by Bob Violino

Skills and traits of elite IT automation teams

Mar 22, 20219 mins
Artificial IntelligenceBusiness Process ManagementRobotic Process Automation

From RPA to AI, automation has become a key IT priority. Here's what to look for in building a versatile team suited to automating processes across your enterprise.

Automation and optimisation concept
Credit: Getty Images

When it comes to transforming organizations these days, automation is king. Automating IT and business processes took major leaps forward in the wake of the pandemic, and the trend is expected to roll on this year, as organizations navigate a post-pandemic business environment.

Research firm Gartner listed “hyperautomation” — an all-out approach to automating anything that can be automated in an organization — as one of its top strategic technology trends for 2021. The use of robotic process automation (RPA) platforms is on the rise, and artificial intelligence is becoming much more than a buzzword as more organizations deploy AI-powered tools and build use cases.

Automation has become such a key priority for organizations that IT leaders are creating dedicated teams to plan, execute, and maintain their automation strategies. What does it take to build an elite automation team? Here are some key traits and skills to look for.

Broad technical aptitude

Automation team members should have a working knowledge of the various platforms on the market that enable IT automation, such as RPA, business intelligence (BI), business process management, and other systems.

Bottling company G&J Pepsi is one organization leaning heavily into automation. As part of its digital transformation effort, the company has deployed a suite of tools from Microsoft, including Azure, Power Platform, PowerBI, PowerApps, and PowerAutomate. These tools help power G&J Pepsi’s RPA-fueled approach to automating a range of business processes, such as onboarding new hires and writing orders for products from stores.

Brian Balzer, vice president of digital technology and business transformation, G&J Pepsi G&J Pepsi

Brian Balzer, vice president of digital technology and business transformation, G&J Pepsi

G&J Pepsi chose the Microsoft suite because the tools don’t require highly specialized IT resources with specific skills, says Brian Balzer, vice president of digital technology and business transformation.

“We found that when you have resources with technical aptitude, they can quickly pick up all Microsoft technologies, including the creation of RPAs that interface with SQL, PowerApps, SharePoint, and much more,” Balzer says. With the move to a low code/no code environment and citizen developers providing tools across these platforms, the automation

team can build “amazing solutions” for the organization, he says.

Core technical skills

The New Jersey Court System looks for core technical skills, including experience in leading automation RPA tools as well as programming languages C# and SQL, web services, and application programming interfaces (APIs), says Jack McCarthy, CIO of State of New Jersey–Judiciary.

Jack McCarthy, CIO, State of New Jersey–Judiciary State of New Jersey–Judiciary

Jack McCarthy, CIO, State of New Jersey–Judiciary

N.J. Courts IT uses a multitude of technologies to orchestrate complex, event-driven services, create data pipelines, run cloud applications, and automate processes, McCarthy says. It has automated areas such as judiciary case management, risk assessment, and help desk services.

The court system deployed RPA in 2020 in response to needs presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has leveraged RPA for processes such as online payments for municipal complaints via a traffic payment system; and integrating the judiciary payroll system with the state treasury department’s legacy payment processing system.

Engineering mindset

When it comes to the implementation of an automation platform, there must also be an engineering mindset in terms of understanding how to break the problem down into constituent parts, each an automation in and of itself, says Sam Babic, chief innovation officer at content services provider Hyland.

Sam Babic, chief innovation officer, Hyland Hyland

Sam Babic, chief innovation officer, Hyland

“This allows the ultimate solution to be both scalable and maintainable, especially if that maintenance is to be carried on by the business user,” Babic says.

Soft skills

An individual can have all the technical skills in the world. But if that person doesn’t possess soft skills such as leadership, good communication, teamwork, time management, work ethic, and decision-making, the hard skills might not be put to the best use.

