Almost anything can seem like a smart strategy in retrospect if you have enough patience, perseverance, luck and time.
This is how some successful business and IT approaches are born – a combination of trial and error and ever-changing circumstances ultimately leads to a purposeful and sustainable plan. Many hybrid cloud architectures were born “by chance”, for example: an IT initiative here, a business acquisition there and SaaS apps, well, everywhere, and now you are “hybrid”. Strategy comes after the fact, once stakeholders realize the potential benefits.
Automation commonly follows a similar pattern. Automate a unit test or security scan here, an Accounts Receivable process or HR onboarding modules there, and it looks like you’re about to become a well-oiled, highly automated machine.
This is part of the appeal. In reality it is not necessary to “automate all things”, as the expression goes. You can automate some of the stuff and do it piece by piece.
An incremental automation approach, enabled by the likes of Bash, is fantastic. In itself, however, it is not a strategy.
“One of the benefits of automation is that it can be incremental,” says Red Hat technology advocate Gordon Haff. “This is automation through the lens of traditional system administrators and in many cases even site reliability engineers. Do something manually more than once and automate it so you never have to do it again.
This incremental approach, enabled by the likes of Bash and other programming languages compatible with automation, RPA tools, and other technologies, is fantastic. In itself, however, it does not constitute a plan. IT leaders can create a strategic framework that enables and encourages incremental automation, while ensuring that the team spends time and resources in areas that align with broader goals.
[ Is your automation strategy losing momentum? Read Why automation progress stalls: 3 hidden culture challenges. ]
“Automation can also be more strategic,” says Haff. “This means asking, in the words of Dinesh Nirmal, general manager of IBM Automation (speaking at The Economist, Innovation @ Work US virtual event this October), where can you ‘free up employees to focus on strategic priorities?'”
How solid is your automation strategy? 5 questions to ask
Smart strategies, especially when they overlap with work already done, which is applicable to automation in many organizations, often start with the right questions. Here are five IT leaders they should ask to make sure they’re making the right future bets with their automation strategy.
1. How does this relate to our overall goals?
The first question is more logical, but often overlooked if your automation has been a one-off series up to this point in your organization.
“While there are many questions a CIO will need to have along the way when deciding their automation strategy, the most important question they should ask themselves is: ‘How will automation help my organization achieve business results? do we need to get where we want in 4-5 years? ‘”says Becky Trevino, VP of Snow Software operations.
Consider a broad goal (which you can replace with your own specific goals) to “increase innovation”. Essentially, all of your incremental automation work, from adopting new technologies to changing processes to hiring and more, should ask you, “Does this help us drive innovation?” (Again, replace “increase in innovation” with any specific goal and the same principle applies.)
“If the answer is yes, automation is great for business,” says Trevino.
If the answer is “no” or “we’re not sure”, then you have more due diligence ahead. Trevino warns against the magician’s approach: the success of automation depends on a well-coordinated effort, not on smoke and mirrors.
For example, if you want to increase innovation by freeing people from senseless tasks to allow them to focus on more important jobs, there needs to be a visible plan on how to achieve it. (“Automate it” isn’t actually a plan.)
“Teams implementing automation need to know that enabling innovation is the main business achievement,” says Trevino. “Automation is the technology they use to make this happen and they need a plan for people and processes to ensure they actually achieve the result of moving people from lower-value to higher-value work.”
[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ]
2. What causes frustration and headaches in people today?
The incremental approach to automation described above by Haff is often a matter of people solving their own problems – this task takes up too much of my time or is otherwise aggravating – let’s automate it so that I can work on other things.
The same principle can guide higher-level thinking about automation priorities. How can automation reduce the fatigue in people’s work, possibly reducing the margin for error and other benefits in the process?
“CIOs should look for the areas that cause frustration or distress among their employees,” says Puneet Mehta, founder and CEO of Netomi. “Eliminating them will have a positive impact on the culture.”
This approach applies not only within IT, but across all business units. Find activities and processes that are repetitive, inefficient, and sometimes even painful.
