troughs in demand?
Once you understand the problem faced by the team you can then validate whether IA will be appropriate to solve it. If it is, then you can form a clear objective that will help to not only keep you focused but also prioritise the order in which you automate processes around the business teams involved.
2. Start small to grow sustainably
To ensure your organisation has the best chance of succeeding on its IA journey, it’s critical to start small and scale up in a sustainable way. If you or your organisation is new to IA then trying to implement 100 processes all at once, while ambitious, isn’t likely to be successful as it will probably cause so much disruption within business and IT teams that support for the project evaporates.
It’s far better to take on something more manageable, and to identify business teams where support is already strong for IA, or where processes are likely to provide the greatest return based on your objectives.
If - as part of your research into the problems faced by business teams - you identify 50 or more processes and place them in a backlog, that's fine. However, you must prioritise that backlog and build the processes out in a way that meets the resources you have.
This approach will help build IA capability in your organisation over time by affording staff the breathing space they need to learn and adapt. It will also help to create the necessary buy-in from teams if those involved from the beginning have had a good experience.
3. IA is not just another app
As mentioned earlier, some organisations look at IA as a tactical solution that they can quickly deploy to fix a particular problem. We noted that while this might add some value, such a mindset won't unlock the full benefits of the technology. Yet there is a further factor at play here - a misunderstanding about how IA actually works.
Although automations operate unattended once they are up and running, the digital workers that run automated processes still require maintenance and management. IA is not something that you can simply set and forget. Someone in the relevant business team should therefore be nominated to manage the digital worker, receiving the necessary training to ensure that processes run smoothly and provide the expected benefits.
IA must also be included in your IT team’s service standards. Making automation part of Business As Usual for IT will reduce the likelihood of disruption or unexpected stoppages to the digital worker. This means including the digital worker in any application or patch updates and planned outages.
4. Automation for the long term
A critical part of managing the move to automation is to consider how you will create IA capability within your organisation. There are really only two options here: will you aim to use partners with expertise in IA to help you build out that capability, or will you hire that capability into your organisation and build a Centre of Excellence (CoE) from there?
This obviously depends on the needs of your organisation and, somewhat unsurprisingly, I think a sound approach is to leverage the expertise of external IA specialists who can help you build your capability by upskilling existing employees. This will also help you to gain that all important buy-in from your staff. These are the people who already have a deep knowledge of your processes and ways of working so are best placed to identify processes for automation and maintain them when they’re set up. You really need them on board.
Ultimately it is your vision and objectives, as discussed above, that will help to guide you as to how you build out your CoE and the models you use. This is why it’s so important that it meets the needs of those in your business teams from the outset.
Setting off on the right foot
Hopefully these examples have helped to demonstrate why Intelligent Automation or Intelligent RPA is more than just a digital tool or quick fix for your organisation. It needs to be considered as a broader change to an organisation's DNA, which is why it is crucial to understand the impact it will have on the people within your business and IT teams.
This isn’t meant to make implementing IA within your organisation sound difficult or threatening, rather it is meant to highlight the point that while your aim might be automation, people are still a critical part of making sure that change happens as effectively as possible. There is a lot to get to grips with, but when done right, the results will speak for themselves.
Oliver has extensive experience implementing intelligent automation, agile and user-centred design methods to improve services and enhance citizen engagement.
Get more articles like this direct to your inbox with the F4 newsletter
Fortnightly updates helping deepen your understanding of digital transformation and what it takes to succeed in the digital economy