How to Build an Automation Center of Excellence That Drives Value

Igor Paniuk
DIRECTOR OF INTELLIGENT AUTOMATION PRACTICE
Volodymyr Horovyi
RPA ARCHITECT / CONSULTANT

Since automation allows businesses to evolve their workflows from cumbersome and error-prone to streamlined and agile experiences, organizations worldwide have plunged into automation acceleration. However, not all of them were successful at reaping the benefits. According to McKinsey, less than 20% of companies were able to automate their workflow and gain a competitive edge.

Companies still struggling with automation admitted facing organizational resistance, governance issues, and severe technical debts without any positive outcome. However, these setbacks aren’t typical for automation adoption. They’re the result of stakeholders having wrong ideas about automation and executive managers pursuing vague goals.

For instance, a VP of Technology decides that they’re ready to proceed to the next level by equipping their company with an automation center of excellence (CoE). They assign one of their managers to set up and oversee a CoE. From that point, the uncertainty begins.

How should the manager proceed? What should their priorities be?
What is the most important part of building an automation CoE?

In this blog post, we’ll explore the specifics of an automation center of excellence and why the right mentality is necessary for delivering the right results.

Why do companies fail at accelerating automation?

To address the matter of wrong ideas and vague goals, there are many misconceptions or automation-related fears that stand between companies and their digital transformation. To make the right decisions, managers in charge of setting up a CoE need to get rid of uncertainty and clarify several important points.

  • Automation isn’t a one-time deal
    Some sponsors and managers believe that they only need to invest in automation once for it to work and deliver results. The truth is that automation is a constant WIP that requires continuous monitoring, adjustment, and improvement to match the company's growth. Approaching automation without commitment ends in a product that doesn't deliver the expected ROI or meet long-term expectations.

  • Automation is intelligent first, robotic second
    Some business leaders still perceive automation as a functional exercise because they still have an RPA-based mindset. However, RPA, while still relevant, is merely a fraction of the potential of modern automation (also known as intelligent automation).
RPA
  • Covers simple, repetitive tasks
  • Rule-based
  • Doesn’t adapt to real-time data
  • Requires multiple costly licenses
INTELLIGENT AUTOMATION
  • Pilots a wide range of workflows
  • AI-based
  • Uses machine learning
  • Requires only one license

Empowering RPA with more versatility and agility, intelligent automation applies to a wider array of processes and operations. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. An automation PoC is a unique platform specifically for the tasks and operations within an enterprise.

  • Automation isn’t a chore
    Automating several processes unsystematically or designing a couple of virtual helpers and calling it a day is the wrong way to get started with automation. Businesses should take a more enterprise approach, establishing an automation HQ for handling automation-related activities and decisions.

  • Automation comes with transformation
    Successfully automated processes require readiness from relevant departments. Both stakeholders and managers should keep in mind how adopting automation would affect the work of their IT department. They also need to understand how much time their employees need to get used to the changes. Ignoring such details will inevitably cause organizational resilience – not because employees hate progress but because they will be disoriented and unsure of how to proceed.
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Why do companies need an automation center of excellence to accelerate automation?

An automation CoE is an in-house, autonomous team of experts that designs, executes, and manages process automation throughout the entire enterprise.

Serving as the heart and brain behind the transformation, the automation CoE team provides the expertise and the mindset needed for automating the company’s workflow and maintaining high performance utilizing the most innovative practices. An automation center of excellence also acts as a firm automation evangelist, assisting with team onboarding, end-user experiences, and bringing organizational resistance down to zero.

How to build an automation CoE?

Sometimes, an automation center of excellence is preceded by a burnt-out IT team, disgruntled employees, and a massive automation project failure.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

An automation CoE can start with an operational analysis of the company's already-automated processes, a conversation with the company’s R&D department and IT department, a need pipeline, and deciding whether their automation experience is replicable at a larger scale. That provides executive managers with all the data necessary for a proper CoE strategy.

