Bob Violino
Contributing writer

What is a chief automation officer? And do you need one?

Mar 16, 2020
Build AutomationData Center AutomationIT Leadership

Companies are creating a new C-suite position, chief automation officer, to oversee RPA, indicating how important automation has become in the age of digital transformation.

gears automation robotics ai machine learning woman with binary code
Credit: bernie_photo / Getty Images

More than ever organizations are looking to automate their processes — with the goal of reducing the time it takes to complete tasks while at the same time decreasing the errors that can be so common with manual techniques.

Consider how quickly the market for tools such as robotic process automation (RPA) software, which performs functions such as data entry using bots, is growing.

Research firm Garner in a June 2019 report said the worldwide RPA software market grew 63 percent in 2018 to $846 million, making it the fastest-growing segment of the global enterprise software market. The firm estimated that RPA software revenue would reach $1.3 billion in 2019.

A good indicator of the rise in demand for and importance of automation is the emergence of the chief automation officer (CAO). Just the fact that companies are creating a C-suite position to oversee these efforts shows how important automation has become in the age of the digital business.

Typically, areas such as IT automation have been overseen by CIOs and other senior IT executives, and at many organizations that continues to be the case. But automation has become such a strategic imperative at organizations that it is warranting a separate role for oversight — the CAO.

These executives are charged with overseeing the deployment and ongoing management and maintenance of IT process automation, enabling CIOs and other IT executives to focus on the development and implementation of new technology strategies to support the business.

The projects CAOs manage can vary depending on their industry and their organizations’ level of complexity, said Jeremy Gilliland, CAO at IT consulting firm Jolt Advantage Group. They can include anything from basic application development and robotics to the more advanced natural language processing (NLP)/chatbot technologies, and machine learning.

“With fruitful benefits discovered in [technologies] like blockchain and RPA, responsibilities went from what’s fake and what’s not to how fast and at what scale,” Gilliland said. CAOs need to have a handle on the latest trends and be quick enough to react, but also be measured enough to quickly assess value with minimal risk, he says.

As newer technologies become IT staples, it’s more a matter of how quickly the CAO can train and retain the next wave of talent needed to support these emerging tools, Gilliland said.

Growing impact of AI

Among the biggest focal points of automation and CAOs today is artificial intelligence (AI), which along with machine learning is helping enterprises automate and improve all kinds of processes.

“Every business needs to have an AI and automation strategy to enable digital transformation and prepare it for the future,” said Max Cheprasov, CAO at Dentsu Aegis Network, a multinational media and digital marketing communications company. “The role of the CAO will continue to evolve as AI and intelligent automation continue to become exponentially more sophisticated.”

It is likely unrealistic for anyone in existing C-suite roles, including the CIO, to take on all of the automation responsibilities in addition to their current job demands. “It needs to be someone’s sole mission,” Cheprasov said.

When Cheprasov’s team spots an opportunity to improve the way work is being achieved, “we apply various automation techniques to reduce or completely eliminate boring, repetitive, manual steps from workflows by optimizing the process as much as possible and then accelerating the rest using integrated, cognitive automation platforms,” he said.

For example, Dentsu Aegis Network has used technology from Catalytic to automate its digital media actualization and request for proposals (RFP) processes. These were previously manual processes and are now almost completely handled by a new digital workforce.

As a CAO, Cheprasov has experienced a shift in focus over the past three years. Initially, his was the only voice within the organization promoting the benefits of AI-powered automation to ignite a global automation movement at Dentsu Aegis Network, where every employee is now encouraged to think automation-first.

As companies continue to go through successful digital transformation initiatives and the automation industry matures, more and more CEOs will realize the urgency and the undisputable benefits of AI-powered automation, Cheprasov said.

“I see a major shift happening in 2020, where many businesses that have been waiting and watching on the sidelines will feel more comfortable with the adoption of new technologies,” Cheprasov said. “And the overall industry will move from innovators and early adopters to an early majority, if you think about it in the context of Rogers’ innovation adoption curve.”

The innovation adoption curve is a model that classifies adopters of innovations into various categories, based on the concept that certain individuals are inevitably more open to adaptation than others.

“Along with that shift, the role of a CAO will continue to evolve and change as the technologies they work with, like AI, become more sophisticated,” Cheprasov said. “A CAO’s exact role will differ based on a company’s specific needs and where the company is on the automation adoption curve.”

Skills needed to be a CAO

How can someone prepare to become a CAO? A strong background in technology and operational excellence (for example business process management, Lean, SixSigma) is the best mix of skills — combined with the business or process domain knowledge, Cheprasov said.

“Often, the most successful CAOs are the ones who are the most passionate about driving organizational change,” Cheprasov said. “Those with a background in digital transformation and innovation have the skills that transfer well to the CAO role.”

Driving change and seeking new ways to innovate business processes is a key component of the CAO function, Cheprasov said. “I was a champion for automation and process efficiency in my organization, essentially developing the CAO role for myself and defining how it would work best at Dentsu Aegis Network,” he said.

Anyone looking to aspire to the position of CAO needs to demonstrate expertise in, or at least solid knowledge of, several areas related to automation, Gilliland said. “You should have some discipline you’re an expert at, and you should stay educated in four to five additional technologies.”

The ability to effectively collaborate with others is also important for success in this role. As a CAO “you will be expected to demonstrate value with the stakeholders’ money,” Gilliland said. “From my experience ‘value’ has a billion meanings. Collaborate with your team. Ask for feedback. Identify what value is with each one. And generate a feedback loop that works.”

Who the CAO reports to within a company also varies depending on a number of factors including the structure of the organization.

Cheprasov said he is often asked who in the C-suite he reports to and whether that makes a difference. Over time, he has reported to the CEO, COO and CTO, sometimes with a dual reporting line.

“While the organization chart in the C-suite may change from time to time, my team’s focus and objectives have remained unchanged,” Cheprasov said. “Our ultimate goal is to stitch together operational excellence, AI and automation by closely working together with all of the business functions, regardless of reporting lines.”

Gilliland says he reports to the CEO at his firm. But he’s aware of automation officers at technology companies who report to CTOs or even the board of directors on an equal footing with the CEO.

Automation outlook for the future

Looking ahead, it’s likely the CAO role or a similar high-level position will become increasingly important to the success of companies, especially those focused on digital transformation.

Appointing an expert who can navigate across the business and holistically weave AI and automation into every corner of the enterprise is necessary to remain competitive, Cheprasov said.

Every business needs to think about evolving the role of the COO or chief digital officer (CDO) to expand its area of focus to include AI and automation. “Or, if you are a complex organization or don’t want to rock the C-suite boat too much, hire a CAO,” Cheprasov says.

Taking on the role of CAO means a lot of work, but it can also bring lots of fulfillment in large part because of the possible contributions to the success of the organization.

The most exciting part about being a CAO for Cheprasov is that he gets to experiment with the latest, cutting-edge technologies and create AI-powered automation tools for the business and its clients.

“There is no blueprint for innovative solutions,” Cheprasov said. As the trailblazer of cognitive automation in an organization, a CAO often needs to use the power of persuasion and storytelling to get new projects off the ground, he says. And that must be followed by swift, successful execution and demonstration of sustainable, scalable impact.

Gilliland gravitated toward becoming a CAO “not because I had to but because I absolutely love what I do and I’m bored senseless doing anything else,” he said. “If you really want to be a CAO, make a plan to get there, work harder than you ever have in your entire life, and go get the skills to be successful in the role.”