In Douglas Adams’ beloved novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a galactic supercomputer is tasked by its masters with answering the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The supercomputer spends a few million years deep in compute, until one day, it finally finds the answer. No major spoilers ahead, but here’s the catch: The supercomputer comes up with an answer that’s rather absurd and inscrutable to its masters — until, that is, the machine informs them that, while it had indeed calculated the answer correctly, nobody (including the computer itself) really knew what the question was!

Process automation has enjoyed a golden age in the enterprise. Automation initiatives come in all flavors, from the tactical to the transformational. So does their leadership. Automation leaders have emerged spontaneously from a variety of archetypes. I have seen them come from enterprise IT, business IT, operations, shared services, finance, or even digital. Each of these archetypes has brought a distinct set of competencies, priorities, and shortcomings to the table. These leaders have been fabulous at building scaled tactical robotic process automation or intelligent automation programs. They often struggle, however, to transcend their technical or operational focus and deliver on the truly transformative promise of automation. Even as the pandemic elevated automation into a boardroom conversation, automation leadership barely evolved focus from the tactical to the transformational. A few years ago, I sat across the table from the CEO of a large global firm as he shook his head and muttered (with much exasperation but little conviction), “What we really need is a chief automation officer … that’s what we need!”

It was the right answer.

But what was the question?

The search for the right question has led to a broader exploration of the role of automation in today’s businesses. Automation represents the next phase of digital evolution; it is the new fabric for digital business. It can redefine your business model, enable new revenue streams, redesign your processes for rampant innovation, transform your workforce, and put your company on the path to becoming an autonomous enterprise. To compete effectively in the post-pandemic world, an enterprise must build its automation portfolio as a diverse, pervasive, and connected fabric across their operational value chains. Forrester has written about this here, here, and here. In this context, your enterprisewide automation fabric needs a new kind of steward. Yet much of the prevalent discourse around chief automation officers (CAOs) is either marked by a nonspecificity of purpose or comes across as just another attempt to force-fit a tactical remit into some vague justification for a new C-level role.

My latest report, Your Company Needs A Chief Automation Officer, is an attempt at eliciting the right questions. Distilled from dozens of interviews with senior automation leadership, this report:

  • Identifies five key considerations for companies looking to create strategic value by building an automation fabric.
  • Constructs a case for the role of the chief automation officer as distinct from other common automation leadership archetypes.
  • Defines the key skills, competencies, and psychology of this new leader.
  • Describes how the rest of the C-suite can enable this role in driving toward automation-fueled digital transformation.

Not every organization is ready to benefit from a chief automation officer. Those that are must search creatively for skill sets rather than for ready job descriptions. Here are the five skill sets to look for in a prospective hire:

  1. A transformational mindset. Look for a leader with a transformation-oriented background and mindset who can bring system thinking to the automation vision and connect the dots between strategy and execution.
  2. Product leadership. This leader should move your company away from piecemeal automation efforts. Instead, your CAO should support the continuous development of pervasive, reusable automation platforms with distinct development roadmaps.
  3. Process leadership. Process insights form the bedrock of the automation fabric. This leader should appreciate the criticality of process excellence as a foundational layer for automation success.
  4. Technology alignment. Let this leader not be boxed in by a subset of automation technologies. Your new CAO should innovate by applying new and emerging technologies in a best-fit manner to solve the trickiest automation problems.
  5. Storytelling. This leader must be your chief evangelist for automation-fueled transformation, combining political acumen with strong value orientation, communication skills, and change management skills.

You can read the entire report here. As always, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to reach out to me for an inquiry if you’d like to know more or share your feedback, experiences, questions, and comments.