The key to digital automation success? People, of course.

By Dayna Sargen

Learn why transparent change management is critical to your automation journey


Automation is supposed to get the repetitive tasks of your plate, but to truly work it must be implemented in an inclusive and transparent manner

It’s no wonder why companies today are racing to play the automation game: In the United States, nearly half of all work can be automated through advances in machine learning, digital process automation and related technologies. 

As with all new technologies, of course, the early adoption phase can be difficult and costly. Process automation initiatives fail between 30% and 50% of the time, according to some estimates. 

It’s easy to blame the new tools. But the root cause for failure (or success) is usually the same — people. In the rush towards digital transformation, says Elli Hurst, Vice President of IBM Automation, many organizations overlook the critical step of preparing workers and following principles of organizational change management until far too late in the process. 

Why has change management fallen out of favor? What’s taken its place?

It’s been the need for speed. A lot gets thrown out the window when you’re under business pressure to move quickly. Some of that is fine; necessary, even. But you have to take the time to prepare the impacted people, like employees, customers and business partners. 

“Change management” used to be the umbrella term to ensure successful digital transformation projects — the foundation that made them successful. Instead, we often see what I call the “mushroom strategy” — keeping everyone in the dark about your automation projects, thus impacting morale, losing critical talent and ultimately driving a higher cost of the program. 

People Working

A lot of companies seem to get by with the mushroom strategy. What would make them change?

If you’re adopting automation in a critical situation to save your business, then it might work. But automation should be about making your business more competitive in your industry. These are two different sides of the same coin. On one hand, you can reduce costs and the people needed to run the business. On the other, you become a company that’s inclusive and collaborative — you explain to people how automation will enhance their jobs. It’s the opposite of the mushroom strategy. It’s the “sunlight strategy” — full disclosure and involvement for ultimate success. 

How does the sunlight strategy work?

You start by looking at your culture. Are employees aware of your mission? Are you already a collaborative company? Based on your culture, your automation strategy revolves around specific HR decisions. Will you pay for training courses for employees whose jobs will change? How about retention bonuses for people who have knowledge capital so you don’t lose them? 

It’s focusing on labor in addition to the technology. We just learned about a new study showing that only 44% of companies have plans to retrain staff affected by automation — which sounds like many are avoiding coping with change. But you have to bake this training into the beginning of a transformation project. 

Even if you commit to retraining, how do you convince employees that automation is a good thing?

This is the communication that comes after the HR decisions: everything from the basic “automation is coming” to explaining what robots and AI can and can’t do. 

Automation should be used to get the junk work off of people’s plates — that’s a point that has to filter down to the people that do this work. Once you use automation to get tasks out of the way that can be performed by automation, you can use AI to augment what workers can do, like higher-value data analysis versus spreadsheet mapping. And if a worker doesn’t have the education to do the analysis, the company can give them that education.  

Learn more about IBM Automation

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