Process automation is a people-first concept


Extracting greater functionality and productivity out of existing enterprise software landscapes has always been an important goal for IT and line of business users alike. As business priorities change and new opportunities or threats arise, there’s an almost natural reflex on the part of most companies to look to their enterprise software for help. 

One of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to achieve these business objectives is to update and automate existing processes that are inefficient, incomplete, or poorly designed. Importantly, attaining the most impactful result requires focussing not just on small, department-wide improvements. The most valuable business outcomes usually require the automation of important end-to-end processes that have historically been hampered by the silos of technology that are endemic to enterprises large and small. These silos have locked ERP, HCM, CRM, supply chain and other important functions into disconnected process islands, and the resulting accumulation of inefficiency and technical debt has made the automation of key enterprise processes more difficult, time-consuming, and ineffective than it should be.

The opportunity to use the different forms of automation to improve productivity and leverage existing enterprise software solutions has propelled a who’s who of vendors to saturate the market with an array of solutions. Automation tools can be found under the rubrics of robotic process automation (RPA), workflow automation, hyperautomation, intelligent automation and process mining – the latter being an important tool for discovering where process improvements of all kinds can be best applied.

The problem with choosing the right approach is exacerbated by the fact that all flavours of automation can be used separately to achieve significant results: a single UiPath customer is seeing savings of €80m over a two-year period using the vendor’s intelligent automation tools, while other vendors including ServiceNow and SAP Signavio can make equally impressive claims. Separating the mining from the process and the workflow can make sense for some customers, but usually the smartest money is invested in a platform that can identify the opportunities for automation and also test and execute them.

While the outcomes from most automation exercises start with a common set of goals – create or improve highly productive end-to-end processes, span functional silos, and deliver innovative user experiences – the options highlight a problem for prospective customers: how can an enterprise looking for a particular business outcome choose between an approach based on workflow automation as opposed to one based on process automation or process mining? Or is that even the right question to ask? 

It turns out the common denominator for success is rarely the tool or its approach, all of which are relatively adept at meeting the challenge. What’s imperative, and is arguably the hardest part of the journey to success, is careful attention to the change management side of the journey. In other words, achieving the enterprise-wide automation results starts as a people problem, independent of the tool and its approach. Without a doubt the tool is important and these and many other solutions have an excellent track record. But that choice can only succeed if the people problems are sorted out first. 


The people-first approach

The first common denominator for success is having permission to initiate the project in the first place. Siloed software creates fiefdoms – ERP teams don’t necessarily work closely with the teams running CRM, HR, finance or the like – and these federated groups closely guard their data models, customised functionality and processes from each other. 

That close-mindedness can vastly limit outcomes. Successful end-to-end process automation need consensus among different stakeholders in order to come up with the unified data models, KPIs, functions, and user experiences needed to move the productivity needle into the black. And in most companies that consensus requires a leader who can bring the disparate parties together and get them working towards a common goal. 

Finding and empowering this leader turns out to be much harder than it sounds, and that means the silo-buster often needs executive sponsorship to build consensus – and knock heads if necessary. The ideal executive sponsor is of course the CEO, but in reality the CFO or CIO is most likely to take this charge, until we start to see CAO (chief automation officers) sitting at the boardroom table. 

The second common denominator is the empowerment of the subject matter expert, or SME. Whether it’s an existing process that’s poorly automated or a net-new process that will plug an important functional gap, there’s typically an SME who knows the inner workings of the process, warts and all. That individual, usually not in the IT department and often not asked to contribute until it’s almost too late, needs to weigh in as early as possible in order for the end result to offer the appropriate level of automation and be based on a user experience that engages instead of enrages. In the majority of cases, this in-house expertise can tip the project towards success. This is why these tools all have the ability to capture this expertise and assist in the translation of that knowledge to the new application. 

Companies that embark on silo-busting and the creation of automated, end-to-end processes need to set themselves up for success by getting the people side organised first. Without a leader with permission to make the big moves necessary, and without the SME who knows what innovations in productivity, automation and user experience should look like, an automation project is at risk of running aground regardless of the technology used. The goal of leveraging existing enterprise software to achieve new levels of productivity and innovation is one that makes sense for all companies. To do so at scale, and to do it again and again, requires a people-first approach. Without this method the potential risk for failure can be high, something no company can afford in good times or bad.