Why You Need a Chief Automation Officer in 2022

We’ve all been a part of projects that don’t have a clear owner or, worse, have too many owners. That’s often the case with major initiatives such as automa­tion and digital transformation. Frequently, there are many stakeholders who are all deeply invested in the outcomes of automation—from the CEO to the day-to-day developers carrying out the work. And why wouldn’t that be the case, with success stories from the Amazons of the world serving as the model for automation’s efficiencies and economies of scale?

All too often, automation is considered a subset of larger digital transformation efforts spearheaded by the CIO or CTO. While that is a well-intentioned way of thinking about automation, often one of two things end up happening. Either the automation efforts end up becoming huge, unfocused projects that ulti­mately fail, or teams lock in on “quick fixes” and live with short-term workarounds that break down under the pressure of legacy systems.

Even so, automation efforts need a leader. They can’t be done in silos and require collaboration across engineering and line-of-business leaders, a skill that requires executive-level expertise. A dedicated chief automation officer or, at minimum, a center of excel­lence (CoE), can help most enterprises steer their end-to-end process automation efforts.

Criteria for a Chief Automation Officer

First, let’s look at some of the criteria for an enter­prise that may want to hire a chief automation officer. Your organization may fit the bill if it:

  • Operates with a variety of complex legacy sys­tems: Many organizations operate with legacy systems running some of their most critical busi­ness applications. Many of these applications are custom-built and can run on decades-old soft­ware such as COBOL.
  • Is transitioning to the cloud: While the pandemic made some digital transformation efforts move faster than others, the act of rewriting many of the aforementioned legacy applications as cloud-native, microservices-based applications may be the organization’s eventual end goal.
  • Is facing intense competition from startups (and otherwise): From fintech to proptech to agtech, a variety of tech startup categories have emerged to unseat companies that have been operating in these industries for years. These companies are put in a position where automation is not a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have, board-level directive.
  • Views automation as a strategic imperative: Rather than focusing on one-off automation efforts, the organization has an ultimate goal for end-to-end process automation. The group lead­ing these efforts wants to have visibility into how the automation process is going and has an eye toward continuous improvement.

If any of these criteria apply to your organization, a chief automation officer is needed to catalyze these efforts and turn them into real, repeatable success stories in 2022.

Determining Your Organization’s Road Map

Some organizations take on sweeping, enterprise-scale automation projects only to get lost in a strat­egy and emerge with little-to-no evidence about automation’s effectiveness. While it seems counterin­tuitive, starting small and proving the value of auto­mation is the best way to gain buy-in and roll out a larger project.

For example, a chief automation officer’s role could be to define the scope of a pilot automation project. Typically, this project should be relevant to core business stakeholders, clearly demonstrate the ROI of automation, and be feasible within a relatively short window of time. The goals of a pilot project often involve:

  • Verifying that a specific approach or tool works within the organization’s scenario
  • Showcasing an example that gets internal stakeholders to buy into a larger automation effort
  • Working through granular questions before kicking off a larger effort.

From there, the chief automation officer could implement the appropriate architecture and tech stack, lead the development team responsible for carrying out the automation, and create the KPIs or benchmarks to measure the project’s success. The goal for this leader is to understand the potential for automation to make the greatest impact and know how to prioritize.

Automation involves a complex ecosystem of processes, including people, devices, and systems. The goal of the chief automation officer should be to dig deeper into the organiza­tion’s existing processes and understand which ones will impact the customer experience the most. From there, they can create a prioritized road map for rolling out an automation effort at scale.

Rallying Cross-Functional Teams

The most successful organizations view automation as impera­tive to their success. A chief automation officer can serve as a cham­pion at the top that advocates for end-to-end process automa­tion yet knows how to translate business requirements into technical specifications.

Rather than relying on a chief information officer or a chief digital officer to spearhead this effort, the narrower scope of a chief automation officer can provide the focus needed to unite all the stakeholders under a common set of goals. Organization­ally, a chief digital officer might be responsible for digital trans­formation efforts as a whole, while an automation executive can focus on the details required to successfully navigate these complex projects.

One way to gain alignment might be to leverage an open source standard, such as BPMN, that helps both technical and non-technical teams model out automation efforts with a flowchart-based process model. These standards can help teams comprehend the mechanics of automation and get everyone speaking the same language. From there, the chief automation officer can choose the right way to execute and orchestrate these projects across the organization.

Creating an Automation Center of Excellence

Another way to break down organizational silos is to create a CoE, which works even if you don’t have a chief automation officer on board. Establishing a CoE can help codify best prac­tices for what has worked or not worked in past automation projects. The same team members can then share responsibil­ity for the success of new projects across departments.

According to “The State of Process Automation,” a survey of 400 IT decision makers in North America and Europe, 76% of respondents said they either already have a CoE in place or are actively working on one. The goal is to provide leadership, best practices, support, and training for process automation across their organizations. In fact, this number is rising. Organiza­tions are investing heavily in the roll-out of process automation across an organization. CoEs have grown from 20% a year ago to 46% today, with an additional 31% being actively planned.

An automation CoE team is made up mostly of developers that can bring process automation to various business units. A CoE can maintain start guides, project templates, and reusable open source components/libraries for teams to leverage. In some cases, a CoE may run a community to raise awareness for new automation initiatives within the company. This type of frame­work can help other teams get inspired and decide whether an automation project is right for their departments.

Regardless of how you might choose to structure a CoE, an executive champion such as a chief automation officer can help this group gain visibility in the organization and break down barriers when and if they exist. As more companies strive to become automation leaders, the chief automation officer role may rise to prominence. The goal? Overcoming legacy barriers—from culture to technology—to achieve the very best automa­tion outcomes.


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