CIOs and automation: How to build a robust automation strategy

Top IT leaders share their insights on what matters most in strategizing a successful enterprise automation strategy
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Automation is everywhere – and it’s no longer just the stuff of IT pros.

Sure, it’s in your software delivery pipelines and configuration management and security processes. But it’s also just as likely in your accounts receivables and payables processes, your HR workflows, your customer service chatbots, and practically every other facet of the business – or it will be soon.

That’s both an exciting opportunity and a challenge: Without a coherent strategy to bring it all together, the organization is likely to run into unintended consequences, from technical debt to security risks to cultural issues to skill scarcities and more.

CIOs and other IT leaders are uniquely positioned to develop and drive that strategy. The million-dollar (or more) question: How do you go about it?

We asked CIOs, CISOs, and automation leaders to share their insights on the crucial components of a robust automation strategy that sets up the organization for short-term and long-term success. We came away with seven keys to a robust automation strategy, not just inside of IT but across departments and business functions.

7 keys to a robust automation strategy

1. Define your future state

Your organization’s automation progress can be both incremental and continuous – both are advisable. But those increments shouldn’t simply be improvised as you go – they should be parts of a long-term vision.

“Creating an automation strategy requires an enterprise-wide perspective,” says Rajendra Prasad, global lead for automation at Accenture and co-author of the book The Automation Advantage. “All too often, I see companies jump into their automation journeys with isolated pilots and one-off implementations.”

Those one-off projects may generate short-term cost savings or process efficiencies, but sustained long-term value depends on an organization-wide vision of what a more automated organization will look like – the whatwhere, and why driving your strategy (the how and when really begin in #2 below).)

“Ask yourself: How can automation play a part in business growth, competitive advantage, and better customer experiences?” Prasad says. “Automation goals should always be tied to business goals and progress measured accordingly.”

[ Also read 5 automation predictions for 2023 from IT leaders. ]

The building blocks of a successful automation strategy depend on defining those goals as specifically as possible. It doesn’t mean you’ll tackle them all in 30 or 90 days or even in the next year – it means you have a clear sense of direction and purpose guiding the team’s efforts.

“An automation strategy [should] start with a detailed vision of the company’s future state – how automation better serves its customers, [its] future impacts on the workforce, and [how it] can unlock the most value for an organization,” says Karl Mattson, CISO at Noname Security.

That future state will be especially important if and when you encounter challenges or resistance during your automation journey. “With a clear vision, stakeholders can better navigate through technical and operational changes with a shared end goal in mind,” Mattson says.

2. Perform thorough benchmarking and analysis

With that future state defined, the detailed work begins. How and when will you actually realize that vision?

“The first step of an automation journey might be the most important: benchmarking and analysis,” Prasad says. “Taking a look at the entire spectrum of current business processes will help the IT team to focus their efforts on processes with the greatest potential for improvement through automation. This serves as the foundation for determining the optimal pace, track, and deployment strategy for automation.”

Both Prasad and Mattson say the how/when phase should balance both short-term and long-term targets. In the short-term bucket, look for high-impact wins that will demonstrate the value of the overall strategy.

“It’s imperative to demonstrate automation success early to set the foundation for a broader cultural shift towards an automation-friendly culture,” Mattson says.

Moreover, a robust automation strategy should not focus too narrowly on technical teams.

“A roadmap should look at short- and long-term journeys with a holistic strategy that flows across all types of talent segments and skills,” Prasad says. “Automation is difficult to scale when it is solely the responsibility of a small IT team. Success hinges on buy-in and support from employees at all levels, in all departments.”

3. Identify and prioritize your highest-value use cases

That benchmarking and analysis process should ultimately enable you to clearly identify your highest-value use cases for automation and prioritize accordingly.

“The key building block to a robust automation strategy is having clarity on what use cases have the highest, most meaningful impact to the organization, whether the outcome of that automation takes the form of driving revenue, cost savings, increased productivity, or improving quality and consistency,” says Sharon Mandell, CIO of Juniper Networks.

"The key building block to a robust automation strategy is having clarity on what use cases have the highest, most meaningful impact to the organization."

Understanding where automation can have the most significant impacts – whether that is measured in financial, efficiency, cultural, or other terms – will help everything from determining priorities to measuring outcomes.

Mandell also notes that this will be especially important in the event of adverse macroeconomic conditions or any other headwinds you may encounter – sorting the must-haves from the nice-to-haves will be crucial to maximizing ROI, especially if you’re operating under a “do more with less” mandate.

“Fortunately, with the right robust automation priorities and strategy in place, CIOs and IT leaders have the opportunity to make their dollar go further while at the same time adding value to their organizations,” Mandell adds.

4. Standardize, standardize, standardize

Choosing the right automation platform and/or tooling is crucial and should be a key part of your strategic plan. Standardization is just as important – without it, you’re likely in for significant challenges.

