How to Build and Scale Your RPA CoE (Center of Excellence)

How to Build and Scale Your RPA CoE (Center of Excellence)

In an effort to deploy, scale, and sustain organization-wide automation, an enterprise may establish a center of excellence for robotic process automation (RPA CoE). However, for the CoE to succeed in its operational goals, a clearly defined strategy is necessary; one that addresses potential challenges, encourages innovation, and empowers process owners to view processes from the lens of RPA. In this article, I will share insights from myself and my peers at the Telecom Industry Automation Council (TIAC) on how to construct the CoE, define its strategic goals, prepare for challenges, and scale your RPA program across the enterprise. 

Understanding the CoE’s purpose

The automation CoE is tasked with enabling RPA adoption across the enterprise, which includes process mining and discovery, business case validation, development and implementation, upskilling, and continuous improvement. 

Some businesses use RPA as a quick fix for straightforward automation needs, neglecting its full potential. However, an RPA CoE helps ensure that RPA is leveraged as a greater tool for innovation by unearthing and validating business cases unique to each enterprise’s needs. One of its end goals is to ensure that each department – especially business units – views RPA as a tool for improving processes and saving resources. 

Constructing the RPA CoE: Uniting Business Units and IT

When an enterprise adopts any technology, there is a natural assumption that its ownership will reside with IT. However, while IT plays a pivotal role in RPA adoption – in the form of governance, security, and compliance – the department cannot solely drive the CoE. Business users, namely people and process owners who understand how best to automate, must also reside within the CoE. 

Of course, securing buy-in from leaders of business units may not be straightforward. Executive buy-in may pressure business units to allocate time for the CoE, but convincing business leaders of RPA’s transformative potential is also necessary. Only then will they give RPA the same attention that they reserve for OKRs (objectives, key results), unlocking the potential for innovation.  

Additionally, if there is an existing culture of digital transformation within the enterprise, positioning RPA as a means for said transformation can help the CoE secure alignment with the strategic goals of business units.  

People-first culture and the role of citizen developers

To facilitate innovation through RPA, the enterprise needs to provide its people with the means to execute quickly – in an agile way – and a culture that supports experimentation. Moreover, CoE leaders must convey the crucial message to business users that their contribution is pivotal; RPA is not a technology that resides with IT in silo. Business users must join the cause for digital transformation through RPA. 

Moreover, in the early stages of RPA adoption, the CoE should prioritize empowering said users to view processes from the lens of RPA. This might mean deploying RPA for seemingly small tasks – that do not yield substantial ROI – simply because the RPA scenarios are brought to the CoE by end-users. The purpose is to generate a pro-automation culture, where people in different departments feel that their contributions are valued. Handan Aymaz, Head of Continuous Improvement Center at Turkcell, shares her insights regarding the role of the CoE:

Turkcell’s RPA program achieved this tremendous growth thanks to its existing people-first culture – employees are encouraged to innovate and experiment, and they’re welcoming towards new initiatives. Thus, RPA adoption spread across the organization with relative ease, with the help of its citizen developer program. 

The citizen developer program starts with idea generation, where employees are encouraged to consider RPA scenarios. They then receive foundational online training in RPA before proceeding to in-class training, which offers training to design RPA scenarios. Finally, after the training strategies, team members are encouraged to participate in hackathons, collaborate in teams, and refine their RPA scenarios with the help of mentors. 

Inevitably, the citizen developer program enabled Turkcell’s RPA initiative to scale radically. Moreover, the company’s commitment to innovation is so deeply rooted that they developed a native RPA platform to help them swiftly execute automation scenarios while managing costs. Clearly, the upper bound for people-led innovation is high.  

Preparing for and overcoming early challenges

For an RPA program to succeed, securing executive buy-in is crucial. The C-suite must be willing to invest in RPA technology, training and upskilling, and change management for the initiative to succeed. Equally important, leaders must also cultivate a culture – from the top – that supports innovation and eliminates fears surrounding automation. 

However, even after securing executive buy-in, the RPA program is at risk of dying on the vine from three sources of potential friction, namely: 

  1. Internally demonstrating the value of RPA. In the early stages, the CoE may struggle to produce concrete use cases that aptly demonstrate the value of RPA. However, as the program evolves and scales, the CoE will have more examples to convince business users across the organization. 
  2. Fears surrounding automation. When the subject of robots is raised, many employees react with the fear of losing their jobs to automation. This may translate to a lack of contribution toward process discovery and RPA scenario ideation, as they resist RPA implementation. 
  3. Unwillingness to adopt RPA. The RPA CoE is dependent on business users for RPA scenarios, but these users are otherwise engaged in their everyday roles. CoE leaders must secure buy-in from business users and convince them of the benefits of RPA and its potential to add value to their workflows. 

