close up of  an astronaut making repairs in  space
PHOTO: NASA

After years of hearing more vendor sales pitches than is healthy for me, I’m convinced most pitches fall into two "why" categories. The first "why" is a pitch so abstract and high-level that it sounds like the technology equivalent of achieving world peace, with nary a mention of the "how" to actually pursue this nirvana. The second "why" pitch focuses on the technology itself — replete with elaborate technology stack diagrams — with scarcely a mention of the actual business benefits that might be tied to the technology. Also missing is any substantial discussion of what actually happens to connect the layers of those beautiful stack diagrams — another key missing "how."

A parallel conversation goes on in complex, large-scale user organizations, but with such a focus on “how” that the future is drowned out. Practitioners hear the "why” imperative in the vendor pitches, but are caught in the quicksand of their legacy infrastructures. Information practitioners in the trenches understand “how” they are currently getting work done in their organizations — often with a complex set of Rube Goldberg-esque processes. But they are so caught up in the battle to keep the lights on amidst all of this complexity that all but the most exceptional of information practitioners lose sight of the forest for the trees — they lose the connection between the “how” and “why.”

Practical Dreamers and Innovative Realists: Connecting the 'How' and the 'Why'

A technology dream without a plan never becomes a reality. Likewise, a collection of technology tools unlinked to a vision inspires no one and changes nothing. The really impressive stories I’ve encountered over the years — the stories that changed not only an organization, but sometimes even the world — involved people with a unique combination of skills. Whether on the vendor side or the user side, I call these folks “Practical Dreamers.” Or if you are more of a Yin than a Yang, “Innovative Realists.” In either event, the combination is what's important.

Conversations with vendors about innovation illustrate why something needs to be done, but fall short of actually saying how to do it. Conversations with users become so mired in the nuances of day-to-day urgency within legacy infrastructures that we often forget to dream. Vendor case studies try to bridge this gap between aspirations and implementation, but fall short as effective roadmaps for users embarking on a technology journey — not to mention they are viewed as a bit self-serving by user organizations.

My friend Thornton May, futurist and co-founder of The Digital Value Institute, captured the innovation quandary facing many organizations this way: “In our contentious times, the ONE Thing that EVERYONE can agree upon is that EVERY Organization, EVERY Executive, EVERY Individual, and EVERY Object is on a digital journey. Sadly, most have no map, no guide and bad shoes.”

Reflecting back on my time in the association world, I wish associations did a better job identifying visionary leaders, helping them articulate and codify the roadmaps they followed, and getting them to share these roadmaps. Which is why I am always on the hunt for Practical Dreamers and Innovative Realists and the roadmaps they have used to drive success.

Related Article: Innovation Can Be Taught. And Measured

A Practical Roadmap to RPA Innovation

I recently came across both technology leaders and a practical roadmap in a place that might surprise those who think practical innovation inevitably arises in the private sector.

Consisting of over 1,000 members from over 65 federal agencies, the Robotic Process Automation Community of Practice (RPA CoP) helps federal agencies convert RPA enthusiasm into action. “The mission of the RPA CoP is to accelerate the adoption of RPA in the federal government. As such, the RPA CoP hopes to see more RPA programs emerge in government and for existing RPA programs to mature to deliver value across the federal government.”

This effort is exactly the right combination of vision and pragmatism when it comes to RPA, which is one of the most misunderstood and potentially valuable technology innovations of the past few years. It is a model I wish technology associations would replicate. I can’t do justice to this work in the space of this column, so let me just point you to two of the community’s core content offerings: The RPA Program Playbook published January 2020 and a follow-on progress report, The State of Federal RPA published November 2020, and explain why I think the community's model is so powerful.

The RPA Program Playbook starts with a key premise missing from just about every publication I’ve read about any innovative technology — Caution: Starting Positions Vary. This awareness is so critical in every technology deployment, and yet is overlooked or just assumed. For example, the countless articles about machine learning all seem to assume that every organization starts with all of its data and information in a machine-comprehensible format, when the reality is that starting positions vary. And that means results will as well.

Crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. The core of the Playbook is a maturity model that allows organizations to identify where they are so they can choose appropriate strategies and tactics for their stage of maturity. It then follows this model through four core RPA technology areas: 1) technology infrastructure, 2) security, 3) credentialing and 4) privacy — and six key measures of RPA maturity — 1) operating model, 2) RPA program design, 3) management reporting, 4) HR impacts, 5) process improvements and 6) operations management.

The RPA Program Playbook
PHOTO: The RPA Program Playbook

The State of Federal RPA then pursues a challenging follow-up task to the playbook: How well do 23 federal agencies measure up against this maturity model? The Federal RPA CoP conducted detailed maturity assessments with 23 government RPA programs, assessing eight areas of program maturity: 1) automations in production, 2) annualized hours of workload reduction, 3) process improvement capabilities, 4) program impact, 5) opportunity identification, 6) production environment, 7) security and technology approach and 8) intelligent automation capabilities.

And for the piece de la resistance, the report provided case studies of five high-performing Level Four programs — and listed them specifically by name, not with the usual anonymous "a large government agency in some country, somewhere" labelling that we’ve grown accustomed to in vendor case studies.

Related Article: The Elephant in the Digital Transformation Room: The Long Tail of Legacy Tech

Do You Know Your Practical Dreamers?

I wish I had written these reports. Download the reports and take a look and see if you agree.

Now think beyond RPA and the federal government. Think about the broader question of how innovative technologies become real. Think about how well you align business strategy and information strategy. Lastly, find the practical dreamers and innovative realists are in your organization. And cozy up to them, because the path to the future is hidden in their roadmaps.