Automation: A strategic approach to earning employee trust and buy-in

Automation: A strategic approach to earning employee trust and buy-in

At the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, adopting RPA was more of a change management effort than a technology effort says CIO Don Anderson

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February 25, 2019

Robotic process automation (RPA) isn’t just about technology – it’s about the employee, and how we make the best use of our skilled resources. Forcing an employee to perform mundane repetitive tasks could almost be viewed as cruel and inhumane. At the least, it is a missed opportunity to leverage their natural creativity and innovation skills. 

Automation surely isn’t new, but the introduction of RPA has accelerated its adoption in many industries including banking and financial services by simplifying the technical portion of the automation process. Many large organizations have generated headlines and even moved their stock price with automation being a key component.

Our hope is that by becoming a leader in RPA implementation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston can demonstrate to our organization and financial institutions large and small around the country that RPA can be a valuable tool to improve efficiency, and it makes the best use of a skilled workforce. 

At the Boston Fed, our goal is to take processes that employees perform – something in which they might complete 100 transactions per day – and make them capable of completing 1,000, 5,000, or even more than 10,000 transactions per day. 

[ Taking the first steps from manual IT processes to automation? Use these tactics to beat the challenges, Getting started with automation: 6 tips ]

Achieving RPA success isn’t just about implementing the technology, though. To get there, you need buy-in and trust from stakeholders and employees, and you need to maneuver challenging change-management waters. Here’s a look at how we overcame these challenges to leverage a digital transformation opportunity and better support our talented workforce.

Gaining buy-in

Many major companies predict that automation will lead to big workforce reductions. People assume that they’ll be replaced by robots roaming the office hallways. In reality, RPA provides organizations the opportunity to re-focus their workforce on higher-valued skills, like better customer service, building stronger data analysis capabilities and identifying new revenue streams and products. Automation is a positive opportunity for the company and employee alike.  

RPA provides organizations the opportunity to re-focus their workforce on higher-valued skills

Communicating this message effectively was key, otherwise, automation or RPA is a foreboding term. To be successful, we needed to have conversations with employees to understand exactly how they performed a task and dig into the complexities, and even identify the variations across employees. As a 100+-year-old organization, it amazes me how much folklore has been built into even simple tasks. Without the appropriate context, employees might find these conversations unnerving and intimidating. We knew that demonstrating the possibilities could help us get buy-in. 

[ Where do IT teams go wrong as they automate more processes? Read, 8 IT automation mistakes to avoid. ]

As part of a larger ERP effort, the organization had already begun the process of inventorying and standardizing our processes and policies. While conceptually, the level of support was high, we knew we needed a strong reason for full alignment with standard processes – and it couldn’t just be that it was merely a requirement of our future ERP platform.

One way we got buy-in was by surprising our CFOs for a brief but compelling demo. At one meeting of our CFOs, after a discussion of the challenges of standardization, without even introducing the concept of automation or RPA to them, we showed them a recorded video of a manually-intensive compliance function being performed by a simple bot we had built. In a matter of minutes, the bot performed an activity that would have taken a high-performing employee an entire day. After the video, we discussed why standardization was important and how moving to RPA would free up time for that same employee to focus on more challenging work like processing exceptions or other items that might truly generate risk.

While we continue to improve our automation capabilities, employees are coming forward with ideas not just to leverage RPA, but also to lean out processes and eliminate some of that folklore.  

The goal of this discussion was to show them that RPA isn’t just something you read about in The Wall Street Journal — it’s something that’s applicable to our organization. It’s not a multimillion-dollar investment, and we could get it moving quickly and immediately benefit from our standardization efforts.

Quick wins like that are critical in change management. If you can demonstrate the outcome, you’ll earn a bit more liberty to keep moving forward. We’ve rolled out more of this automation since showing that video, and now our users are recommending areas for improvement and processes that can be automated. While we continue to improve our automation capabilities, employees are coming forward with ideas not just to leverage RPA, but also to lean out processes and eliminate some of that folklore.  

Keeping our focus strategic

Once someone sees and truly understands the power of RPA, the hype can get out of hand. While the potential for major improvements exists, if left uncontrolled, we could have more bots than we do people, and each with its own unique process failing to achieve standardization goals. We wanted to be strategic in our next moves. We already had an agreement with a vendor and wanted to focus on achieving scale and prioritizing our resources. We weren’t going to automate something just because we could; we wanted to make sure everything we did had a return.

Just because you can automate something, doesn’t mean you should.

Just because you can automate something, doesn’t mean you should. While building a bot is relatively easy, understanding the process and most importantly, why the process exists and its intended outcome is key.  

Choosing our vendor wasn’t a difficult decision because we were focused on time to market. An on-premise solution afforded us speed, though ultimately we hope to end up with a cloud solution. A cloud solution would require an additional security review, and the benefits of cloud in the short term weren’t enough to delay implementation.

In the first six months, we focused on making sure we knew the technology, understood the various offerings, and reviewed the pros and cons. Some vendors claim to have machine learning and AI built in, for example, so we spent this time understanding what we could leverage and what skills we had immediate access to. 

[ Keep these automation trends on your radar. Read, What’s next in IT automation: 6 trends to watch. ]

The next six months were spent working with the business to understand the first process we could automate. When we rolled it out, we took an iterative approach in which we scaled up over a period of weeks. We needed to make sure that it worked and that the employees and the group that was accountable for it understood how they had to work with the RPA process and that they had full confidence in its accuracy.

Adopting RPA was more of a change management effort than a technology effort.

During this rollout schedule, we still had someone validate what the bot did in parallel to ensure there were no errors. Since that initial rollout, we continue to iterate and improve not only new processes but existing ones as IT and the business better understand RPAs capabilities and continue to streamline the processes and simplify the policy that created it.   

Adopting RPA was more of a change management effort than a technology effort. The technology is easy to learn, and smart developers will pick it up quickly. The key is laying out an overall strategy and developing a real partnership with employees, who have a stake in its success. This opportunity has allowed us to work more efficiently, use our talent more effectively, and helped us to meet our strategic priorities.

[ Want more lessons learned from your peers and automation experts? Get our free resource, Automation: The IT leader's guide. ]

Don Anderson is the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In this capacity, he is responsible for the Federal Reserve System's Internet Cyber and Network Security services and Financial Management Technology services the Bank’s IT function, Real Estate Services, and Law Enforcement units. Don is currently a member of the Bank's Executive Committee.

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