1.  Discover the need

While many companies want to launch their automation adoption as soon as possible, eager for more data, efficiency, and profit, they should build not from what they want, but from what they need. So, first and foremost, executive managers should dive deep into "Why do we need automation?" and outline potential benefits their VP of Technology expects to receive.

After this, they need to make a list of automation candidates, i.e., departments and processes that would gain the most from digital transformation. An accurate candidate list requires an in-depth exploration of each department and consistent communication with the department leaders.

IN GENERAL, THE CRITERIA FOR AN AUTOMATION CANDIDATE ARE THE FOLLOWING

Does it involve manual interaction with an IT system?
Is it affected by human error often?
Are its processes based on logic and rules?
Is it repetitive?
How much time does it take to run and complete?
Does it leverage formats and structured data?
Can it be done after hours?

Once executives have their candidates listed up and visible, they can proceed further, looking for the talents who can go through the list, one candidate at a time, amplifying productivity.

2.  Assemble a team

On average, an automation CoE team consists of 7 to 35 people, depending on the enterprise's adoption project. From our professional experience, the best option is to start with a small 7-person team. It will make the entire process more dynamic and once you are satisfied with the results delivered, you can scale up.

When it comes to finding experts for an automation CoE team, it’s important to fill the key roles that make up its core.

What is the core of an automation CoE team?

RPA architects
  • Designing RPA workflow
  • Incorporating automation solutions into the IT environment
  • Onboarding and supporting IT teams
  • Overseeing the consistency between teams involved
  • Communicating their vision to RPA developers
  • Ensuring workflow standards compliance
Business analysts
  • Visualizing the process of candidate automation
  • Documenting all steps taken during automation
  • Evaluating the value delivered by automating a candidate
  • Calculating future requirements for automation improvement
DevOps engineers
  • Implementing automation tools
  • Building an IT infrastructure where all systems can operate
  • Handling code changes and deployment
  • Enabling collaboration between departments
Developers
  • Writing features for users
  • Designing how users will interact with the PoC
  • Developing and testing functionality
  • Improving the product
QA managers
  • Testing the PoC for defects and errors
  • Offering corrective measures
  • Developing improvement strategies
  • Exploring potential areas for growth
Support team
  • Bridging the automation CoE and end users via communication
  • Navigating end-users and stakeholders
  • Communicating future results
  • Keeping stakeholders motivated
  • Managing expectations
  • Handling feedback and complaints

Building a strong CoE core isn’t just about knowing who to hire – it’s about finding the right people for the job.

Since an automation center of excellence is a self-sustained entity, providing leadership and interacting with other departments, its team must be able to share the company's culture and find the right words for promoting automation to stakeholders.

Finding the people who fit both the skillset and the culture requires a strategy (based on the set of principles).

Always have detailed expert visualization

Using a cookie-cutter approach to selecting experts is the biggest mistakemanagers can make. For example, if they base their search on hard skills only, they will find developers who would leave the project in a month due to a lack of flexibility in handling complicated issues. Experts that deliver real value need to be gleaned through a wide range of search qualifiers, involving both hard and soft skills.

When we were building our CoE, we realized that we’ve overlooked many promising candidates because of stiff search criteria. To fix it, we started writing out detailed internal profiles and scorecards for each role needed. Each profile contained a full description of the soft and hard skills that we required for the project. After this, we started seeing more game-changing experts coming through the pipeline and very soon we had our CoE core assembled and ready to go.

Get to know our team's values and competences

For that reason, our suggestion is to always start with profiling and be as specific as possible. To get the best results, we recommend splitting every profile into sub-profiles (with different hard skills and seniority levels) and archetypes that fit the automation needs.

Pay attention to soft skills

The right skills can get a project far, but it’s the right mentality that gets the job done.

It’s possible to teach employees necessary hard skills in a relatively short time. But teaching them the right mindset is a much more time-consuming process – and not everyone can afford it. Assembling a team for an automation CoE is a lengthy process already — around 40 candidates may go through the pipeline to choose the right person for the role.

