We’ve all encountered and understand the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy or a virtuous/vicious circle. It’s where our perception or the outcome of events, drives the impetus for the continuation of the events – either in a positive or negative direction. 

Think of stock markets, and their particular vulnerability to spiralling public attitudes, and you get the idea.

In a similar way, a force field analysis – a framework for looking at the factors (or forces) that influence a situation – illustrates this same sort of phenomenon. The idea, simply put, is that in situations which have greater driving forces than resisting forces, we get that positive spiral (a virtuous one!) This matters for your digital workforce programme too, because the continuous delivery of visible benefits and tangible value to the organisation is necessary for continued support.

At Q4 we’ve seen both positive and negative experiences of this happen when organisations implement a digital workforce, so we’ve adapted the model to suit. On the left are the forces driving towards the goal – a mature and scalable digital workforce that’s delivering business value and driving transformation – while, on the right are the things that tend to get in the way and hinder success.

So first, let’s take a look at each driving factor more closely:

Clear strategic alignment

This is the foundation of successful digital workforces and automation in general. It’s absolutely vital that your digital workforce implementation has a clear link to the organisation’s overall strategy and that there’s been solid thought put in to how the programme fits the overall workforce operating model. This is what gives your implementation its purpose and its direction – and ensures that there’s buy-in and backing driven from the top and cascading down to every level.

Exec ownership

Speaking of support and sponsorship, having a consistent message from the board, the executive level, and all levels of management is key – especially when it comes to credibility and overcoming hurdles. The reality is that a successful digital workforce implementation has little to do with robots and a lot more to do with people. While the goal may be to create a well-functioning unified workforce, it’s really about transforming the culture and thinking of the people across the organisation. And since leaders have the most impact on the collective mindset, the more their buy-in increases, the more they’ll advocate for the new way of working and the digital workforce programme.

The budget’s long-term

It’s one thing to have a good budget to kick things off, but the commitment of ongoing budget can’t be over-emphasised. This is related to setting expectations well. The initial deployment of budget will be geared towards building capability and getting some deliverables; if you set out with eager but unrealistic KPIs, you’ll miss the mark just as the programme starts to mature, and interest from the exec layer will soon wane. Success requires a commitment to consistent action, so once you’ve taken the time to build up your internal capability, or secured the best people from a vendor’s team, you can’t turn things off and back on again and expect the same standards and efficiencies you’d been starting to develop within the programme.

Keep the employee benefits visible

We want employees to see their automated processes (robots) as colleagues as much as we want them to see the benefits of their digital colleagues. If they don’t, then they won’t support the implementation – and ultimately the pipeline dries up. So what benefits can your people expect to see at the individual level?

A successful human-digital workforce frees up people to do more work on the high-impact aspects of their jobs. It can enable them to do things more autonomously, and to take on more challenging roles that require upskilling – which is inherently motivating, and bodes well for driving the success of the digital workforce overall. It also allows people to take more control of their careers and work lives, while also helping organisations to retain their talented workforce, and improve employee experience, increase innovation, retention, and productivity.

Keep the business benefits visible, too

It’s pointless having a robust, adaptable digital workforce that has achieved a positive ROI, is meeting SLAs and is scaling to meet variable workloads if you’re not communicating this within your organisation. That’s because, if you’re looking to transform, you need to communicate the benefits and organisational value of your programme.

Obviously, if you want to promote more automation, you’ve got to show that what you’ve established is performing well. Whether the cost of delivery and its running outweighs the previous human operation costs, or the ability to manage volume variability is realised, these achievements make a stronger case for further automation.

It’s not just positive ROI, though. The hardest part of establishing a digital workforce is the establishment; further automation becomes easier and easier as the build teams become more experienced, components get re-used, and the benefits for customers quickly get realised (such as the throughput of a transaction accelerating from 10 days down to three, so customer claims, for example, can be paid faster). Add to this the ways in which your digital workforce – once established – might support other key strategic objectives (such as increasing customer satisfaction). Visibly delivering to other strategic and tactical objectives within the business can be a significant driving factor for your digital workforce.

Obstacles to success: Resisting forces

Where the driving forces strengthen results, buy-in and success, resisting forces do the opposite – and are the reasons that we most often see digital workforce programmes stall or fail.

Before we look at the specifics of those balancing elements, it’s important to mention the importance of lag. Inhibitors can come with a time delay. You can launch with a hiss and a roar, and even if you’re doing the right things, there’s a risk that your pipeline will dry up and you’ll lose the support, momentum and investment you’ve worked so hard for if you’re not putting the continued conscious effort in to counter the resisting forces.

So, let’s look at what holds back a programme:

The only thing to fear

Education is essential – the priority of which is removing as many fears as possible about the changes. That’s the domain of effective change management, including transparency and authenticity. A successful digital workforce programme cannot be run by stealth as this breeds fear and rumours, which severely undermine trust. Instead, be honest about why you’re implementing a change, reassure people about what’s not changing, and work proactively with your people to find purpose. Share the successes of the programme to the rest of the business to inspire them to start shifting their thinking. Transparent communication can play an important role in bridging the gap between a new technology and the rest of the business.

