Who should “own” automation within a bank?
Workplace automation has hit the mainstream over the past year, as organisations look to tackle the widespread productivity issues which are threatening their future growth.
Within the world of banking, which has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to automation (the sector was one of the early adopters of robotic process automation or RPA), the focus is now moving beyond the tactical automation of basic back-office tasks and processes across the organisation (in the contact centre, HR function or accounts department), to more complex and strategic initiatives.
Intelligent automation (IA), which combines RPA with artificial intelligence (AI) functionality, and additional capabilities such as natural language processing (NLP), is now enabling banks to automate a far wider range of workplace processes, in a fast, effective and secure way. We talk to financial services organisations about how they can redefine resourcing within their businesses through IA, allowing them to be more agile to respond to disruption and ever-changing regulation, and also to innovate and pursue new opportunities that would otherwise be impossible with a traditional approach to resourcing.
Interestingly, demand for IA is coming from both big banks at one end of the market, and from early stage fintech players at the other. Large financial institutions are recognising the need to respond to huge disruption within their world and to develop faster, more agile operations to compete with new, nimble fintech players. Such a cultural shift can be extremely hard to achieve within rigid, traditional structures, but Intelligent Automation enables them to get around this by providing flexible, multi-skilled resource that is fast and easy to deploy wherever it is needed.
We’re seeing major banks launching new products and services which are built exclusively on the output of digital labour, and examples of financial institutions that are using IA as a platform to expand their operations into new emerging economies. By deploying a virtual workforce within these smaller operating units, they can deliver a first-rate service to customers without having to develop a sizeable infrastructure which is invariably slow, cumbersome and prohibitively expensive.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’re witnessing the emergence of a new generation of financial services businesses, which are being built from the very outset with a culture of automation at their heart. Many fintech organisations, essentially technology platforms themselves, are putting IA at the core of their resourcing models, deploying a hybrid human-virtual workforce as a way to scale quickly whilst keeping costs down, and to navigate their way around skills shortages in areas such as coding and software.
So clearly IA and AI are set to change the way that every financial services organisation operates and competes in the market in the years to come, but when it comes to who within the bank should take responsibility for implementing IA programmes, it’s not always quite as simple.
Why automation rarely lives in the IT department
One common (and understandable) assumption made by people new to automation programmes is that a virtual workforce platform should be introduced, integrated and managed by the IT department.
To a certain degree, that was the case with RPA implementations five years ago. However, we’ve seen a marked shift away from IT leadership within automation projects over the last few years. Much of this is down to the fact that with a cloud-based IA platform, there is no need for any integration with IT existing systems. The Virtual Workers themselves negate the need for this as they can perform that integration function, automating the tasks that connect disparate legacy systems.
With IA, banks can modernise their applications without having to overhaul their entire infrastructure and avoiding hugely expensive and lengthy integration projects, which rarely deliver on promises. Digital labour simply acts as the integration layer and so, whilst IT may be involved in the project, it is rarely the driving force.
We had an example of one client within financial services who was looking to speed up processes within its contact centre. Its legacy mainframe systems were slow – navigating each screen was meaning call agents were taking 20 minutes to process simple customer enquiries, such as changes to account details. A traditional IT-led project to replace or upgrade the existing systems would have taken 12-18 months, but with the virtual workforce a solution was up and running in less than six weeks, at a fraction of the cost and effort.
That’s the beauty of IA – it puts change control back into the hands of the business units and enables them to continuously improve their ways of working.
Automation in the hands of the business
With a cloud-based IA, businesses are able to move away from the structure of having dedicated resources in dedicated teams, to an organisation-wide virtual workforce to support wherever needed. This results in automation programmes being implemented and managed across a wide range of business functions, from the contact centre and customer experience, through to finance and HR.
Increasingly these heads of business units are recognising the need for automation to speed up processes, improve service levels and free up time for their teams to focus on more strategic work. They are getting buy-in from across the bank and then taking it upon themselves to build a business case for automation within their department.
