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Automation 101: An Essential Tool For CIOs And IT Teams

Steven Salaets
4 min read

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com; it has been modified for this space.

Automation is a key element of digital transformation, a paradigm shift that many IT teams are undergoing. This shift could replace nearly 70% of manual, repetitive tasks, according to the Brookings Institute. 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.

Like many CIOs, I’m working toward integrating automation to deliver better business outcomes.

The Potential Of Automation

Many organizations 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 organization’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 revolutionize the workplace. Along with tool and process changes, it’s vital that an automation program addresses that fear to drive organizational buy-in and adoption.

I’ve led my own organization into automation and have seen its impact firsthand. Starting with a business-focused approach and small, meaningful projects, we’ve been able to:

  • Reduce workload processing to onboard new clients from eight hours to 30 minutes per cloud using AWS Builds with Cloud Formation.
  • Complete a task that should have taken three FTEs a year to complete utilizing scripts to upgrade 7,500 virtual Windows 10 machines in two months.
  • Give project managers more time to focus on managing projects instead of crunching reports by linking SmartSheet data to support project tracking and reporting, eliminate manual intervention and create a single source of truth.

I use ITIL to map processes and then focus on the low hanging fruit. Automate the easy stuff first — whether it’s a single task in a process or an entire workflow. Using an Agile framework, you can take a process that involves 10 tasks and automate it one task at a time while creating quick wins and sustaining momentum.

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 skill sets. My biggest piece of advice? Don’t forget the heart of automation — people.

In the drive to go fast and linear, organizations risk losing sight of the power of the human element. Automation should enhance the workplace, not replace workers or the essential part of what makes a business human. As technology continues to level the playing field, an organization’s ability to balance the impersonality of automation with the expectation of customized, personal experiences will separate the winners from the losers.

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Steven Salaets

CIO, CPO & Executive Vice President Global Security, Facilities, Quality and Internal Audit at Rimini StreetRead Steven Salaets’ full executive profile here.

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