If these challenges – which are industry-agnostic – persist, then an RPA program may fail despite achieving other success factors. However, these issues can be addressed and mitigated collectively by cultivating the right culture; one that eases fears and facilitates innovation. 

For this culture to take form, the C-suite must be aligned on the purpose of RPA deployment. Is it to make processes more efficient? Is it to save time and allow employees to focus on more meaningful work? This purpose must then be communicated – and demonstrated – at every stage. 

With the development of each use case and the deployment of each bot, leaders have the opportunity to demonstrate RPA as a value-add rather than a means of eliminating jobs. Thus, as deployments continue, fears will ease, and the excitement of a new, more efficient way of working will take shape. 

Telefonica Hispam took an interesting approach to addressing fears surrounding RPA by placing the onus of experimentation on employees. The CoE conducted sessions with design thinkers from different areas of the business to discuss ideas to save resources by making one of four possible improvements. These improvements could be process improvement, fixing a broken process, process elimination (waste reduction), or automating a process in a novel way. 

At the end of the sessions, the CoE received candidates for RPA and proceeded to perform proof of concepts (POC) to demonstrate RPA’s potential.  

Now, RPA adoption has spread across the entire organization, and business units discover and bring their telecom-industry RPA use cases to the CoE. This is precisely the ultimate goal for a CoE: to cultivate a culture that encourages people across the enterprise to think in terms of digital transformation and automation. And to empower process owners to become drivers of the RPA program.  

The upskilling and reskilling imperative

When planning its automation strategy, an enterprise must consider upskilling and reskilling its workforce to serve two purposes. The first is to tap into internal talent and train them to help lead the automation strategy – for example, you might train in-house developers to deploy RPA. Then, the remaining skills gap can be filled with external talent. 

However, there is another need for reskilling, which is to answer the following question: when specific jobs are automated within the enterprise, what does this mean for the employees who were previously assigned to these tasks? The solution is to train workers and utilize them for more meaningful, skilled work. However, to ensure this transition is successful, leaders must introduce formal upskilling and reskilling programs to prepare employees for their new roles.  

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) is perhaps one of the best examples of successfully reskilling a workforce at scale. The multinational enterprise eliminated approximately 1.6 million person-hours of work across the organisation through automation, without reducing its headcount. Instead, the company created a new subsidiary – called SMBC Value Creation – and retrained and transferred affected employees to this new division. This division now offers IA consultation and expertise to other financial institutions and banks looking to achieve similar productivity gains.  

In conclusion, reskilling and upskilling must be core considerations for an enterprise’s automation strategy. Training existing employees can benefit the enterprise by not only filling the skills gap but by also reassigning employees to more valuable work. Additionally, avoiding headcount reductions reiterates the organization’s core principle: that automation is here to be a helper, not a job killer.  

Ultimately, culture drives change

RPA – and automation in general – is part of a broader digital transformation initiative of the modern enterprise. This transformation begins with a fundamental shift in mindset – in the way we view processes, people, operations, and work. Any digital transformation initiative – including RPA implementation – will disrupt the way people work, ideally for the better.  

However, for an initiative to be successful, it’s crucial to clearly define strategic goals. Such is the case for RPA, too. For the RPA CoE to succeed, leaders must outline quantifiable goals – like resource savings, process improvements, and even results from upskilling – and intangibles, such as cultural and mindset shifts. 

Lastly, it’s important to remember that – much like RPA implementation itself – there is no one-size-fits-all approach to establishing a CoE. The structure, goals, and purpose of an RPA CoE may vary from one enterprise to another; each center should be tailored to its organization’s unique needs.  To learn more about automation and what solution is right for you, book a consultation today.


Dr Khalid Basit

Director of Automation Consultancy at M.M. & COO TIAC (Telecom Intelligent Automation Council). A seasoned expert in guiding organizations through transformative journeys. Specializes in initiating process discovery sessions that allow clients to envision change. Supporting them through each step, culminating in the realization of digital transformation necessary to drive tangible business value.
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