“Technology standardization is critical,” says Jay Upchurch, EVP and CIO at SAS. “Automating complex differentiated technology implementations is nearly impossible, requires manual human support, and leads to technology debt. But adhering to standards and life-cycling technology provides the foundation for automation to scale.”

Platform and/or tool selection should be closely linked to your organization’s future state and use cases – and the technical requirements needed to achieve both.

“Selecting the right platform for your company’s unique needs is at the heart of a successful [automation] program,” says Santhosh Keshavan, CIO of Voya Financial.

For example, Keshavan and team’s automation strategy is focused heavily on straight-through processing – a form of process automation for financial transactions such as payments that’s relevant in the financial industry. That guided their major technology decisions.

“We focused on operationalizing a platform that can scale to a broad set of straight-through processing opportunities and will easily adapt to and align with emerging technologies and modern practices,” Keshavan says.

5. Focus on the customer

IT and automation leaders seem to generally agree that the biggest long-term benefits of automation derive from a focus on the customer – in all its forms.

“Customers may be external revenue-generating customers, internal business users, or other parts of IT,” Upchurch says. “All must gain value from automation for the investment to be meaningful.”

This again springs from – and continuously connects back to – the future state you’re trying to achieve. As Mattson asks above: How will it better serve customers?

Upchurch offers a recommendation on how to think about customer focus in the context of automation: Help the customer quickly help themselves.

"In a cloud-first world, one of the best ways to focus on the customer is to build self-service workflow automation with near real-time results."

“In a cloud-first world, one of the best ways to focus on the customer is to build self-service workflow automation with near real-time results,” Upchurch says. “This is the experience people have with public cloud companies: Select from a menu, a workflow runs combining different automation, and the results are provided in as little as a few minutes. This is the automation customer experience people expect today.”

6. Build for sustainability

An ambitious, organization-wide automation strategy has goals and milestones, but it doesn’t have an endpoint. Build for endurance, flexibility, change, and continuous improvement. Multiple CIOs and automation leaders offered different versions of the same advice.

“It’s important for an organization to view embedding process efficiency as a journey, and not a moment-in-time initiative,” says Keshavan, the Voya Financial CIO. “Establishing leadership expectations and accountability, along with an operating model that organically pursues adoption and permeates an efficiency mindset into culture is essential to maintaining consistent levels of service and sustaining meaningful results.”

A robust strategy embraces the lack of a finish line and plans accordingly, especially given the dynamic nature of AI and other automation technologies.

“The automation journey is never really complete,” Prasad from Accenture says. “As new capabilities and use cases emerge, companies will need flexibility to adapt, improve, innovate, and realign to meet changing demands. This is particularly important as we see more companies integrating AI into automation, building intelligent automation solutions that reinvent processes and open up new opportunities.”

Not planning for this increases the probability of technology sprawl and complexity, increased operational overhead, cultural resistance, and other issues.

“Create sustainability early because automation will grow into a large, critical technology domain that can get out of control,” says Upchurch, the CIO at SAS. “Disciplines such as code quality, extensibility, portability, and framework adoption like CloudOps, DevOps, FinOps, and SRE should begin early so they are built into the automation journey.”

From a cultural standpoint, your automation strategy will also benefit from identifying champions across hierarchies and departments.

“Another key building block includes developing and educating change champions at all levels of the organization,” says Irvin Bishop, Jr., CIO of Black & Veatch. “These individuals will have the skills and ability to train and evangelize the automation strategy and drive adoption.”

CIOs and other leaders themselves should champion the strategy and create clear incentives for hitting targets to further bolster the effort.

“An organization’s technology leaders should prioritize their efforts on serving as the strategy champion and rewarding behaviors that demonstrate success towards achieving strategy’s goals,” Bishop says. “This will support the holistic impact on the organization or cross-functional team.”

7. Make sure strategy covers security

No automation strategy will live up to the term “robust” if it doesn’t include security.

There is a mutually beneficial relationship between automation and security – presuming you foster that relationship. That includes both security automation itself, but also automation’s ability to broaden security-centric thinking and skills throughout an organization.

As E.G. Nadhan, global chief architect leader, Red Hat, told us on the eve of 2023, he expects more organizations to embrace the value of automation as they try to broaden their skill sets and empower a security mindset beyond the security operations center or IT team in general.

“Automation is the secret key to growing from DevOps into DevSecOps while transitioning from I-shaped skill sets to T-shaped skill sets,” Nadhan says. (Also check out Nadhan’s related LinkedIn post.) “Forward-thinking enterprises who have a laser focus on proactive remediation will bring automation, along the domain of quality assurance, into enterprise security to further reduce risk.”

[ Learn the non-negotiable skills, technologies, and processes CIOs are leaning on to build resilience and agility in this HBR Analytic Services report: Pillars of resilient digital transformation: How CIOs are driving organizational agility. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.