The best way to get up and running with IA is to start with the easy wins. That means selecting a small number of non-business critical processes that can easily be automated and focusing on successfully automating those. This allows all stakeholders to learn and develop their skills in a low risk environment, and it also enables the team to prove the value of IA from the outset. Once the organisation has successfully automated its first processes and shown tangible benefits, whether that be increased productivity or time and cost savings, it can then look at automating more complex, revenue generating processes. The ability to automate work that was previously seen as too complex or difficult because there is a lack of structure or a number of decisioning points is now negated with the use of AI-enabled IA.
The need for board-level sponsorship
However, whilst it is operational business heads who are often identifying and making the initial case for automation within a bank and driving this agenda forward, they are also recognising the need to get the right people involved in the initiative from the outset. That usually means senior management from within finance, operations, IT, customer service and HR. Depending on the first process(es) that they are looking to automate, it could also involve marketing, sales or another business function. The key point is that all relevant stakeholders (and there are several) are brought into the discussions to ensure the right information is gathered, and that leadership from across the organisation feels part of the journey.
Most IA initiatives now are being sponsored by the CFO or COO at a board level. Due to the scale of change and benefit that IA can bring, these executives are looking at IA projects as strategic initiatives that are going to ensure the future relevance and competitiveness of their business. Heads of departments and operations are then tasked with looking at areas of their responsibility that can be automated. This combined stakeholder approach is key to any IA project – both stakeholder sets need to be involved and supportive of the transformation.
Creating an automation centre of excellence
Most banks will need to bring in certain specialist skills to lead on an automation programme at the outset but typically organisations look to build out an automation team by re-deploying people whose existing work is being automated. Over time, it is this team that can develop into a centre of excellence, working with and educating managers across the bank to help them to identify further opportunities to automate process and to then maximise the results they get from automation. Once the virtual workforce is up and running, day-to-day “ownership” of automation should transfer here.
Re-training people to give them the skills to oversee an automation programme and manage a team of virtual workers is a great message to convey to the workforce. And for the individuals themselves, they can move from doing what is often mundane work (hence it being automated), to becoming highly skilled and highly sought-after experts in IA. They can transform their careers (and their income) in a very short space of time.
Beyond the automation team, it’s also important to ensure that “automation champions” exist in the business. These champions help their peers to get to grips with automation technology and to work effectively alongside virtual workers. These individuals also have a crucial role to play in identifying a pipeline of processes that can be evaluated for automation on an ongoing basis – after all, it is the people working on the front line within each business unit who are much better placed to identify mundane tasks with high volume or process bottlenecks.
Instilling a culture of automation
It’s easy to get caught up focusing on the commercial rationale for IA, as well as the technology and the processes. However, the success of IA depends in large part on the willingness of operational staff on the ground to embrace automation and recognise the benefits it can deliver, not just to the business but to them as individuals.
The challenge is getting staff to see these benefits when so much of the narrative around automation remains highly emotive, fed by media reports that automation will lead to millions of jobs being replaced over the coming decade. Of course, there will be some job displacement in the future but there will also be enormous job creation. Financial services is one of a number of industries that will see a whole range of strategic, high-value jobs being created in place of more tactical, lower-paid back-office roles.
It is vital that the owners of any automation project ensure that the introduction of digital labour is communicated to the wider business in the right way. Every organisation has different drivers for implementing IA and it’s important that these are conveyed clearly to the workforce. Automation can be an emotive issue so it’s essential that HR and management provide workers with the reassurance they need and a more rounded view of automation.
The fact is that automation will actually result in people having to do less mundane, process-driven work, and spending more on interesting, subjective and creative-driven tasks. We’ve seen workers in financial services organisations who were initially reticent or resistant to automation, that have completely changed their view once they realise they suddenly have more time to focus on the high-value work they enjoy.
The ultimate goal for banks and the business heads who own the automation agenda is to instil a positive “culture of automation” within the workforce, where people are proactively looking to automate some of their work in order to free up their capacity and feel comfortable handing over tasks to a virtual worker. It’s at this point that all staff within an organisation start to take on an element of ownership of the virtual workforce, looking to ensure that digital labour is used in the most appropriate ways to drive the business forward.
By Grant Goodband, client manager, financial services practice, Thoughtonomy