Support, Methodology and Centre of Excellence: The foundations of automation
by Nick Andrews, executive chairman, Virtual Operations. Published with permission of the AIIA where it was posted on 23 Nov ’17.
When it comes to intelligent automation, high quality support, a robust methodology and diligent centre of excellence are critical to success, writes Virtual Operations’ executive chairman, Nick Andrews.
In our last article we explored some of the key requirements for planning and executing a successful large-scale automation program namely: understanding your objectives from the outset, preparing business cases both for the program, and for each automation project, and building the automation team in-house.
This article explores the foundations for risk-free, sustainable automation.
1) High quality support
Automated processes require specialist technical support which needs to be continually available 365 and 24/7. After completing initial pilot automation projects, automation adopters can then broaden their programs to cover business-critical processes.
At this stage, continuity and reliability are paramount and this means that, if the robots fail for any reason, faults must be identified and rectified almost immediately. Unfortunately, providing this level of support is not a trivial matter, as robots can fail frequently and the causes are not always obvious.
Having a real time support service involves knowledgeable resources for monitoring, investigating, routing / escalating and reporting. A typical program will need to ensure cover is available for each time zone with additional back up as necessary.
Typically, a single global automation program requires a team of between 9 and 12 fully trained staff available or on-call. They will need to be trained and managed, and work to a robust set of procedures and protocols.
The challenges in providing this level of support are:
- The automation industry is in very high demand and combined with a skills shortage means that suitably qualified resources are able to pursue more lucrative career options other than routine, level-one support.
- Automation support is not just a technical challenge, it is equally important to have good people management skills. We have found, through supporting hundreds of automated processes, that more than 95 per cent of all support ‘incidents’ are caused by failure to adhere to governance procedures and/or infrastructure (including network) failures resolving these issues this can be particularly difficult if infrastructure or applications management have been outsourced to a third party
- Level-two support, where analysis and problem-solving skills are crucial, requires people with many years’ experience (typically 5+ years) in the relevant software so faults can be rectified quickly. These skills are extremely rare and tying them up on a low-level work can be demotivating and does not make the best use of their skill-sets.
For all the reasons stated above, most automation service and technology providers tend not to support their clients at the critical levels one and two. However, in our experience, end-users find it very difficult and prohibitively expensive to manage support internally, so support becomes a significant risk to success of the program.
Typically, a single global automation program requires a team of between 9 and 12 fully trained staff available or on-call.
Virtual Operations’ solution is that we have automated much of the necessary support activities. This vastly reduces the reliance on human resources, increases the service levels dramatically and significantly reduces the operating costs. All that’s required is that the automated processes we support are of a suitable standard before we take over responsibility.
Due to the unprecedented growth in the industry, virtually all automation programs currently underway are having to deploy inexperienced (boot-camp) graduates to implement their RPA software (AI is different as this is typically deployed by the tech provider themselves).
For the greater part, this has led to very poor client satisfaction levels in our industry as a result of suboptimal implementation and support. Raw graduates who lack experience often can’t see the big picture or question whether a process automation is warranted at all or if there is a better option.
At Virtual Operations, we train our clients’ staff and face the same issue. Our solution is to provide supervision and quality assurance (QA) (Joint Agility Teams) to avoid mistakes and massively speed up the learning and implementation process. This has delivered a 100 per cent automation success rate. Even our own technical staff with over two years’ experience have their work reviewed by senior partners. However, to be effective, QA requires that the work is carried out following tried, tested and standardized procedures.
To this end, Virtual Operations have developed a fully web-enabled click-down methodology called “VOLT” which covers all the key stages and activities of an automation program. This includes developing an automation strategy; designing and building a Center of Excellence (CoE) (within a target operating model); identifying opportunities for automation; training staff; implementing the software; and change management.
The VOLT methodology lowers the cost of implementation significantly by as much as 50 per cent and minimizes project risk. VOLT has recently been licensed to some of the world’s largest and most respected organizations. We believe it will soon become the industry standard because leading industry watchers have stated that VOLT sets the industry benchmark in process automation methodology.
3) Center of Excellence
Having an automation Center of Excellence (CoE) is absolutely crucial. Without it there is a real danger that the automation program will fail on a number of fronts including:
- A lack of cohesive strategy
- Unleveraged and unconnected technologies with little purchase leverage
- A failure to learn from others’ mistakes
- Absence of future proofing
- Poor communication and change management
- Poor governance and assurance
- A non-standard approach
- Disparate tools and templates
It is a common belief that automation CoEs are centrally driven, autocratic and expensive, but this has not been our experience with any of the CoEs we have established.
Automation CoEs are relatively small groups of experts that provide support functions and services that would not make business sense to replicate across business units. CoEs can be virtual, are usually integrated with other business functions and the extent of their involvement can vary by business unit. The VOLT methodology includes guidelines for setting up a CoE for automation along with a description of all the roles, responsibilities and an RACI matrix.
While it appears that the industry is moving from the peak of the hype curve to the valley of disillusion, the next article will describe how refocusing from tactical horizontal (low effort, low benefit) automation to a strategic vertical approach can be truly transformative and make a big difference to a business’ bottom line.
Nick Andrews is executive chairman and founder at Virtual Operations, and a member of the AIIA Advisory Board.
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