Five best practices for bringing automation to your organization

Automation is becoming increasingly necessary for businesses to remain competitive. Here are some key steps to take as you begin to bring automation into your office.

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Image: iStockphoto/LeoWolfert

The concept of automating work is nothing new, but the rise of new tools for Business Process Automation (BPA) has fundamentally changed the organizational landscape for knowledge workers. And, despite the controversy that automation has created around job security, it will become an increasing part of daily work life as time goes on.

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"Automation has been going on for decades, if not longer. If you look at banking systems, probably 80 percent of what they do is automated in backend systems," said Forrester analyst Craig Le Clair. "But, today, there's just a lot more pressure to digitize, to turn their business into data to match the digital progression of their customers."

SEE: Research: 71% already automating IT work, or plan to (Tech Pro Research)

Fully leveraging automation requires a multifaceted process, and one that should be approached with proper planning and organization. Here are five best practices as your organization sets out to begin its journey with automation.

1. Establish your goals

As with any new business endeavor, a successful automation implementation must begin with the company deciding what it wants to accomplish with the technology, and how it will measure success. If you don't begin the process with that conversation, said Gartner analyst Rob Dunie, IT and business might develop different visions about what automation will look like.

The conversation should include a discussion around the different aspects of automation, such as processes, decisions, and analytics. Dunie suggests trying to get to a broad vision about what the future state of the company looks like, once automation has been introduced.

"That allows you to focus in on which types of technologies, and which types of methodologies that you might want to bring to bear in order to achieve that outcome," he said.

To simplify the planning process, start by trying to figure out what you want to increase, whether it's efficiency of work, repeatability of a task or process, or just consistency overall. That will help you determine the next steps.

2. Choose your methods

Once you have determined your goals for automation, you must choose which aspects of the business to automate and how you will automate them. To determine what needs to be automated, Forrester's Le Clair said that many companies build a simple two-by-two matrix and map the processes there.

One axis usually represents how the process transforms the customer experience, while the other axis represents how practical the tech is to implement, and how ready the organization is for the change that comes with it. However, you can replace the axes with whatever components are most important to your organization.

In choosing which processes to automate, one of the most important concepts to clarify is how the changes brought about by automating any particular piece of your business will affect customers.

"In order to create differentiated value from your digital transformation initiatives, you want to think about 'How can I reinvent that customer experience?'" Dunie said.

The methods you engage with will likely play a part in determining the tools you end up using. Dunie recommends adopting a lean strategy, which may make it easier to pivot and experiment with different tools and techniques. Additionally, Le Clair noted that many companies have established BPM centers of excellence, which can help build competence and governance for automation.

3. Build your team

Another major consideration for your automation initiative must be the people behind it. For starters, that means figuring out how much of your project will be handled in-house, and how much will be handled by a third party. According to Dunie, many organizations aren't able to change their processes and implement automation on their own, due to the degree of process maturity being relatively low.

"It makes a lot of sense, particularly in the early stages around planning your digital transformation initiatives, to bring in an outside consultant or professional services," Dunie said.

Dunie said that an outside firm can help you think through your automation architecture, better manage the change, and help you get buy-in from stakeholders as well. However, if you do bring it in-house, it must be led by the business.

"Digital transformation cannot be an IT-led initiative, because it really does impact the core of how the business works," Dunie said.

4. Communicate your vision

In building out a roadmap for automation, business leaders must be clear on the long-term effects that it will have on employees. Technology can now automate more thinking-based tasks, Dunie said, and that will impact the workforce.

"You have to be very clear as to what is the long term direction that those employees will take," Dunie said. "Are you going to move them over to other high-value or visible work because you're getting rid of the more mundane, repeatable tasks?"

SEE: Help wanted: How automation can help with the security skills gap (TechRepublic)

After surveying hundreds of companies, Le Clair found that the "people aspects are actually less understood, compared to the technology." However, Le Clair noted that employee attitudes about automation must be taken into account, as bad attitudes can lead to poor performance.

"Attitudes are very much affected by their fear of job loss, and the fear of being marginalized in their roles by advanced technology," Le Clair said.

5. Watch out for red flags

In introducing automation, there are some red flags to be aware of that should cause you to re-evaluate your approach. If you don't have a clear reason as to why you're automating certain processes, and you don't understand the potential impact, Dunie said, you should take a step back.

"It's important for IT leaders to be very clear as to what types of automation are they looking to introduce, and is there the appropriate return on investment in adopting those types of tools," Dunie said. "There's a lot of hype around machine learning and AI these days, but not every type of decision is suited, or appropriate, for that type of tool."

Also, Le Clair said that another major red flag would be whether or not you have enough customer analysis (or the right kind of customer analysis). Misunderstanding customer impact could seriously harm not only your automation initiative, but your business as a whole.

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