For that reason, it’s important for executing managers to stay open-minded and prioritize candidates’ soft skills as much as their hard skills. As an example of must-have qualities, CoE experts must be able to learn, adapt, and solve problems. Since automation is an ever-growing WIP, the enterprise needs experts who constantly explore new practices, gain new skills, and are ready to grow with the project.

Our personal recommendation is to be on the lookout for candidates who aren’t afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable during automation – the teams who are hyper-focused on avoiding them set themselves up for failure and have harder times figuring out the solution than teams willing to learn from both right and wrong steps.

Nurture leadership

team leader directs the flow, drives the processes forward, dives into troubleshooting, and evangelizes automation. This is why appointing the right leader is half the automation CoE success. But it's not an easy feat.

Since enterprise automation is always an innovative process based on the company's exclusive needs, niche specifics, and other variables, there is no protocol for choosing a leader for an automation CoE. Not every candidate who recommends themselves as a leader ends up as one – meanwhile, a candidate who previously didn’t seem to be leadership material may reveal themselves as a great team leader.

Given that the leader will take an active part in hiring and onboarding, interviewing, and selecting candidates, we advise you to take your time gleaning the best option through meticulous observations, multiple hackathons, and consistent feedback from employees and team members.

3.  Qualify the best automation candidate

With a need outlined and an automation center of excellence team ready, all that remains is to choose an automation candidate. Naturally, the first impulse is to automate as many processes across the organization as possible — depending on the size of the enterprise, the list of candidates can be quite long. But the only way for a company to run a successful digital transformation is to start with the candidate that makes the biggest impact.

Why is it important?

Stakeholders (VP of Technology, C-Suite) are often cautious about setting up an automation CoE, so they require solid proof that this direction is worth developing. Starting with a candidate that takes too long to automate or brings moderate results may lead them to the conclusion that the enterprise isn’t ready for automation or scrap their strategy altogether.

The perfect first candidate must deliver maximum value while taking minimum effort and resources. Its purpose is to become the spark that ignites the sponsor’s interest in further enterprise automation and launches the entire automation campaign.

Value

How much time will be saved by automating this process? How much money will be saved after transformation? What will the human error rate be after automating this process? What would the productivity rate look like after automation?

Complexity

Can this automated process be deployed with the current operational model? What does the project’s scope look like? How many decision points does it require? How long is the project’s roadmap?

This requires a detailed analysis of all the candidates and opportunities, sorting them from low-to-high-priority ones.

The high-priority candidates are the ones that can deliver the highest ROI and productivity rate while being the least complex to automate (based on the company’s current operational model) and enabling a stable and robust process.

Completing the first candidate within the shortest time period is beneficial to the CoE team as well as it allows evaluating payoff and assessing the user experience as soon as possible.

4.  Explore the limits of your CoE

While it's not a traditional step of building an automation CoE but rather a recommended practice, it is extremely useful for planning an optimal growth algorithm and keeping workflow productive.

Before starting their work on the candidate, the team participates in a hackathon to figure out the automation design for the most complex high-priority candidate.

Why do this instead of starting from the least complex one? To let an automation CoE team map out the full scope of possibilities and learn what it can and can’t do at its initial stage.

This exercise helps experts evaluate their current skills and resources, and test their teamwork during the most complex scenarios. As a result, they will be able to provide the clearest roadmap, knowing when it's time to scale up and what they would need in the long run.

It will also save them from the burnout of taking on too complex candidates, allowing the team to build momentum and approach each candidate with the knowledge gained from previous projects.

5.  Manage expectations

While relatively minor compared to other automation setbacks, the discrepancybetween sponsor expectations and reality can put enterprise growth on hold. If stakeholders aren’t given a detailed roadmap and an outline of the results and value received, they will evaluate the product based on their expectations, which aren’t always realistic. Accordingly, when stakeholders don’t get what they expected, they only see that the results don’t align with their long-term automation plans and expected ROI. That, in turn, leads to a drop in motivation and investment.

