Automation needs leaders who know what the heck it is

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Understanding what automation is, not necessarily how it works, could be the spark your technology transformation (and your CEO) needs.

There exists a common misconception in business leadership circles that senior leaders such as CEOs and chairpeople don’t need to know about technology. They simply need to hire people who do and let them get on with it. The idea being that ship captains don’t need to know how the engine works to steer a crew across the sea.

There is some sense in this. Being able to empower people within an organisation by trusting their knowledge and skills is crucial to running a successful business. We often say it’s good to hire people who know more than the boss.

However, blind ignorance at leadership level isn’t a strategy that holds up under scrutiny. Especially so when it comes to running a business that needs updating; that needs to be brought into the 21st century using technology.

Leadership worst-case scenario

Hyper-automation is a term associated with the collective power of AI, ML and RPA. If you’re running a large organisation and you don’t know what hyper-automation is, that’s not in itself a knowledge crime. Trendy phrases come and go, and it’s difficult to keep up with them. You may even be forgiven for not knowing what RPA means, as it’s arguably a niche acronym that only people “in the business” might know about. But if you don’t know what AI is by now, you’ve been wearing blinkers for too long and should put the FT down, get from behind your desk and start talking to the people who run your organisation. Because it’s not you running it.

When you’re reminded what AI is (because surely you knew but just forgot for a moment), it will be expected that you forgot what ML is too. And the conversation will continue, with ML being thrown around willy-nilly until you return to your desk and Google it. Worse still, you may suffer from so much individual technical debt that you ask your secretary to look it up for you because you’ve no idea how to use the internet.

Empower by being empowered

Technical debt is contagious. If senior leadership suffers from it, it’s likely the whole workforce suffers too. Before you know it, the organisation has gone from one strategy to the next without due diligence around technology and how best to apply it. You’ve cut corners. Each new plan stalls because insufficient care was taken to think things through and consider every angle. This is something we see quite often in automation strategies.

Too often, automation isn’t implemented because the foundations on which it’s supposed to operate are shaky. They’re shaky because care wasn’t taken to modernise in manageable steps; to iterate and transform over time, piece by piece, tech by tech. There’s an inherent lack of understanding of how technical processes work at senior leadership level, which undermines how decisions are made, how budgets are managed, and how people are hired and used.

This is why it’s important to acknowledge that a CEO doesn’t necessarily need to know how hyper-automation works, but they should know what it implies. They should understand the outcomes. Being able to navigate safely across rough waters means understanding what each of the crew brings to the journey. It’s the CEO’s responsibility to educate an organisation on the benefits of intelligent automation, and they can only do this if they have an understanding of it.

Being complacent about technology by leaving it to other people renders leadership redundant. It means you don’t know, nor understand how the organisation runs. You’re not at the coalface of seeing processes in action and determining their future. It’s hard to trust in your decisions.

The opposite is being knowledgeable enough to make informed decisions about how to implement change, so that the plans you put in place are robust, backed by wisdom, and fit for the 21st century.

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