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This article appears in the Summer 2018 digital issue of DOCUMENT Strategy. Subscribe.

Process automation is experiencing a renaissance. It’s no longer a “nice to have” technology but a competitive necessity. It doesn’t matter what you call it these days, because the goal remains the same: harnessing the power of digital to elevate the customer journey and to drive end-to-end business outcomes. Today, robotic process automation (RPA) is playing an important role in achieving that objective. As initial RPA deployments prove to be effective, companies must define strategies for expanding this value across the enterprise. Establishing an RPA Center of Excellence (CoE) is an ideal approach for such an effort, since it drives business or customer-valued results around specific focus areas.

Smart Center of Excellence Considerations

While CoEs are typically designed to build competence around technology, such as RPA, the CoE itself should not be just about the technology. Remember, the most critical objective of the CoE is to ensure and drive ideal business outcomes. It may be better to organize your CoE around specific business objectives, such as improved customer experience or operational excellence (e.g., reducing order-to-cash cycle time).

However, be aware that challenges may arise if your CoE is focused on a technology that is very complementary to another (e.g., RPA and business process management technologies). These CoEs may compete for projects, taking on assignments that are unnatural for their specific technology charter. For example, do you really want the RPA CoE grabbing projects that involve long-running process work and task management as well as numerous (different) human interactions with many handoffs and queues? This may be best led with BPM software. This particular area will need to be addressed when establishing your CoE.

Charting a Center of Excellence

While a CoE can guide an organization to build, sustain, scale, and embed RPA in every part of the business, there are “simple” questions that often create roadblocks:
  • Where is RPA best anchored in the enterprise structure?
  • Who owns it?
  • Who leads it?
  • What is involved?
  • How many people are needed?
  • What expertise is required?
  • How long will this take?
  • What is an ideal budget?
It’s important to evaluate these internal challenges. The CoE’s charter is the framework for evaluating proposed processes and then fosters the skills, methods, tools, and technologies to most effectively implement RPA. With a standardized approach to how each process improvement is evaluated, the practice of assessment itself becomes more ingrained in the fabric of the enterprise culture.

It’s worth noting that the CoE cannot ignore organizational politics and culture in making these decisions. Clear roles and responsibilities must be addressed up front and across a range of stakeholders from the business and information technology (IT). For example, different groups within IT may need to be involved as they are responsible for vastly different applications. As CoE participants, they will offer remarkably different insights from one another.

6 Steps to Creating an RPA Center of Excellence

It's important to follow these six steps to help ensure the success of your CoE:
  • Build some robots first: Before you even establish your CoE, it’s important to learn the technology first. Your organization probably doesn’t have much RPA experience and may be confused by unrealistic claims made by some solutions out there. Gaining the right experience will enable more informed choices and set up your CoE for success.
  • Focus your CoE on business outcomes: Automation must support your overall strategy, and intelligent process automation involves leveraging a variety of technologies, such as BPM, robotics, analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Instead of focusing on a specific technology, organize your CoE around important organizational objectives or business outcomes.
  • Build business and end user support: Getting stakeholder support is fundamental. Connect your CoE to business needs, executives who support it, and the operational teams critical to its success. Remember to evangelize early and often with key stakeholders.
  • Define your operation model: Will your CoE take a centralized or decentralized, federated approach? While both have their pros and cons, many organizations are leaning toward a federated approach. In this setting, it’s important to have a simplified design environment to support robots built by business analysts instead of programmers. However you define your CoE model, it is critical to standardize testing and deployment across multiple business units.
  • Identify quick wins: An advantage of RPA is its potential to improve process performance quickly. The ability to apply RPA surgically can accelerate time to value and provide great return on investment in a specific department versus a corporate-wide project that may require buy-in across many departments in the organization.
  • Establish governance: Creating a governance process is its own unique challenge within the CoE. Remain agile, build robots quickly, and repeat based on lessons learned.
Enterprises are exploring and gaining a clearer picture of what RPA is really good at—handling repetitive, structured processes that drain the productivity of the workforce. When combined with machine learning technologies used for understanding context, content, and sentiment, robots can perform much more sophisticated work, leaving organizations to spend more time on higher value work (e.g., exceptions or decisions).

Today’s enterprise needs and expects even more value from its information technology architecture, and RPA can deliver that value. Embracing automation from an end-to-end process perspective will drive even greater results. To maximize such business value, focus your RPA CoE on important business outcomes—not just the technology.

Russ Gould regularly advises organizations on how business process management and RPA work together to create a smart approach to digital transformation. Contact Russ at russ.gould@kofax.com or follow him on Twitter @rjgould2.
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