Point of View

Five ways the pandemic is forever changing integrated automation

September 28, 2020

HFS’ Digital Roundtable points to the need for sustaining momentum and driving a culture of genuine process change to achieve post-pandemic digital success. In HFS’ recent digital roundtable, with the support of Automation Anywhere, a select group of senior leaders agreed that culture change has always been our biggest barrier to automation adoption and scale. Under the pandemic’s forced change, we are finally making progress on changing people’s behaviors and perceptions about the range of automation technologies and associated people, process, and data changes.

Before the pandemic virtualized our world, our research repeatedly revealed that most enterprise executives resisted transformative changes to processes and business operations but were keen to pay lip service to emerging technologies such as automation and AI.


The pandemic clears the path for the ambitious organization leader desperate to drive an automation agenda to underpin their pivot to a competitive digital business model


In most cases before 2020, automation leaders were restricted to experimenting on piecemeal projects confined to low-risk (mainly back office) business functions, facing a huge struggle to convince peers across their organizations that automation was a critical capability underpinning any successful organization in the digital era.


To this end, the pandemic has left many enterprise automation and digital leaders wishing they’d made more progress. At the same time, they are now finding greater acceptance and buy-in for their internal technology enablement programs, as people have had to adapt to virtual working and process changes under lockdown. In effect, many change-resisters have now had to become change-proponents as organizations have had no choice but to rapidly pivot to digital models to stay relevant. The pandemic has changed the rules of the digital game. Can organizations make up for lost time and clear a genuine path to transformation?


We all wish we’d done more with automation…but the time for change is upon us


All participants in the roundtable agreed with the benefit of hindsight; we wish we’d done more with automation pre-pandemic. As articulated by one CDO:


“Many of the initiatives we had in flight were good but not connected—the idea of being connected end-to-end—sales being connected to R&D, for example. Our review processes were not made for seamlessness. We would have aligned those more and thought less linearly about how they deliver to customers and feedback loops.” 


Even with this realization, many of the leaders in our research-led discussion are seeing momentum on their initiatives, in part due to the pandemic. For example, a telecom executive shared how a five-year plan to transition call center employees into virtual working environments still seemed infeasible to many. Going into lockdown, within two weeks, the call center achieved this monumental task, pointing to the paradigm shift on time as forced digital transformation.

“Post pandemic… do we wish we had done more? Yes, of course. But instead of regretting that, we’re thinking of how to take advantage and being hyper-focused…bigger, bolder ideas that are interesting are now on our list. We’re thinking about automation in the context of integrated automation and digital technologies, which is getting more traction for us.”

What the pandemic changed about automation: Speed of development, and exposure across the organization

HFS and the roundtable delegates captured the top five things that changed about automation programs during the pandemic (Exhibit 1). Within the broad willingness to change, specific strides have been made in terms of technology integration, speed of deployment, expanded use cases, engagement of people, and outcomes beyond cost savings. Among these, delegates identified the most significant changes with speed and people.


Exhibit 1. The top five aspects the pandemic is changing about automation

Source: HFS Research, 2020


In a polling question about top priorities for automation programs in 2021, the “people” and “outcomes” points were brought into clear focus as increasingly important (Exhibit 2). We always see plenty of enterprises pointing to efficiency and cost savings as the key drivers for automation, but firms are reshaping their focus to target customer experience (CX) and employee experience (EX) as direct outcomes of automation programs. According to one delegate:

“Now, [automation] is more about CX and making it easy on employees. We are asking all our employees not to hold back and to share great ideas that focus on both customer and employee experience. We’re constantly thinking, how do we help our employees generate value? The value proposition has to be for both employees and customers.”


Exhibit 2: Roundtable delegates point to customer experience as the emerging driving force for automation

Based on the automation priorities identified by the group, which is the most critical? [Pick 1]


Source: HFS Research, 2020, n= Participating executives in the HFS virtual roundtable



Automation success post-pandemic will require you to refine your strategy across people, process, data, and technology


Looking toward the future of automation post-pandemic, what is still holding us back? What changes do we want to retain? The summary of qualitative responses gathered from the leaders in our roundtable gives us some indicators for what to expect on automation initiatives in the next 12 to 18 months. HFS sees the success of automation hinging on the holistic integration of people, process, Triple-A technologies, and data (Exhibit 3). The change factors that enterprise automation leaders shared during the roundtable reflect these parameters.


