Thoughtful’s Approach to Establishing a CoE (Center of Excellence) for Automation
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Business thought leaders anticipate Automation Centers of Excellence (CoE) will be a top trend in 2023, and with good reason. An economic downturn, labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and evolving consumer behaviors are just some of the high-impact factors at the forefront of CEOs' minds in 2022. And these factors will undoubtedly shape 2023.
Gartner's recent 2022 CEO survey drives home these concerns. Growth (expansion and scaling), technology (digitization, cybersecurity, ecommerce), workforce (hiring and talent retention), and corporate (strategy refresh, Mergers and Acquisitions, and restructuring) are cited as CEOs' top priorities today. And critically, "workforce" has jumped by 32% in the rankings since 2020.
Heading into 2023, CEOs have some big decisions to make. However, one of the most important ways they will respond to these challenges is by sharpening their focus on key technologies and uplifting innovative leaders and other skilled workers. An effective way to achieve this is by establishing a CoE. And with labor shortages and widening skills gaps set to further destabilize the economy over the next year, automation-focused CoEs are coming into the limelight.
Automation can bridge labor gaps, cut costs, and improve accuracy, productivity, and efficiency. Establishing an automation CoE will enable businesses to develop an organization-wide automation strategy and scale and standardize automated solutions. It's really about realizing the true promise of RPA, bots, and other forms of automation through a dedicated and laser-sharp approach. But where do you start? Let's get into it.
What Is an Automation CoE?
You can think of a CoE as a group of passionate experts committed to a specific mission. Creating special-interest groups for thought leadership in business began in lean manufacturing. However, the concept has existed long before then. The most famous example is the Manhattan Project which brought us the atomic bomb. Led by the US, the Manhatten Project enlisted the help of experts from different scientific disciplines and across allied countries, namely the United Kingdom and Canada. But how do CoEs function in today's business landscape?
A Center of Excellence (also called a Knowledge Center) brings together specialized workers from across the organization and provides a shared facility and resources. The mission of a CoE is to provide leadership and purposefully disseminate knowledge within the organization surrounding a specific topic or goal. CoEs are comprised of highly-skilled and highly engaged individuals and experts.
An automation CoE, then, focuses on embedding a solid framework for establishing automation best practices and successfully implementing automation tools within the company.
Automation CoEs are becoming more popular due to the explosion in corporate data we've seen over the last decade and as a way to fully realize the benefits of automation. You'd be hard-pressed to find an organization that doesn't want to harness its data to become more data-driven in the modern world. Similarly, it's hard to find an organization that doesn't want to boost efficiency and productivity, reduce errors, increase customer satisfaction, and save costs through automation.
Who Needs an Automation CoE?
You might think an automation CoE is something only large enterprises need, but this is false. Businesses of all sizes can benefit from a CoE. Put simply, any organization that seeks to transform its business in a specific direction should implement a CoE. According to Gartner, a CoE helps companies to focus and align their current expertise and resources to accomplish and sustain outstanding performance and value.
Of course, the initial inspiration to implement a CoE may look different in large businesses than in small businesses.
Large companies often struggle with environmental complexity, technology silos, and disconnected teams. Establishing a CoE in this landscape can help tie everything together and encourage companies to develop automation priorities as well as recognize new opportunities. It also helps prevent islands of automation - the condition where automated systems cannot communicate and are not integrated into another system. Moreover, it stops organizations from reinventing the wheel whenever they have a new idea for a helpful smart bot.
In smaller businesses, CoEs help set a successful path for future growth. Automation is just as critical in small companies as in large enterprises, so taking a deliberate approach from the outset is paramount. Essentially, CoEs can improve barriers to progress and allow smaller businesses to race ahead of their peers.
Lastly, and more generally, companies often create CoEs when there is a knowledge deficit or skills gap within the organization. For example, the company may not have the resources to hire full-time bot engineers. Still, they can bring together workers with other related job responsibilities to work on automation projects on an ongoing or temporary basis.
Who's on the Automation CoE Team?
Before we discuss who is on the team, let's first discuss the CoE structure. There are three primary approaches here, Centralized, Federated and Hybrid. Under a centralized model, one centralized team handles most automation development, installation, IT testing, documentation, and delivery. They become the sole authority and provide a clarity of vision for automation delivery within the organization.
Conversely, a federated model uses a decentralized approach with smaller CoEs closely connected to business units. The main benefit of this approach is that it can allow for more rapid development and allow for smaller business units to have a greater say (more influence) over automation projects. On the flip side, decentralized models make achieving transparency and scalability across the organization more challenging. Still, it could be an option for distributed workforces with offices in different regions.
The hybrid model is a mixture of the previous two. It's still centralized to an extent, but smaller CoEs and their related business units can still make independent decisions regarding immediate business requirements.
So, that's the structure, but how do you assemble your CoE team?
Typically, an automation CoE team will consist of the following:
- A high-ranking IT professional with experience in leadership, for example, the Chief Technology Officer.
- Bot engineers, software engineers, data engineers, and other IT personnel.
- Individuals from key departments or competencies like finance, IT, human resources, and marketing. Critically, these people will have a keen interest in automation and are excited about the benefits automation can bring to their department.
- Automation champions from other departments. This could include people in unrelated job roles with experience in automation through self-learning or internal and external qualifications. They could also just be people highly passionate about automation. Champions aren’t official CoE team members, but they’re critical to the CoE’s success nonetheless.
It's critical to remember that creating a Center of Excellence team is markedly different from creating a bots project team. You're not just trying to bring together skilled automation craftsmen who can follow instructions but instead establish a center for thought leadership. As a result, the team needs to have a diverse set of expertise as well as creative ideas.
How Do You Onboard Your Evangelists and Champions?
Champions make or break automation initiatives, so recruiting the right people is essential. But how do you spot and nurture your automation champions? The process can be challenging, but it doesn't have to be.
Let's start with the obvious. Look for people excited about automation. Often, these people make themselves known when you announce your Automation Center of Excellence vision. Champions and evangelists are the hype creators - the people pushing automation adoption throughout the company.
However, it's also true that excitement alone isn't enough. It would help if you sought excited individuals with the management skills you need for your CoE to thrive. This blend of management skills includes strategy, coaching, admin, problem-solving, and communication. You want your champions to be able to clearly communicate their ideas (and the ideas of their peers) to the CoE. At the same time, you want them to be able to share your successes back to the broader business and go the extra mile to promote your initiatives.
Champions help keep your automation pipeline full of new ideas and projects. Often these ideas come from the bottom up. They come from the workers who experience daily frustrations due to clunky, outdated processes that can be easily automated. The key here is to listen to these individuals, which brings us to the next point - open up a direct line of communication.
Your champions need to know how and when to engage with the CoE. You don't want your inbox flooded with poorly thought-through ideas from random people scattered across the business. In a large company, this can quickly become unmanageable. Automation champions can help here by acting as a spokesperson for entire departments. But it's important to remember this isn't their full-time job. You should nurture and support your champions by offering training when needed and recognizing and rewarding their efforts.
The ideal champion is enthusiastic, confident, prepared (has a nuanced understanding of arguments against automation), credible (they know their stuff), persistent, well-connected, and respected.
As business landscapes continue to shift and companies experience even more significant labor shortages, automation CoEs will skyrocket in popularity. The need for effective, forward-thinking automation projects has never been greater, so why not deploy your automation CoE today?
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January 9, 2024