The automation question

The business value of automation is one of the fundamental tenets of enterprise IT. Replacing ongoing staff cost with technology investment is an established route to cost reduction. And no corner of the business is more ripe for automation than the IT operation itself, where repetitive, manual processes can often be replaced with systems management software.

But how much can the enterprise IT department be automated, and what management challenges will arise as a result? It was these issues that delegates sought to address at Information Age’s recent executive roundtable, held in association with service management technology supplier IPsoft.

Tackling mistakes

There was complete consensus that automation can not only make IT processes more efficient, but also reduce the incidence of mistakes. “If you automate, you can make IT better from an error point of view,” remarked one delegate.
“About 80% of the problems we’ve had have happened to us before,” said another, the IT director of a global investment bank. “If we automate the known responses, we can allow people to focus on solving the new ones,” he added.

A senior operations officer at a high street insurer agreed, explaining that automation allows businesses to apply previously learned logic to new problems: “You’re not automating genius, but replicating the genius of the past.”

Clearly, though, automation presents its own challenges. Concerns were expressed over the question of whose responsibility it is when a highly automated system malfunctions – the IT department’s or the technology supplier’s?
“Nine out of ten times it will work seamlessly, but the first time it fails everyone is looking for a scapegoat,” remarked the business development director of a UK-based investment fund.

Attendees agreed that the standardisation of IT infrastructure is a necessary precursor to automation. “You must have a degree of standardisation at your core,” explained one IT director. But if systems have not already been standardised, deciding which systems to standardise and how is no simple task. The IT manager at a food products supplier lamented that there is “no rule of thumb” for hardware standardisation. It is also an endeavour that requires
significant investment, but it is not always easy to convey the benefits to the business. “Talk about the outcomes,” an IT project director at a notable UK university suggested. “Don’t talk about technology, but about how it will increase the quality of services.”

The question was raised of whether IT automation is an alternative to outsourcing. Rather than sourcing low-level processes from a third party, is it preferable for that work to be carried out automatically?

One attendee remarked that if a job of work is essential but automatable, then outsourcing it simply adds organisational complexity. “You can eliminate the unnecessary and try to automate the necessary”, they remarked, “so why would you use labour arbitrage on something that you could eliminate?”

That prompted a discussion about how those alternative approaches each impact on the role of the CIO. Delegates acknowledged that the widespread use of outsourcing made supplier management a key skill for the IT executive, though some added that it would not necessarily suit their skill set were it to become their sole responsibility.

Whether the IT executive should focus on managing suppliers or technology appeared to be a question that attendees – and the sector as a whole – are still pondering. “CIOs are struggling with the concept of how they can evolve their organisations,” asserted an enterprise architect from a well-known publishing house.

Peter Done

Peter Done is managing director of Peninsula Business Services, the personnel and employment law consultancy he set up having already built a successful betting shop business.

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