Exhibit 3: The path to automation success is ~10% technology​, 90% culture and process change


Source: HFS Research, 2020


People: Where people work, how they work, and what they work on is likely changed forever:

  • Employee engagement is more important than ever. Digital or virtual work burnout is real, and several automation leaders in our roundtable seek better ways to manage programs virtually. Maintaining culture and collaboration in digital models is challenging, and people’s adaptation to virtual tools is evolving.
  • Access to talent. Enterprises are finding access to global talent overnight—location is no longer a constraint with the ability to find skill sets and attract talent and create new opportunities. We can’t help but wonder if crowdsourcing might finally have its day in the sun.
  • Virtual environments often force cross-collaboration. Departmental silos have collapsed a little in this virtual environment, and a lot more people are interacting across the organization. Rather than talking to those around them in bubbles, employees are talking to multiple audiences—across teams and geographies—and sharing issues and best practices. People are gaining more insight into how projects are done, from start to finish, across towers. IT teams, for some enterprises, are more involved in how operations teams are using their automation tools post-deployment.


Process: Enterprises got creative to enable virtual business as usual. As they begin to contemplate the post-pandemic world, certain pandemic processes will be retained:

  • Hybrid working models. Some leaders are considering innovation hubs, where people can come in to have targeted conversations and then work remotely outside of those necessary interactions.
  • People are moving faster through review and approval processes because they have to. Red tape is diminishing, and proposals for new automation projects are passing quicker; for example, a proposal passing in seven days that had previously required months for approval.
  • Broader ownership of automation programs. Delegates described moving away from one centralized automation COE team taking requests to being “owned” by a broader set of consumers as automation became part of how they do business. Building broader ownership entails a balancing act of getting IT enabled with security and governance, while pushing tech out to furthest edges so that process owners embrace and leverage the tech. Many report this balancing act is here to stay.


Technology: While technology may not be the hardest part of changing and achieving automation success, delegates are mastering piecemeal tech in parallel on the path to the Triple-A Trifecta.

  • Shifting customer expectations. Customers are more willing to adopt digital technologies due to the pandemic, which is positively impacting digitization efforts overall.
  • Emergence of cloud-first for automation. Some enterprises feel there will be a push to make automation programs more virtualized as part of the enhanced push to digital. “It does introduce risk, but it is necessary… cloud-first vs. on-prem cultures handle things differently,” shared an executive.
  • Geographies come with their own unique challenges. Access, space, and security are all factors in technology infrastructure, and they need to evolve.
  • It has to exist before it can be combined. While delegates want to harness the integrated power of the Triple-A Trifecta technologies—automation, AI, and smart analytics—many acknowledged that each of the Triple-A components must have an established and effective operation before you can bring them together.


Data: There is a sort of tense recognition that an automation program will fail or stall without quality data.

  • An understanding that RPA can’t solve all problems. Some RPA use cases are terrific, but companies are encountering data issues that will need data skills and leadership to succeed. Organizations also need to focus on generating and curating quality data to extend functionality and enable cognitive workflows.


The Bottom Line: There is no going back. Enterprises need to institutionalize the best elements of unexpected pandemic progress to achieve automation success.


Many enterprises are finding new and unexpected momentum with their automation programs due to the forced change of the pandemic. Much can be achieved in a digital environment to discover, map, and create effective automation opportunities as executives learn to operate effectively in a virtual model. Whether the incentive is preserving cash, boosting productivity, addressing volume spikes in certain industries, or delivering superior virtual customer and employee experiences, the pandemic has thrown the door open, and we need to deliver—and do it fast. We now have a better grasp of our “have-to-have” capabilities and better buy-in and support, but success will require changing our cultural approach and finding ways to connect the people, process, technology, and data into our integrated automation journeys.

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