This is why communication is vital for successful automation acceleration – and why an automation CoE isn’t complete without relationship managers. Before developers can start their work, relationship managers get in touch with stakeholders (or their representatives) to give them an in-depth description of their development journey, KPIs, benchmarks, and end results.

Relationship managers are also in charge of maintaining the fragile balance between realistic expectations and high motivation. In addition to explaining what kind of results they can and can’t deliver at a certain stage, they communicate value (real ROI, time saved on tasks, productivity rate) and explain far-reaching plans, which prompts sponsors to stay engaged and look forward to the change.

In the course of candidate automation, relationship managers stay in touch with stakeholders, giving updates and breakdowns of every decision made.

6.  Enable transformation

“It’s very simple to make things complicated. It is very hard to keep it simple”

This motto is a red thread running through the entire candidate automation journey – from task assignment to post-launch monitoring.

An automation CoE performs at its best when not facing a massive stack of tasks. But rather when the work is broken down into several independent, encapsulated modules. Such an approach gives more agility, allowing experts to address such vital points as:

  • Usability
    The automated solution for the chosen department must be intuitive and easy to navigate for end-users. Automation center of excellence teams are responsible for ensuring seamless user experience and friction-free onboarding for new employees working with a solution.

  • Portability
    An automation CoE sees that the automated solution can be easily moved from one environment to another by running portability tests, checking compatibility with operating system requirements, and minimizing the effort required for porting.

  • Adaptation
    An automation CoE works on tailoring features to fit the day-to-day operations of the chosen department, structuring rules and logic behind the processes, and securing synergy with the company's workflow. That’s where the team takes care of potential post-merger implication challenges so end users can instantly engage with the newly-introduced solution and continue performing productively. As a rule, adaptation KPIs are always defined at the discovery stage during an interview with the end user.

  • Practical implication
    The team plans and designs instructions for end-users to introduce them to the final automation product, explain how it works, and help them use it to its fullest capacity. The instructions for the final product must be short and easy to memorize.

Overly long and complicated instructions signify that the automation solution needs to be polished further before launch.It’s not enough to make an automation product that solves problems – it should also be a product that’s not a problem to use. Therefore, the more intuitive the end product is, the more effort the automation CoE team has put into it.

7.  Measure results

After the product is launched, the support manager communicates with end users, creating a constant feedback loop. At this stage, an automation CoE team monitors the project's performance, gathers end-user comments, and evaluates the effect and the experience delivered by transformation. If the automation project hits all the boxes, delivers the expected results, and gathers positive feedback from end-users, it's considered a success.

Following this, the team analyzes their reserve capacity and opportunity for scaling to determine whether they can replicate this success for other candidates. If they can, it means that an automation center of excellence is ready to scale up.

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It’s important to remember that the more a team gains in size, the more it loses in agility and the harder it is to manage. So, we recommend dividing the large CoE team into several smaller ones. Working with multiple small teams allows an automation center of excellence to maintain momentum, keep the communication dynamic, and establish culture and synergy between all assigned team members.

Stakeholders should remember that it's OK to scale an automation center of excellence team no more than three times per year. Automation is a lengthy process – and selecting the right professionals for the task isn't supposed to be a matter of hours. Therefore, while enterprises want to put the pedal to the metal with their automation, it's crucial they choose the right pace for their company and workflow.

Are there more automation CoE practices to keep in mind?

Due to its innovative nature, there is always more to discover about automation and its productivity-boosting techniques. With a proper process automation CoE established within the company, business leaders are guaranteed to see those practices in action, driving value and increasing engagement.

However, building a productive automation CoE takes calculated steps and thorough organization. So, if you’re looking for the right experts for your automation CoE and want a detailed and error-proof journey – let’s chat.

At Trinetix, we have the practices to advise and the value-driven professionals to assist you with building an automation CoE that will take your organization to the next level.

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