Like an exploration journey, a transformation is not a continuous and consistent process. The great explorers of the world went through periods of progression and they had times when they paused, consolidated and regrouped before the moved on to the next transition.
There is clearly no shortage of Maturity Models for executives which are on the lookout for a suitable business transformation framework. My research into Maturity Models showed that the vast majority of the models use five stages to describe the transformation process. This suggests somehow that transformation is a five-step approach during which organisational maturity grows from one stage to the next stage. Furthermore, the visual representation of most maturity models proposes that the transformation journey is a harmonious and consistent continuum of advancements towards the target state.
In my experience, business transformation is anything but a smooth sailing, I think of it more as a combination of states and stages; the latter help the organisation to transition from one state to the next state of maturity. I distinguish deliberately between states and stages when describing the transformation. Like an exploration journey, a transformation is not a continuous and consistent process. The great explorers of the world went through periods of progression and they had times when they paused, consolidated and regrouped before they moved onto the next transition stage.
The business journey from low maturity to high maturity is also not a consistent and seamless voyage. In my model the states describe the organisational capabilities needed to achieve a certain state of maturity. The transition stages describe how to get from one state to the next one. I believe that states should be used to pause, reflect, consolidate and regroup before embarking onto the next transition stage. Transitioning implies change, in an organisational context change comes with uncertainty and in my experience uncertainty is best countered by agility. After a period of intense change, organisations achieve a certain state which should be used to reflect and redirect where needed. This is usually achieved through leadership. Therefore, business transformation is an interplay between leadership and agility.
The aforementioned principles apply to business transformations more generally. The remainder of this article, however, looks at the specific application of the described maturity model in the context of Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
By now, most business leaders and executives would have heard of Robotic Process Automation. Many would debate in board and leadership meetings whether or not RPA could support ongoing business transformation initiatives. In order to gain clarity on the potential, the impacts and the risks associated with the new RPA technology, business or technology leaders usually commission a Proof-of-Concept (POC), which is the first state in the maturity model.
The main purpose of the POC is to validate the new technology. Realising business benefits should not necessarily be the focus at this state. More important is to learn what can be done and what are the limitations of RPA. We advise our clients not to select the most trivial business process for this exercise as executive decision making should not be misguided by an RPA implementation that went too smoothly due to a simple business process. The other extreme would be an overly complex business process which can’t be successfully automated with the current knowledge and experience. Choosing the right business process for the proof of concept is crucial and too often not given enough attention to, which in consequence could mean that your RPA endeavour is set-up for failure right from the start. It’s important to keep in mind that technical feasibility by itself does not guarantee a Return-on-Investment (ROI), the POC should also provide a high-level estimate on cost and anticipated benefits. It might be also beneficial to consult with industry peers and external practitioners before making a leadership decision on whether or not to embark onto an RPA journey.
Assuming that the outcome of the POC was promising, organisations are now typically willing to explore further how RPA can deliver tangible business benefits. They set out onto their first transition stage which aims at evolving the current experimental capability into a small-scale capability that can deliver short-term benefits. This stage of evolution is often characterised by resource constraints, fragmentation and resistance. It’s critical to respond with agility which in turn could mean that several course corrections are needed. The ability to embrace a fail-fast-and-learn approach will enable organisations to move forward. Companies that are transitioning from a Proof-of-Concept state have to make a number of decisions. The choice of automation software provider is critical and should not only take cost into consideration but also assess functionality, vendor support, frequency of upgrades, flexibility and integration, to name only a few of the decision-making factors. Identifying and prioritising automation opportunities is a critical and often underestimated activity at this early stage of the RPA journey. Overcoming organisational resistance and addressing various concerns is the main focus of this stage. That’s why we believe it’s important to create a momentum by automating business processes with a high leverage. In our RPA Maturity Model, we call these opportunities ‘Quick Wins’. We look for processes that are relatively easy to automate and deliver measurable benefits. Typically, these are high-volume processes which are not heavily integrated (stand-alone) with a limited number of actors (hand-over points). If possible, it might be desirable to automate a couple of disparate processes in order to maximise the learning and also to spread the word of the new technology widely across the organisation. In this first transition stage we advise our clients not to introduce too much governance yet, as this may be detrimental in the attempt of creating an RPA movement. Moreover, business as well as technology teams are still learning how to use the new technology; from an operational perspective the emphasize should be on knowledge management and sharing. In order to provide management reporting and evidence of the benefits we also strongly advocate the implementation of measurement and reporting mechanism.
