The finance organization at Applied Materials—the world’s largest semiconductor and display equipment company—had a difficult task in front of them. The business was growing rapidly, and the finance organization not only needed to keep pace, it needed to provide increased business partner and analytics support to the business. One problem: they had to keep up without any material increases in finance resources.
At the recent Reboot Work Festival, Applied Material’s Junaid Ahmed, Corporate Vice President (VP) of Finance, and Ted Hanson, VP of IT, explained how they’d approached solving this problem.
Their solution: they needed automation, and they needed it fast. Many organizations might approach this problem tepidly, introducing new technologies and processes piecemeal and at a glacial pace. Not Applied Materials, as they saw large-scale, rapid robotic process automation (RPA) as a means to create much needed additional finance organization bandwidth in a short period of time. This approach enabled finance to envision (from the start) a holistic view of the impact automation could have on the business and to develop a strategy and roadmap to achieve that vision. A key to getting to scale and sustainability with automation would be strong alignment between business and IT from the very beginning.
Applied Materials achieved automation success at a scale and at a speed most companies would envy, because they went all in from day one.
Applied Materials understood the importance of up-front business and IT alignment, and had deployed this as a best practice through earlier Agile finance transformation projects which were completed prior to initiating the automation program. This included aligning strong chief financial officer (CFO) and chief information officer (CIO) and respective leadership teams or the effort, and that proved instrumental.
Building on their previous experience, Applied Materials formed a cross-functional team from finance and IT. Ahmed and Hanson emphasized that alignment was—and needed to be—there from the start. The small team assembled from finance and IT took the time to focus first on researching RPA technology and assessing the capabilities of the leading RPA vendors. Then, they performed their own field research through reference calls with other finance organizations to study the viability and effectiveness of RPA.
Business-IT alignment can be hard to achieve, and at times even harder to maintain. Junaid focused on three things his team did to maintain alignment:
They invited IT in early so that everyone could understand the business goals and strategy needs. In particular, they brought in IT leaders who had knowledge and influence across IT.
They recognized out of the gate that there would be RPA related knowledge gaps, especially regarding IT infrastructure, security, and other processes that spanned IT and finance. They made sure they knew “what they didn’t know” and then worked to fill these critical knowledge gaps through implementation partners and the RPA platform vendor.
Internally, they started from a strong base between finance and IT by bringing in the right related experience set onto the Automation Program team to help facilitate the RPA implementation.
This level of business-IT alignment cascaded throughout the organizations. With these three tactics, they got extensive alignment across the IT organization. This included the infrastructure team, application team, identity management team, information security team, internal audit organization, legal department, and the IT service provider ecosystem.
Sustainability was a north star for the finance and IT teams since they started planning. They found, counter to what some traditional companies might assume, that the best path to sustainability was through early scale. They accelerated their timeline and aimed to create significant amounts of new capacity. Moving big and fast required both the finance and the IT teams to take a step back and think about what impact they really wanted to have with RPA. This gave them the perspective they needed to set a foundation for stability and sustainability.
The roots of this project were in the finance organization’s need to create a lot of capacity fast. Without scale, the investment of time and money simply wouldn’t be worth it.
Ahmed found that their focus on scale forced them to think carefully about the automation solutions available to them. Because they knew the impact would be large, they didn’t pick the first solution they saw. Instead, they surveyed the landscape and picked the most suitable. In particular, they recommended that other organizations be diligent not just about the automation platform but also about the customer support infrastructure and partner ecosystem. And regarding picking an implementation partner, Ahmed emphasized experience above all else. According to him, you want someone who’s “been there, done that.”
The big-picture perspective helped the IT side too. Hanson explained that going big and going fast required IT take a holistic point of view about the required automation infrastructure, development and support processes, controls, scaling, and performance.
IT’s experience told them that a narrow perspective out of the gate could result in multiple iterative cycles of incremental infrastructure and process change churn as more applications and processes were brought into the RPA fold. A narrow plan that focused only on SAP, for example, might miss key foundational considerations that would need to be taken into account for other applications like email and Microsoft SharePoint. A larger view, however, provided tactical and strategic success.
Organizations implementing automation often face what seems like a clearly defined choice: standardize your business processes and then automate, or automate as is. Applied Materials found a third way.
Applied Materials chose to standardize through automation. Standardizing processes in large businesses is hard because it’s complex and time consuming. No one really has the time to get it done—even if it’s important, and even if people signal they want it.
Applied Materials started by gathering all the stakeholders relevant to a specific use case. They told the stakeholders that they’d automate their processes as is and also told them this was their chance to look at standardization opportunities. They offered automation as a reward. Instead of three automations for three teams, for instance, they motivated the stakeholders to standardize. If they standardized, those three teams could have automation faster because it would only take one automation for the three now-standardized processes.
Ahmed emphasized how important it was to prioritize speed. Standardization is helpful, but it’s a big risk to make standardization a prerequisite to automation. Erecting that barricade can make execution hard and can slow down the all-important momentum RPA projects need to succeed.
Proposing RPA and deploying your first software robots are times when your organization is likely to be most excited about RPA. The challenge is to sustain and accelerate momentum after that early excitement. Applied Materials found that the best way to push momentum was to put tangible benefits in front of influential stakeholders.
Related read: How to Evangelize RPA Within Your Organization
Applied Materials followed a fundamental principle: when people see benefits, they want to participate. As such, they put a special emphasis on initially selecting high-value use cases that would provide substantial benefits. The company knew that their early use cases would set the tone for the rest of the automation program.
These early high-value use cases had the intended results. The RPA team put processes in place to gather data and produce metrics and dashboards that tracked the number of transactions automated and the hours saved. These metrics provided proof points for the value that RPA was providing. The proof points, in turn, created more pull for automation within the finance organization, as well as strong interest from other organizations within Applied Materials.
The importance of business-IT alignment cannot be overstated. Applied Materials had the seemingly impossible goal to do more with less, but because of their approach to automation, they succeeded.
The lessons here are worth remembering precisely because they’re not obvious. Traditional organizations might approach carefully and slowly. The prospect of becoming a fully automated enterprise™, however, requires more ambition. For Applied Materials, that meant moving fast, scaling big, and prioritizing sustainability.
At the Reboot Work Festival, we heard from many more ambitious customers and partners. If you missed it, make sure you still access the recordings (once registered for access, you'll find Applied Materials' recorded session in the Big Tent on the virtual festival grounds).