Process automation continues to gain momentum across industries. The 2023 State of Process Orchestration report found that 96% of IT decision-makers consider it critical to their digital transformation goals, and in a 2022 Gartner survey, 80% of executives believed that automation can be applied to any business decision. Still, not all automation projects proceed as planned. The same Gartner survey revealed that only 54% of AI projects make it from pilot to production. And a 2022 survey from my company showed that 88% of process automation projects lagged behind initial projections.
Why the disconnect? While IT leaders cite many reasons, Forrester, among others, finds that many automation shortfalls stem from a lack of vision or strategy. Strategy is certainly one of the biggest inhibitors to process automation’s success. Based on our reports and on conversations in the field, we’ve seen automation strategies get derailed by a number of factors ranging from overinvestments without prior assessments, lack of technical know-how among IT teams, and disconnects between technologies deployed and company processes operating at scale for optimization.
To execute a successful automation strategy, leaders need to do more than just focus on adding more technology. They also need to ensure that people and projects are aligned on a common mission, that projects start slow and follow reasonable expectations, and that a smart set of overarching technologies orchestrates processes. Here are some steps that enterprises can take toward those ends.
Organizations have faced challenges getting business and IT on the same page for years. While this trend is nothing new, organizations still struggle with IT and business alignment when it comes to executing process automation strategies. Research shows that while 95% of IT leaders agree that for process automation to happen effectively, business and IT leaders need to be aligned and collaborating, 26% identify a lack of alignment as a key reason for not pursuing more process automation.
Clearly, this has to change. Organizations can promote more collaboration by adopting a modified “Center of Excellence” (CoE) approach. In some companies, that might mean assembling a community devoted to process automation tasks and strategies, in which practitioners can share best practices and ask questions of one another. The CoE should help members from business and IT teams work together better by coordinating tasks, avoiding reinventing projects from scratch, and generally empowering them to drive continuous improvement together.
Some organizations may want to create a central focus on process automation without using the actual CoE term. The terminology itself carries some legacy baggage from centralized Business Process Management (BPM) software. Some relied on a centralized approach for their CoE, counting on one team to implement process automation for the entire organization. That approach often led to bottlenecks for both developers and a line of business leaders, giving the CoE a bad reputation with few demonstrable results. For those reasons, it may make sense to “rebrand” the CoE as an automation or orchestration team. Regardless of the name used, a CoE model can help accelerate process automation.
By creating a structure dedicated to process automation, organizations can instill a process mindset across their operations. Amazon and other industry leaders think in processes. They establish processes to help them solve business problems, such as creating a better customer experience or improving internal efficiency. They understand that processes can give them a strategic advantage in the marketplace. A process automation CoE can evangelize process automation. In other words, the CoE can help the organization adopt a common language for business processes – including how to describe and execute them.
The CoE can also drive governance and consistency across business processes throughout the organization. That could mean anything from establishing a common infrastructure, software, and services, to managing projects from end to end. This team often provides “accelerators” (like connectors) or reusable components, to improve time-to-value for automation projects. As companies scale, this level of consistency and governance becomes more critical.
IT modernization is a top priority for most business organizations. However, many large companies are still working with legacy systems that they can’t afford to replace all at once. These systems often run mission-critical processes, and replacing them could cause potential downtime. Disruption aside, modernization efforts could cost millions of dollars in new technology investment and development/engineering costs.
A gradual transformation, on the other hand, can solve automation problems at lower cost, with minimal to no disruption. For example, as the first step in a gradual transformation, a company might consider breaking up a legacy monolith by taking manual tasks run by customer service representatives and automating some of them with robotic process automation (RPA) bots. Step two might be orchestrating these RPA bots to tie together into actual business processes that may include multiple bots, other IT systems or supervisor approvals. Step three may be to sunset these bots and replace them with modern, microservices-based applications that are much more robust and can be easily plugged into the existing end-to-end process.
Establishing a strategy that introduces automation through a series of steps, starting with a proof of concept, can put an automation initiative on the right track.
Automation was once easy to maintain, when organizations used it to carry out small, siloed tasks. But as organizations automate more and more tasks in business-critical end-to-end processes, there must now be a way to ensure cohesion and continuity between all automated tasks – regardless of who or what is owning and executing these processes.
This can be accomplished by instituting a new technology layer that controls the growing number of automated tasks, which are executed by different endpoints like systems, people, or devices. These so-called “process orchestration” tools coordinate the various endpoints of a business process, and sometimes even tie multiple processes together. Process orchestration helps stakeholders work with the people, systems, and devices that an organization already has – while achieving even the most ambitious goals around end-to-end process automation.
Without process orchestration, automation initiatives can encounter a number of challenges, including the following:
- Broken end-to-end automation; since local automations are not integrated with one another, the end-to-end process is not fully automated.
- Lack of understanding; the end-to-end process is not fully visible and key metrics are hard to track.
- Lack of flexibility; changing the end-to-end process is difficult since it leads to potential changes in many different systems.
Overcoming these issues will help organizations increase their use of automation and successfully execute their automation strategies.
While process automation remains a top strategic goal, it requires work to pull off. Organizations can improve their chance of success by aligning key stakeholders, starting slow, and applying technologies that orchestrate processes for maximum impact.