Given the array of ongoing challenges businesses face, including those posed by hybrid work and COVID-19, business automation is more important than ever. In large organizations, many business units have long been using robotic process automation (RPA) to automate simple manual tasks such as copying and pasting data. While RPA can address local needs quickly and easily, it can’t scale to deliver the complete end-to-end automation, also called hyperautomation, that modern companies need. When business units become frustrated with the limitations of RPA, they may choose to work around IT to implement their own tech solutions. This can lead to problems, such as noncompliant or insecure implementations, technical debt, siloed data, maintenance challenges, and misalignment with strategic go.
There is a considerable range of approaches—both in terms of methodology, and technology—that can enable complete automation. Even with the best tools in place, however, nearly every company can benefit from a business unit devoted to overseeing, championing, and supporting the goal of automation. This is where automation centers of excellence come in.
What is an automation center of excellence (CoE)?
At its core, an automation center of excellence is an internal business unit dedicated to implementing automation initiatives across the entire organization. An effective automation CoE will take the lead on responsibilities such as researching and licensing automation platforms, training employees, reviewing automations before they go live, and overseeing ongoing maintenance and optimization. An automation CoE team will build support for automation among employees by educating them about the benefits, while also making sure that each automation-related project follows development best practices. It will coordinate automation projects across various business units, and identify and vet reusable components that can be utilized in future automation projects.
Effective CoEs can look a bit different for every organization, depending on variables like company size or the scale of automation goals. Regardless of how it’s structured, an internal team that plans automation programs and spearheads implementation will provide a big boost to automation aspirations.
Why every organization needs an automation CoE.
An automation CoE addresses many needs. Foremost is scalability. Bots can help business units automate simple tasks, but when businesses want to streamline more complex or larger-scale processes, they need a more complete automation approach supported by an array of automation tools. A CoE team can source the best technologies to meet this need.
Another difficulty companies may face is internal resistance. Fear of change and apprehension around job security may color employees’ perceptions of automation. A center of excellence can help educate everyone in the organization about the benefits of automation and enlist them in an automation project to build stronger support.
Business units that spearhead their own implementations away from IT oversight often end up with multiple software solutions where one would suffice. This type of implementation, known as shadow IT, may fall short of technical standards, create security issues, integrate poorly, silo data, and hinder collaboration and productivity. Shadow IT can also add unnecessary technical debt and make ongoing maintenance more complicated. A center of excellence team can ensure IT staff and business stakeholders play an active part in new automation projects, so that all software meets technical standards and operates safely and effectively. By bridging the gap between business and IT, a CoE can better align new automation opportunities to both strategic and technical priorities.
Building effective automation CoEs.
How should businesses go about creating an automation CoE? The following five best practices provide guidance for setting up a successful CoE.
1) Consider your governance model.
Enterprise automation initiatives require governance. A center of excellence can use one of three primary models to provide the structure, tools, and methodology for this governance:
Usually, a centralized model is best for smaller companies without extensive automation plans. As companies look to scale their automation, they may find a federated or decentralized model is more effective. Decentralized models work well when various business units operate in close collaboration with each other—with regular communications, planning sessions, or even shared tools and software—whereas federated models can help when different business units are more autonomous or specialized, but could still benefit from a central team’s coordination.
Regardless of which governance model is used, the purpose is the same: to promote and support organization-wide automation while balancing business goals against IT standards, requirements, and best practices.
2) Empower evangelism.
It’s essential to secure proper buy-in from relevant parties. Without this support, automation efforts will fall short. A full commitment from the executive leadership team is a great first step, but a center of excellence can also help foster support across the entire company, which is crucial to building a successful automation program.
First, the CoE team must establish new, automation-friendly practices. It should create an internal portal where employees can view, provide updates, and collaborate on automation-related projects, and also get help with relevant issues. The portal should offer critical eLearning options and provide employees with access to the information they need to sharpen their automation-related skills.