“For example, when customer data needs to be updated across multiple systems, automating this process can ensure that it not only runs smoothly and consistently, but is completed instantly,” Mehta says. “It’s this kind of mundane job that can make humans feel like robots and lead to burnout and turnover. When humans are empowered to focus on higher level activities, employee satisfaction is seen to increase. “
3. How will the team react to this?
Don’t assume that everyone will embrace automation with open arms, even if you’re following the advice of # 2. Job safety concerns are a major reason, but there are other cultural challenges as well.
“The best automation approaches make existing employees feel like they’ve been given superpower.”
When evaluating automation decisions, consider how the results are likely to be received by the team. You don’t need to be a management expert to discern that you want people to embrace automation; if you have to force changes to the power supply, this is a red flag.
“If automation simply replaces one boring process with another, it is likely to fail,” says Waleed Kadous, chief engineering officer at Anyscale. “If you need a mandate to secure adoption, you’ve probably done something wrong, especially at this early stage and if this is one of the first automations your business undertakes.”
It is not possible to perfectly predict how new processes or changes will be implemented. But you can certainly solicit input and feedback from the team as you develop your strategy. If your answer to the previous question is “I don’t know”, it’s no better than “they’ll hate it”.
“The best automation approaches make existing employees feel like they’ve been given superpower,” says Kadous. “I’m like, ‘Wow! I can do so many cool things now! ‘ You can then rely on word of mouth to spread usage. If it spreads organically, that’s a good sign. “
4. How will we measure the success of automation?
It’s a good question for any strategy; It’s especially helpful if you anticipate initial resistance from within IT or other departments, even among fellow C Suite leaders.
“It’s important to choose automation projects that have measurable benefits, especially in the beginning,” says Kadous. “As the CIO driving automation within your organization for both executives and employees, you need to build a successful portfolio.”
Measurement is often overlooked in the early stages of an automation initiative. It’s likely a byproduct of the incremental or one-off approach to automation, where “measurement” could simply mean: Did this solve my problem?
[ Also read: DevSecOps: 11 questions to ask about your security strategy now. ]
Measuring the benefits of automation doesn’t have to get much more sophisticated than that.
“It doesn’t have to be super fancy: a little bit of instrumentation and a few ‘ethnographic’ studios – sitting next to people and recording what they do – go a long way,” says Kadous.
Time saved is a good metric to prioritize at the start of your strategy: How many people don’t like receiving more of our smallest asset?
“The math is simple: calculate how long it took before, count how often it happens, measure the new approach, and you can measure productivity gains very quickly,” says Kadous.
This has a twofold benefit: first, it makes it easy to convey the real benefits of automation and build trust. Two, it also gives you a natural order for your automation strategy – prioritize the work that will save you the most time.
“Eventually, there will be automation where ROI is harder to prove, but the organization will continue to follow suit based on the trust built from these past successes,” says Kadous.
5. How to not only automate, but also improve?
In the long run, strategic automation enables more ambitious goals, not simply by saving time or money on one or two thorny processes, but by automating complete workflows across an entire organization. The last question you ask is to imagine what it might look like for your business and more ideally look beyond upfront benefits such as time or budget savings.
“Where can automation solutions be used across organizations to implement workflows across technologies such as complex event processing?” says Haff. “Approached this way, automation really means making people more productive and efficient. Cost reduction is just a by-product. “
Automation without optimization tends to produce inefficient or undesirable results; if you automate an interrupted process, you are simply enabling faster and more frequent execution, similar to how unsecured DevOps could lead a team to ship vulnerable code more often.
“To get the most out of automation, it is important not to simply replicate the way the task was done by humans and do it with a machine, but to look to the ultimate goal and identify a faster and more efficient path,” says Mehta.
Mehta offers an unlikely comparison: the washing machine: the appliance did not just replicate and mechanize the axis.
Rather, “a new process was invented that leveraged technology to complete a task in a way that has never been possible before,” Mehta says. “The same approach must be done with the automation of business activities.”
[ Where is your team’s digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What’s slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]