Point of View

Imperative 2021: Make automation native to your digital business architecture

November 11, 2020

In HFS’ second digital roundtable supported by Automation Anywhere (read about the first here), a select group of senior enterprise leaders came together to discuss their automation scale imperatives for 2021 and beyond. The delegates agreed that despite pandemic hardships, they see the clearest path forward yet to automation and, ultimately, digital success—increasingly recognizing themselves on a journey toward the HFS OneOffice vision (Exhibit 1). However, clarity is distinctly different than ease. Here are the key themes that our delegates identified as critical in their enterprises’ efforts to make automation a native element of their digital strategies:

  • Align strategies and resources to objectives. Automation is not a goal unto itself. Enterprises must align automation strategies and associated programs to the most pressing business objectives. This alignment is the recognition that business cases need to evolve so that enterprises can define and realize the potential of scaling—and then reap the value.
  • Enough with the new tech. Let’s scale what we have. Our delegates see clear value acceleration from technology investments they’ve already made. There is a growing urgency to scale what they have.
  • “Win with the winners” of digital. Drive change with employees, customers, and partners that want to change. Cost-savings persists as a perpetual and necessary outcome—but, increasingly, “win-wins” emerge when enterprises redefine and bring together customer, employee, and partner experiences (CX, EX, PX). Enterprises are redefining their unique visions of scale based on business outcomes.

Exhibit 1: The HFS OneOffice depicts enterprises’ digitally transformed future state. Business leaders finally recognize themselves on the journey

Source: HFS Research, 2020

Make sure your business case is aligned to support your scale imperatives

HFS has generally regarded automation scale as either vertical within departmental or process silos (e.g., finance) or horizontal across enterprise functions or geographies. As we discussed this concept with the delegates, we also decided that scale potential is always best understood relative to business objectives. If your objectives are ill-defined, you will never scale. If they are modest, you might successfully or appropriately scale. If they are broad, such as enabling digital transformation, you need to clearly align your execution approach with your expectations.

Our recent Enterprise Reboot survey found that during COVID, the biggest barriers to realizing value from emerging technologies has shifted from changing the organizational culture to developing the business case. We asked our roundtable delegates to weigh in with their views on the leading challenges to recognizing value from emerging technologies (Exhibit 2). Delegates agreed with the study’s broader business case and culture challenges, but they also feel the cash crunch (to our earlier point of using what you have).

The pandemic forced change. Now, the focus is on how quickly we can change and what we need to do to get there. These business cases are not the tender first gasp proofs of concept or fledging visions of automation that you pitched to your boards and C-suite a few years ago. Business cases need to evolve so that projects can reach scale and deliver value; this is the “updated business case” required to reflect your enterprise’s pandemic pivot and re-evaluated priorities.

Exhibit 2: Top 10 challenges in realizing value from emerging technologies pre and post-pandemic

Original sample: 300 executives (May-June 2020) and 600 executives (March-April 2020) across Global 2000 enterprises

Delegate sample: 15

Source: HFS Research 2020

Enough with the new tech—let’s scale what we have.

Our delegates see a clear acceleration of value from technology investments they’ve already made. Investment priorities are shifting, and there are always new offerings coming to the market—but most enterprises have already invested in a range of technologies that are still nascent, unscaled, and used in a piecemeal fashion for specific tasks (Exhibit 3). As the aforementioned cost sensitivities suggest, the pandemic is forcing us to do a better job of making what we have actually work. As several of our banking sector delegates told us: To achieve progress, do better by customers and employees, and stay in the game. 

“2020 has shined a light on the immense value of evolving the products we already have rather than chasing a new dream.”

A leading UK bank’s automation product owner

Exhibit 3. Automation tool use is increasing, but scale is still largely elusive.

Delegate sample: 15

Source: HFS Research, 2020

COVID-19 has meant a step-change in attitudes toward technology and automation. According to a global financial services firm’s head of innovation, recent user adoption and a newfound focus on business outcomes, i.e., now it’s a “pull” from business leaders as opposed to automation being “pushed” by IT, is “like night and day. There’s no discussion around losing jobs, rather the reverse: how do we protect jobs and do so in a way that’s better for both our employees and customers?” This leader’s bank’s existing automation platform (with AI, analytics, and process intelligence baked in) had been seen as a threat, but, with a workforce forced to work at home, the platform enabled that transition and a reinvented employee experience. Platform adoption saw a step-change, with departments and teams fighting to adopt it. The speed of new developments and implementations has improved by over 80%. There was already a massive ramp-up and adoption of tech there—it just needed a purpose to support adoption.

“Digital transformation is more pull [from business] than push [from IT] now. Business teams are asking for change and for automation specifically. Cost pressures are high on all departments.”

A global investment management firm’s director of automation

“Win with the winners” of digital—drive change with the employees, customers, and partners that want to change.

You need to find customers, employees, and partners who have a North Star. Our data shows that only 37% of enterprises prefer a return to the so-called pre-pandemic “normal.” It’s unlikely that all of your clients are in that one-third—and if they are, as one delegate highlighted, it’s probably not a great sign. The other two-thirds are those with a shared post-pandemic vision.

A retail and consumer packaged goods (CPG) giant’s procurement leader commented on their firm’s switch to e-commerce in China as retail stores everywhere were closing. Teams were redeployed to digital channels, which were obviously about to explode. A failure to pivot toward slick e-commerce channels would have meant customers—both consumers and wholesalers—dropping fast. The company’s partnerships became all about those who were native to digital and those embracing it—“winning with the winners”—and driving change with those partners. They were forced to have slick, efficient, automated processes, and, equally, so were their supply chain partners. “Wholesalers’ scoring of suppliers is ruthless: firms who can’t keep up are being thrown aside.” This example started with e-commerce, but it necessarily involves the supply chain. It’s the evolving OneOffice model with automation natively enabling linking the front and back office for digital gain.

Yes, cost-savings persists as a perpetual and necessary outcome—but, increasingly, “win-wins” are emerging where customer, employee, and partner experiences (CX, EX, PX) are being redefined and brought together; enterprises are redefining their unique visions of scale based on their refined and desired business outcomes.

The Bottom Line: Make automation native within your enterprise to support the priorities of EX, CX, and PX on the road to the OneOffice.

We have definitely not yet arrived at the OneOffice, but the pandemic is helping us realize what we need to do to digitally transform and reach it. The enterprises embracing the OneOffice are recontextualizing and refining what digital transformation means to them; their customers, employees, and partners are all seeing the benefits. Automation is not an end unto itself. It is an enabler of digital business. The faster it evolves into a standard building block of digital business architecture, the faster enterprises can achieve OneOffice aspirations.

A special thank you goes out to our delegates from these fine enterprises.


Sign in to view or download this research.


Lost your password?


Insight. Inspiration. Impact.

Register now for immediate access of HFS' research, data and forward looking trends.

Get Started