The digital workforce needs to establish and maintain trust with the business and while some of this needs to happen upfront, it must also prove itself by way of steadfast delivery. It seems like an obvious point to make, but it’s critical that all transactions processed by the digital workforce are 100% correct always. If it’s going to be processed by a programme, then you need to be sure that the integrity of your organisational data and systems is maintained.

 This brings us to robustness. Like any business unit, the digital workforce needs to be a dependable function within an organisation. Robustness relies on adherence to SLAs, the robot equivalent to a key performance indicator (KPI) from a people perspective. In the same way that it’s important that we don’t put in place KPIs that drive the wrong types of behaviour, it’s vital that our SLAs (say around speed of processing) don’t undermine the accuracy or reliability of – or confidence in – your digital workforce.

Conflicting demands on resources

Internal competition for resource – when it comes to budget, people and capacity for the project are all vital considerations that can become resisting forces if not managed. For starters, although digital workforce programmes should not be primarily driven by IT, IT people are still required. But those people will have other initiatives on the go, and often conflicting priorities.

You need time and space to implement automation, and a programme can only go as fast as an affected team or department can onboard it. Although the introduction of automated processes shouldn’t be overly burdensome on the team adopting them, they will need to spend some time with the delivery team. Ideally the internal people affected need the organisation’s support to have the room for learning that decreases the resistance to change.

The joy of company politics

If you’re not careful, internal politics could very well get in the way. As I mentioned at the start, the first way to counteract this is by ensuring your programme has strategic alignment. A clear link to the wider strategy will help to trump office politics.

Another factor at play is that far too often, automation is about maximising some of the most pressured areas in your business. That’s one of its benefits. However, sometimes internal politics can pull automation efforts into maximising individuals’ KPIs and not a programme’s ROI. Whether in aspects of ownership, organisation or controls, it’s vital to have the goals of the digital workforce take precedence over individuals’ own interests. There needs to be alignment – across the business, through IT, with your values. The establishment of robust governance helps clear the deck of political conflicts before you start.

Finally, IT and the business need to be on the same page when it comes to a digital workforce and why they are doing it. Many of us have experienced the seemingly age-old divide that can exist here, but this needs bridging for a digital workforce to ultimately succeed. If there are existing conflicts between these groups, these need to be resolved first.

Lack of understanding, or: education, education, education

Understandably, one of the most significant issues which inhibits success is a general lack of knowledge about what is required to establish and run a digital workforce. It’s an easy mistake to view the building of digital workforce capability strictly as a software delivery project, when it requires much bigger picture thinking – something I talked about in a previous blog. The business of automation has multiple bedfellows and any organisation looking at building a digital workforce should include HR, internal communications, risk, and change management, as well as IT, to ensure a digital workforce programme can achieve what it needs to. That’s why it’s so much more than IT, and why combining a business-led approach with an IT lens ensures that the organisation will have considered the non-functional as well as functional requirements.

Overlooking the internal change management aspects short-change the possibilities of digital workforces; it misses bringing the people within the business along on the journey and means that achieving the mindset shift required for true transformation is impossible. As part of that change management, internal marketing is important – as is education. Your teams – and every level – should understand how and why your digital workforce works the way it does, and what kinds of speeds, efficiencies and successes you can expect.

Good enough ain’t good enough

This may seem obvious, but it’s incredible how many digital workforce programmes are being put together without the requisite skills involved. And the results are, unsurprisingly, poor. The right people will make or break your digital workforce programme. For any hope of adoption or transformation, the skills and capability to educate the existing workforce, promote automation within the organisation, and to deliver and run your digital workforce are critical. Without these, you run the serious risk of poorly defined and configured automation, instability, or worse – incorrect results.

A short training course won’t equip you with all the right skills to launch into RPA. Just as Microsoft Access had too many people believing that they could develop software in the 90s, robotic process automation isn’t just anyone’s game. If a digital workforce’s infrastructure platforms have not been designed, established or supported in a robust and maintainable manner, this will negatively impact the ease with which you can scale them up as part of expanding your digital workforce. Poor design and configuration will impact robustness, performance (in terms of speed and volume of successful transactions). You can kiss goodbye any ROI if the wrong people are at the helm.

Here’s the thing, though. While there’s no one part of building digital workforce capability that is especially difficult or complex, there are so many small pieces that are absolutely vital to get right. Because the thinking around RPA is still in its infancy, there’s a real shortage of people with enough experience. And while we could do with adopting more of the website or .net practice of downloading ready-made components that exist for RPA, as opposed to building it all from scratch, in a space that is still evolving, the right advice, real experience and focused expertise is still vital.