Following the successful automation of a couple of business processes, it’s time to pause and reflect. The company has now achieved the state of ‘Quick Wins’ on the RPA Maturity Journey. This state is characterised by productivity and efficiency gains through the implementation of several stand-alone automation solutions. Quite possibly the solutions are independently managed and monitored. Although there is only a low degree of synergy and integration, these solutions fulfil their purpose; they deliver value, raised awareness and contributed to the learning. However, a ‘Quick Wins’ approach does not scale endlessly, at one-point returns will diminish as the overhead increases. Governance and structure are the missing pieces for the organisation to achieve the next maturity level. The leadership team has to decide whether or not it makes sense to transition to the next maturity state. The required commitment and investment might be significant in which case leaders might decide to settle at the current state. At Incepto we believe that not every company has to achieve the highest level of maturity in order to benefit from Robotic Process Automation. In developing your RPA strategy, we would assess your current state and determine the most beneficial future state considering your company’s capabilities and strategic priorities.
If leaders decide to continue the RPA maturity journey, the organisation will embark onto a new transitional stage. The purpose of this transition is to mature into a fully developed RPA capability which can scale across all functions of the organisation. This capability needs to be resilient, governed and completely embedded within organisational structures. While the first transition stage (evolve) was about finding the right direction, the second transition stage (mature) will usually not encounter major course corrections but will instead focus on doing things properly and setting up the organisation for sustained long-term success. Sometimes this means that the RPA movement will undergo a temporary contraction which is often induced by the added governance. If companies experience a transient slowdown, it’s important that the RPA movement shows resilience in overcoming the organisational resistance. This is a critical stage of every maturation process, as failure could bring the business transformation to a standstill. Our guidance in this transition stage will make sure your company is equipped with the tools, decision frameworks, processes and procedures to achieve the highest RPA maturity level. Irrespective of the operating model (centralised, federated or decentralised) we suggest the creation of an RPA Center-of-Excellence (COE) which is embedded in the organisation yet detached from functional hierarchies, so that the COE maintains independence and focus on achieving excellence in RPA practices.
We have identified six knowledge domains that the COE should cover. Elaborating on each domain would turn this article into a book, which we want to do anyway in the future, but for the time being I focus on the essentials of this transition stage. As we are building a capability it can be anticipated that at one point the business demand will exceed the capacity of the RPA capability. A clear estimation and prioritisation framework will provide the necessary transparency in managing the pipeline of work. RPA is still a fairly new technology and many business leaders would not yet know how to use this new tool. An initiative focused on education can help to increase demand side of the supply chain. Some of the earlier Quick Wins automations can be leveraged to showcase the potential of RPA. Among many other things the COE needs to develop a strategy to deal with the implications that come with building a digital workforce. Change management, ethics, disaster and recovery planning, legal, compliance and corporate governance require careful consideration. Customer experience, vendor relationships, resource allocation and management reporting should be well defined. In our experience, transitioning from a Quick Wins state to a full RPA capability is a significant endeavour that does not only require agility and creativity but also planning. We strongly recommend to walk this way not alone but with a trusted partner on your side who has travelled on this path before.
Establishing an RPA capability within your organisation is clearly not an easy endeavour, but it yields great benefits. Scale and sustainability come to mind in the first place, your organisation is now well positioned to quickly and reliably identify automation opportunities that deliver sustained business value. Well documented as-is and to-be processes enable your delivery teams to develop, test and deploy automation solutions in an effective manner. A formalized and standardized opportunity assessment process underpins the prioritised pipeline of work and ensures that the most beneficial automation opportunities are delivered first. Your RPA Center of Excellence ensures risks are managed and business continuation is guaranteed. Careful consideration of business needs and human workforce needs empowers employees to achieve their full potential by working side-by-side with a digital workforce. If you have achieved all of the above you will have arrived at your final RPA Maturity destination.
Incepto is a consultancy firm that specialises in Robotic Process Automation. We advise and support our clients at every stage of their RPA maturity journey. Get in touch with us to schedule a free RPA Maturity Assessment and to discuss the best course of action.
About the Author:
Jens Pistorius is Managing Director and Principal RPA Consultant at Incepto. Jens speaks regularly at conferences on the topic of Robotic Process Automation, he's a student and researcher at the University of Technology in Sydney and has over 20 years of professional work experience in process improvement and consulting. Jens combines industry knowledge with hands-on experience and the latest in academic research to help organisations in their never-ending quest for productivity gains and business process improvements.