Updated: May 1
At Lida Solutions, we’re all about automation. We love it. We live it. We think it’s one of the best things medium-to-large enterprises can do to propel their business forward. And it isn’t just us that thinks so. ITSM.Tools ran a survey of their readers in 2018 to find out the hottest trends and topics in IT Service Management, and guess what came out as the clear winner? That’s right, automation. ITSM.Tools said:
“There’s no doubt of its importance to ITSM and other business functions, with it playing a vital part in transforming business operations to meet the needs of digital transformation and the opportunities and challenges this transformation addresses.”
UPDATE: ITSM.Tools ran their survey again in 2019, and automation is still right up there, second only to ITIL 4.
So why are so many people so excited about automation, and why should you jump on the bandwagon with them (if you aren’t already there)? Let’s start with 3 reasons – you can deliver your services (1) better, (2) faster and (3) cheaper. No, really. Here’s how:
1. Quality – Doing it Better
The reality is, people make mistakes. Sometimes they misspell a name or order the wrong model laptop for you. Sometime they forget to convert into metric and bring down a $327M space probe. Whatever. While to err is human, the impact on our businesses of our mistakes adds up. Fixing them means extra time, extra cost and extra frustrated customers.
Well-designed and built automation reduces those extras to a minimum. Computers are pretty good at doing the same thing time and again and getting the correct results each time. When we automate, we end up with a reliable, repeatable process that gets our customers exactly what they asked for in the first place, every time.
2. Speed – Doing it Faster
Remember the Y2K Bug? Which, incidentally, is getting its own back on the scoffers 20 years later. It was fantastic for me, a youngish COBOL programmer working for a big insurance company. Night after night, week after week, month after month, dozens of us worked back late, getting paid handsome overtime to read through hundreds of thousands of lines of code on the lookout for a stray 2-digit year. It must have taken the best part of a year to finally come to the conclusion that our systems were actually pretty darn solid and we didn’t have too much to fear.
Can you imagine the time and effort that would have been saved if we’d been able to automate that effort? Back then, the technology severely limited what we could do, but today, would we approach it the same way? Really? Surely not! Maybe….
There can’t really be any argument. Automation lets us do a repeatable task much more quickly than a person can do it. Automation’s bedfellow, Artificial Intelligence, even extends that capability to tasks that are less repeatable (but we’ll talk more about AI another time).
Of course, we’re not often automating fixes to the Y2K bug. Our day to day tasks tend to be much smaller. But even then, there can be big time savings, for two reasons.
Computers are faster than people
Computers run 24×7 with no queues
Ask yourself. If you’re a manager and you have a new employee starting at 9am today and you forgot to put in the request to IT to create their access, what time would you expect them to be able to login (without calling in favours!). 3pm next Thursday? By the time it makes it to the top of the overloaded analyst’s queue, that probably wouldn’t be far off. But if we’re automated, with no queues…well, we should be good to go by about 9:05, right?
3. Cost – Doing it Cheaper
Sometimes people are put off doing automation because of the upfront expense. All those nifty tools and scripts and so on can't be cheap, right?
You might be surprised.
Lida’s experience is that most of our automation projects pay for themselves within months, rather than years. For example, we had one client who were finding that their Service Desk just couldn’t keep up with the volume of calls coming in. They were about two full-time-employees (FTEs) behind where they needed to be. After we’d done some analysis with them, we found that 7 of their 10 most common activities were related to Active Directory configuration – creating, updating, extending and deleting accounts. For the cost of less than half an FTE we were able to automate all of those activities and completely alleviate their workload issues. That’s a 3 month payback on the project. You can read more about it here if you're interested.
Now we admit that project was picking some pretty low-hanging fruit…but don’t we all have some of that?
OK, so we can do it better, faster and cheaper with automation. But is that all you’ve got? Well…no.
4. Enforcing Consistent Processes
With a bit of effort, it’s possible to get your IT staff to all do a simple task the same way every time. All you need to do is carefully document the steps, train your staff, periodically retrain them to make sure they haven’t fallen into bad habits, review their work from time to time to make sure errors or laziness haven’t slipped in and train up new staff when they start. Possible. But not simple.
And that’s for a simple task. But what about more complex processes? Take ordering a new laptop as an example. Maybe it first has to go to the customer’s line manager for approval, then to the department manager but only if they’ve ordered a high spec laptop, then it goes to procurement to purchase it, desktop to build it and the local IT team to deliver it. Here are some of the challenges:
How do you ensure that the correct process is being followed every time? That Mike’s view of the process is the same as Kate’s view of the process, and that both are following it.
How do you audit it to make sure approvals haven’t been missed, or been provided by the wrong person?
How do you ensure the customer is being regularly updated with consistent communications?
How do you roll out a change to the process and ensure the new process is actually being followed?
If Mike is the one co-ordinating a request, how can you ensure Kate can pick it up without missing a beat when Mike is sick or goes on holidays?
And that’s just for ordering a new piece of equipment. How on earth do you manage a really complex process like new starter onboarding, where you are creating accounts, granting application access, setting up phones, providing equipment, engaging Facilities, ordering purchase cards and notifying payroll? Short answer is – you don’t. Not well, anyway.
But automation solves all of these problems. With an automated workflow, you can build rules to send the right approvals to the right person at the right time, and capture them in your tool via email, self-service portal or app. You can send automated tasks to provisioning teams when it is time for them to do their thing. You can send automated emails to the customer at predetermined points in the process, with consistent content. Kate can look at the workflow and see at a glance where the request is up to when Mike is away. And if the process changes, you just update the workflow and the new process is live.
When you start to multiply out all of the business processes in your organisation, automation really is your only option to be able to guarantee timely and consistent delivery of your services.
5. Creating Happy Customers
Better + faster + cheaper = happier
It’s a no-brainer, right? If your customers are getting services delivered quickly and cheaply in next to no time, what have they got left to be unhappy about? Unless your organisation is chock full of determined sourpusses, there has to be an uplift in customer satisfaction when you automate.
If I’m a customer and I can go to a self-service web page and request a piece of software, and have it installed automatically on my desktop within 5 minutes of asking, then I think I’m going to be a pretty happy customer.
6. Building a Happy Team
Now I’m not going to lie to you. When we start a new automation project we often get some pushback from staff. Usually it stems from the fear that if we automate the things they do, then they won’t be needed anymore and they’ll soon be looking for a new job. It’s a real and understandable fear.
However, our experience is that staff are rarely let go as a result of an automation project. What usually happens is that they are able to be redeployed away from the mundane drudgery of doing the exact same thing, time and again, day after day. They are given opportunities to perform activities of more strategic value to the organisation. And that usually makes for more satisfied employees.