Automation is a key element of digital transformation, a paradigm shift that many IT teams are undergoing. Automation — the tools and practices used to programmatically execute tasks, batch processes and workflows — isn't new, though. It has slowly transformed the way we do business over the last 50 years.
The Potential of Automation
Many organisations have relied on automation to stay afloat during the Covid-19 crisis. Banks used it to accelerate loan processing for millions of loans to affected businesses. Airlines used it to manage an increase in flight cancellations. Retailers converted from brick-and-mortar to all-online establishments processing orders via automated systems instead of humans. Offices went remote overnight, converting human-to-human activities into digital experiences.
Though many CIOs already had automation in their long-term road maps, PwC reports that almost half of surveyed IT executives plan to fast-track automation plans because of Covid-19.
The pandemic has revealed we can no longer rely on fragmented environments and static infrastructure. With the pressure on to accelerate innovation and growth, automation has the potential to integrate and automate cross-silo workflows to instantly adapt to dynamic conditions. Other benefits include:
• Inside of IT: Automating tasks and workflows (virtual server deployments, patch management, release management and change management) reduces costs and frees teams to focus on initiatives such as innovation or digital transformation. IT teams can increase the speed of task completion, decrease human error, and deliver better performance by automating resource-intensive workflows, security protocols and maintenance activities.
• Outside of IT: Self-service functions and predictive technologies provide customers with newer, faster pathways to purchase and access support. Employees unburdened from manual and siloed processes have more time to spend with customers, engage in strategic planning and focus on product or service innovations. However, these enhancements must strike the right balance of automation and the human touch.
The Road To Automation
Despite the windfall of benefits, automation isn't a project to approach lightly. You could waste a lot of time and money without a solid strategy. Ernst & Young reports that up to half of automation projects fail. In my opinion, unrealistic expectations are the source of these failures. A lack of process understanding combined with not knowing where to start dooms many automation projects before they even start.
Seeing the potential value of automation, stakeholders push for big projects focused on an organisation's most complex processes without envisioning the path through design, build and delivery. Ideally, you want to start small and expand slowly. Automation isn't a one-and-done project — it requires patience. Achieving clear and improved efficiencies takes time.
At the adoption level, people see automation as a threat. "Automation anxiety" refers to perceiving automation as a job killer as opposed to a way to revolutionise the workplace. Along with tool and process changes, it's vital that an automation program addresses that fear to drive organisational buy-in and adoption.
When evaluating the scope and feasibility of an automation project, I would suggest focusing on three key areas:
1. Level of complexity: How difficult will it be to automate the task or workflow? Are there critical dependencies to consider?
2. Productivity impact: How much measurable savings in time and/or resources can be achieved? Do we have the right skill sets and tools?
3. Business impact: Does it support wider business goals (customer experience, revenue generation, innovation leadership)? Do we have stakeholder buy-in and budget?
The Heart Of Automation
"Automate or die" is the new mandate. CIOs and IT managers must undergo a paradigm shift to meet this mandate and fundamentally transform IT tools, processes and skillsets. My biggest piece of advice? Don't forget the heart of automation — people.