“It’s imperative that our technical resources possess the proper soft skills to implement” automation tools, Balzer says. “Our digital technology team members must be able to effectively communicate with our business partners to develop the right products and solutions that bring value to G&J Pepsi. Gone are the days of backroom IT resources sitting behind a computer, answering calls but not effectively communicating or collaborating.”

Team members must be willing and able to have rich dialog with end users, listen to their issues, and partner with them to create useful solutions, Balzer says. “Typically, the person closest to the problem will have some great suggestions about ways to improve the process,” he says. “It’s incumbent upon us to listen, collaborate, and communicate effectively.”

Critical thinking and logic

Critical thinking and creative problem-solving are sought-after skills for the automation team at Sykes, a global business process outsourcing provider.

David Brain, chief digital officer, Sykes Sykes

David Brain, chief digital officer, Sykes

“A lot of times, people think that automation is the answer to solve all problems, an easy button so to speak,” says David Brain, chief digital officer at Sykes. “It’s often the process that needs to be corrected before delivering an automated solution. Our consultants actively listen to the problem a client is looking to solve, determine what improvements are needed across people, process, then technology, and ultimately deliver a tailored solution that enables efficient value realization.”

While technical aptitude is important, it should be accompanied by an ability to apply logic to automation tools so that they best solve business problems.

For many tools, successful deployment requires configuration rather than development, Brain says. “Where the tool requires mainly configuration, we are looking for someone with excellent logical skills,” he says. “Often this means we will look for math or physics majors rather than computer science, coupled with the softer personal skills such as communication and empathy.”

This ensures that “we can engage effectively with the business users to understand their challenges and help to solve their problems,” Brain says.

Sykes has deployed RPA and AI tools to help automate processes such as talent acquisition, quality management, back-office functions, forecasting of work, and scheduling of agents.

A strong desire to make improvements

This might sound like a general trait that all professionals should possess, but plenty of people are happy keeping things the way they are because change can be difficult. Those who work on automation projects should be committed to the idea that if current methods and processes are not working well, they need to be enhanced.

Marc Johnson, senior advisor and virtual CIO, Impact Advisors Impact Advisors

Marc Johnson, senior advisor and virtual CIO, Impact Advisors

“​Team members need to be relentless in the pursuit of continuous improvement,” says Marc Johnson, a senior advisor and virtual CIO at healthcare consulting firm Impact Advisors. “Business as usual needs to be questioned at all turns. Just because it has been that way for years or decades, it should always be questioned as to whether the process is best for the efficiency and compliance of the organization.”

Individual divisions or business units too often operate in a vacuum and become fixated on what has always been, Johnson says. People who can shake things up and find new and better ways to do things make good members of an automation team because they help keep the focus on changing things for the better. And they can spread this concept to others in the organization.

“Team members who create consensus among multiple entities on priorities and critical functions provide the greatest return for the business,” Johnson says.

Knowledge of the business

If automation projects are to help organizations meet their goals, members of the automation team need to have a solid understanding of the business and its goals. Team members might be well versed in the tools that enable automation, but if they don’t understand how the technology fits with end goals, that could render the technology less effective.

“It’s important staff understands the current business flow and [can] identify areas where new technologies can be implemented,” New Jersey–Judiciary’s McCarthy says. “A core skill for the success of RPA projects has been experience working with business to elicit process details and document them.”

Teams at New Jersey–Judiciary use techniques such as brainstorming, analyzing current processes, focus groups, future state analyses, and interviewing subject matter experts to gain an understanding of the specific needs of users to help determine the technical requirements.

In line with understanding the business is being aware of what the company’s end users or customers want in terms of process improvements.

“An elite automation team needs to be customer service oriented and focus on outcomes,” Babic says. “They not only need to have the ability to understand the outcome, but to help their customer define that outcome. Automation for the sake of automation is not an outcome.”

Oftentimes organizations make the mistake of not understanding what results they are ultimately seeking with automation, Babic says. “The team also needs to have good business analyst skills, so that they can fully understand the entire process that they’re automating, from beginning to end,” he says.