6 minute read 25 Apr 2019
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How to avoid the automation trap with a process first approach

Intelligent automation is a fundamental lever in business process design and in the overall digital transformation of the enterprise.  

“Intelligent automation” refers to a wide range of techniques that enable the digitization, processing and evaluation of information to fundamentally change how work is performed. It is not one piece of technology, but rather, a combination of tools and methods that work in concert to improve the performance of a function, the effectiveness of the employees involved and, ultimately, the experience of the customer. 

We believe there is a crucial insight here: applied properly, intelligent automation solutions are designed around the user experience — both customers and employees. In other words, designing for “the human in the loop” enables intelligent automation to be focused on human interactions where you want them, because you want them optimizing the human roles by improving them with tools that improve their efficiency and effectiveness. 

Many implementations disappoint because they try to automate everything they can, rather than everything they should.

The automation trap

So where should intelligent automation tools be applied? How can they be applied most effectively? Our experience has consistently shown that an approach focused on finding applications for specific tools achieves disappointing results. This tool-led approach is fundamentally flawed.

For starters, each tool has technical limitations that restrict the potential scope of automation. When companies focus on a specific tool, they create the scenario of a hammer looking for a nail. In these situations, if a process includes tasks that the tool can’t solve for, the process is often redesigned to fit the tool – rather than optimizing the process itself. Overextending the capabilities of a specific tool – using it to solve for something it isn’t intended to remedy – is another common pitfall.

Let’s look at an example of tool-led automation. A company attempting to automate the Accounts Payable process using only robotic process automation (RPA) may encounter the issues discussed. Since RPA is not designed to read information from invoices, the process might be re-engineered to add a manual step where a human inputs key invoice details in a format the RPA tool can utilize. Alternatively, the RPA capability may be overextended to extract information from the invoices – a task that may be more effectively performed with techniques such as optical character recognition (OCR) and/or natural language processing (NLP).

Additionally, there is limited contemplation of how automation may streamline a process to work in a completely different way. Automation assessments often only consider a process “as-is,” with usually no consideration of how the outcome might be achieved differently. A common mistake is to think too narrowly when considering potential automation opportunities. Business teams may lean toward specific pain points to ease tasks that people complain about, even though these are just a small fraction of an overall process. 

Automation assessments often only consider a process “as-is,” with usually no consideration of how the outcome might be achieved differently. 

All of these scenarios lead to lower value business cases and preclude the ultimate goals of digital transformation: harnessing the collective power of people, processes and technology, and seamlessly integrating techniques into the organization’s end-to-end processes and customer and employee journeys. The remedy lies in applying automation holistically, considering the full automation toolkit and selecting the most appropriate technique in each situation.

Envisioning the future with process first

The automation trap can be avoided when automation techniques are applied holistically. But the real difference-maker is not just the combination of automation techniques, but rather, how the various techniques are applied – in the context of process design and the experiences they are intended to drive for customers and other stakeholders. We believe this “process first” mentality enables business owners and process engineers to consider new ways to achieve an outcome or experience, leveraging all the tools and techniques at their disposal … such as intelligent automation, process re-engineering, core platform changes, data solutions, blockchains and other technology alternatives. 

Done properly, all of a function’s activities, and the customer journey they create, are viewed through a digital lens. Design thinking is a cornerstone of this approach, where customer and employee interactions are reimagined in a digitally enabled process. Designers, process owners and solution architects work together to envision the art of the possible, and consider how and which automation techniques can be used to make it happen.

Why focus on the process? 

Process first design creates a scalable model to identify, assess and prioritize automation opportunities. It merges the principles of design thinking with the full automation toolkit to transform and digitize the enterprise in line with the overall business strategy. Unlike tool-led design, process first design enables an organization to: 

  • Put the customer and process first 
  • Select automation techniques based on suitability 
  • Design with the human in the loop where they deliver the most value 
  • Reimagine processes and transform the customer journey, considering the art of the possible 
  • Drive exponential value by transforming the business
Put process first in practice 

Automation opportunity assessments, driven by process first thinking, provide the framework for building a company’s automation pipeline and road map. The exercise is designed to unearth potential value and opportunities, provide insight into which automation capabilities to invest in and prioritize implementation projects. Our experience has helped us compile a few key considerations when undertaking this approach: 

  1. Start with a pain point, something everyone can understand and rally around. Use it to establish broader momentum and focus on the end-to-end business process or customer journeys. (Holistic) 
  2. Consider input from all critical stakeholders — business, technology, risk management and others – in an innovation session. Solution architects, well-versed in the full range of automation techniques, should be included as well. (Pragmatic) 
  3. Agree on the overall purpose of the business process and key guiding principles for the design of the process. Focus on the art of the possible. (Design-led) 
  4. Identify how and where in the process human input is best utilized to add value. (Human-centered) 
  5. Examine how various automation techniques can enable the process and journeys you envision, both in the interim state and in the ultimate future state. (Holistic, Pragmatic) 
  6. Create an actionable road map that drives stakeholder engagement, prioritizes value (and engagement) and provides clear direction to achieve the vision you have set for your overall digital transformation. (Pragmatic)


Digital transformation and disruptive technologies will fundamentally change how work gets done. Applying the techniques at our disposal – both traditional and new – must be done in a thoughtful and holistic manner. This will require an empowered workforce that is trained and incented to try new things, and changing the culture of the organization so that automation, enabled through a process-first approach, is a part of everything we do.