Second, the center of excellence team should celebrate every win. Recognizing key milestones and successful projects will help build support and emphasize the benefits of automation. Similarly, organized automation days, or “automathons,” where employees share learning, expertise, and successful use cases, are fun, productive ways to start weaving automation into the company fabric.
Lastly, scaling automation requires a pipeline of automation projects. CoE teams can encourage business units and subject matter experts to identify which business processes are the best candidates for automation. Process mining tools can help analyze current processes and identify bottlenecks and opportunities. With process mining, you can build a catalog of automation projects to prioritize.
3) Keep an agile mindset.
Agile methodologies encompass a range of processes aimed at overcoming the slow place and uneven quality of traditional development. An agile approach will help automation deliver real business value by aligning development with actual business needs. Development should proceed iteratively, deploying small teams working in short, rapid sprints, which allow for frequent feedback from users and business leaders. This process enables continuous enhancement, with course corrections as needed.
Strong automation CoEs can support this approach by providing specialized services and resources to developers as needed. It can ensure the right people are involved at the right points in the development process, and that the proper amount of time is dedicated to completing the mission. A CoE team can also work to implement software solutions that are best suited to the company’s culture. The result of this agile mindset is an automation factory that can quickly respond to needs as they arise and evolve, instead of checking boxes on long lists of features that will inevitably change over time.
4) Go beyond RPA and implement complete automation.
Starting small by successfully automating a few tasks with bots is a sure way to build enthusiasm around automation. While RPA is a fundamental aspect of process automation, it’s only one step on the path to complete automation, which orchestrates multiple technologies, tools, and platforms—often across departments—to streamline broader, complex processes.
To achieve this kind of scale, CoEs should promote the use of a full suite of automation technologies. For instance, business process management (BPM) tools enable efficient and effective design of complex, end-to-end processes. Artificial intelligence can build intelligence into apps, and business decision rules can be embedded into processes. Intelligent document processing (IDP) can eliminate manual work associated with documents, and dynamic case management can automate ad hoc workflows. Using a low-code platform as the foundation, you can be sure these and other automation tools are effectively deployed according to an overarching automation strategy. Employing a full set of automation technologies will help you develop robust, full-featured processes that can scale effectively alongside your business.
5) Keep humans in control.
Automation isn’t about eliminating positions; it’s about freeing people to focus on more valuable work. A CoE team shouldn’t just advocate for automation technologies; it should also champion the needs of humans, because they must be at the center of automation. An effective team can provide workers with the right data at the right time, so they can make critical decisions when higher cognition is required. It can help put people where their attention is needed, so they won’t just be in the loop, but in control.
Building automated processes that keep people in control means designing user-friendly interfaces that give users a higher level of mastery over the processes. A center of excellence can enforce standards of design consistency and usability, so that user experience doesn’t get in the way of user autonomy. It can provide clear views of the overall process structure and make relevant data easier to understand and apply.
How low-code fuels automation excellence.
Along with an automation CoE, a low-code platform can play a key part in automation efforts. It can streamline development and scale automation across the entire enterprise. It can also help teams build powerful apps quickly and make a full ecosystem of technologies available to developers.
Low-code platforms provide simple data convergence across the organization without the need to migrate data, offering a virtual 360-degree view of data. This allows data to be accessed where it’s needed, alongside dynamic task management tools that make it easier for users to handle exceptions or ad hoc activities—keeping humans at the center of automated processes. Full-featured low-code platforms provide built-in RPA functionality, so bots can be deployed easily and effectively while working in concert with more complex tasks and extensive automation technology. Ultimately, the flexibility, speed, and tools provided by a complete low-code platform will serve as a key addition to the arsenal of any automation center of excellence.
Automation excellence is no longer optional.
Gartner has forecasted that IT spending will increase 5.5% in 2022, up to $4.5 trillion. With all the upheaval in the global workforce, automation is sure to be an indispensable aspect of that investment. As automation becomes more ubiquitous, the organizations that guide their automation with a dedicated center of excellence, are the ones that will thrive.