Point of View

Automation should be native to your organization to achieve digital nirvana

December 8, 2020

In HFS’ recent digital roundtable, supported by IBM, a select group of enterprise delegates gathered to discuss automation’s role in achieving digital nirvana. The anchor of our conversation was the recently released report, The five automation “have-to-haves”—you won’t achieve your digital nirvana without them, which presented these five automation “have-to-haves”:

  • Scope: Pervasive enterprise-wide scale
  • People: Full potential unleashed
  • Process: Re-engineered processes offering intelligent, self-healing workflows
  • Technology: Integrated Triple-A technologies automation platform
  • Outcomes: Alignment of objectives to the most pressing business priorities

We assert that the fulfillment of these automation “have-to-haves” will help enterprises make automation a native element of their business architecture and support their digital transformation. While the delegates largely agreed on the efficacy of the “have-to-haves,” the meat of the conversation focused on how to accelerate progress toward “automation nativity” through increasing enterprise digital fluency, reinventing processes, and creating some realistic co-existence between automation and cloud. As Buddha’s teachings suggest, you must overcome suffering to achieve nirvana. When it comes to achieving digital nirvana, enterprise suffering will persist if you continue to regard enabling automation technologies as “nice-to-haves” rather than “have-to-haves.”

What the heck is digital nirvana? Why does it matter?

Digital nirvana is where emerging technologies will take your digitally transformed enterprise. At its heart is the core concept that emerging technologies combined with people, process, and data innovation can break down the siloes that limit our success—dissolving barriers between the front and back office to create the only office that matters—OneOffice. HFS originally introduced our OneOffice model way back in the digital olden days of 2016. It remains our ever-evolving vision for digital nirvana.

The automation “have-to-have” with the highest priority, but lowest progress, is process reinvention

In a pre-event survey, HFS asked delegates to rate the five automation “have-to-haves” in terms of importance and progress. From an importance standpoint, the alignment of outcomes with the most important business priorities was the clear winner, with process reinvention coming in second. From a progress standpoint, delegates rated their progress with the five automation “have-to-haves” on a 1-to-10 scale. The greatest progress was with the alignment of outcomes (7.6 out of 10) followed by unleashing people (7.5 out of 10). We have mapped these side-by-side in Exhibit 1 to see how well importance aligned with progress. The clear pain point is with process reinvention, which delegates rated as the least progressed of the “have-to-haves,” scoring an anemic 5.1 out of 10.

Exhibit 1. The importance of process reinvention currently outranks the progress

Source: HFS Research 2020

This finding launched a robust discussion around how it is impossible to digitally transform without addressing process debt. HFS defines process debt as the creation of awkward and often manual processes that are designed to buttress aging technologies. The delegates agreed that it is impossible to reinvent everything and that it is not necessary. Short-term interventions with technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) offer effective interim solutions while contemplating the longer term. The problem, though, is that they can be effective enough to stall reinvention.

This is where the other “have-to-haves” come into play. The outcomes help prioritize what gets reinvented, so they align with the most critical business objectives. The focus on unleashing people reminds us to focus on macro benefits—not just the seconds and minutes the re-engineered processes saves. Scope reminds us that a big bang impact will not happen in silos or functional corners of the business, and rather the impact will be pervasive, which is the heart of making automation native. Technology reminds us that piecemeal tech, rather than integrated solutions, typically will solve piecemeal solutions at the task or functional process level. A multifunctional platform approach is necessary to truly impact and, yes, reinvent workflows. One of our delegates shared:

“We need to redesign the whole process. We cannot pick point solutions. With point solutions, we will end up with a bowl of spaghetti. Instead, we should take a lean approach on process to get rid of process debt.”
Strategic sourcing specialist, North American insurance company

Digital fluency and misunderstood citizen developers

Ensuring coherency among the leaders running different transformation programs is one of the first steps toward aligning automation objectives to enterprise-level outcomes. Digital fluency plays a key role in making this happen. In a OneOffice environment, the interplay between business and IT is critical. Digital fluency provides businesses with the ability to examine the needs of their customers, functional areas, and strategies in the context of technology. Likewise, digital fluency provides IT with the ability to understand the business application of technology and use it to drive value. Enterprises need to improve the digital fluency of their employees, enabling them to contribute to positive change.

The digital fluency topic led us to discuss the concept of citizen developers. HFS has previously defined this concept as non-IT resources that combine deep process knowledge with some level of light programming or scripting capabilities that can utilize low-code/no-code technologies to build automation. As we discussed with our delegates, the biggest worry with the citizen developer model is that it lacks oversight and governance controls necessary to manage it effectively. But there is a big difference between business users leveraging improved processes that embed digitally native automation versus everyone and their cat being able to build automation. The former reflects reinvented processes. The latter is an incorrect characterization of citizen developers. As a delegate from a global CPG company indicated:

“Citizen developers are tech-savvy business users that help extend the reach and standards of our Intelligent Automation Centre of Excellence across the company.”
Intelligent automation leader, a global CPG firm

“Why is automation not cloud-first?”… Are you sure you’re asking the right question?

When we broached the question of the optimal, integrated automation tech stack, there was group commiseration around the use of piecemeal tools to obtain the necessary combinations of functionality. Enterprises are using an average of 5.9 tools to meet their intelligent automation needs, but they are using them largely piecemeal or in parallel to one another. Some tools, such as RPA, are still primarily implemented on-premise, which seems to fly in the face of the cloud-first strategies many organizations tout. Delegates indicated it is complicated. Data governance is a very important aspect of accessing information with a cloud infrastructure. Getting automation to the cloud does not stop with comparing the benefits of cloud infrastructure vs. the legacy environment. It depends more on the nature of data, use cases specific to the industry, compliance aspects, and security. A ton also has to do with whether the applications an enterprise accesses through automation are cloud-based. Though many enterprises claim that cloud is their overarching strategy, they are not there in terms of moving automation to the cloud.

Enterprise visions of digital nirvana

When we asked delegates to share their visions for their respective versions of digital nirvana, unleashing human potential rose to the top (Exhibit 2). Digital nirvana is not simply elevating employee experience; it includes all human interactions that involve your business across all stakeholders. Leveraging the canon of automation technologies to enable frictionless processes and experiences is increasingly becoming a minimum requirement for competitive future business models.

Exhibit 2. Delegates’ visions for digital nirvana emphasize unleashing human potential with frictionless processes

Source: HFS Research 2020

The Bottom Line: Beat down your enterprise suffering and achieve digital nirvana with the five automation “have-to-haves.”

The forced change of the pandemic has driven enterprises to embrace digital and virtual operating models, achieving more digital progress in the space of nine months than in the decade before it. Becoming a OneOffice organization has become a “have-to-have.” The building blocks that can help enterprises become an OneOffice organization are the five automation “have-to-haves” combined with a hefty dose of elevating enterprise digital fluency. It is appropriate to end with Aristotle’s quote summarizing the need of the hour for enterprises to achieve digital nirvana:


“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives—choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”



HFS would like to thank the roundtable delegates from these enterprises:

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