IT organizations will never be given the dollars or headcount required to adequately maintain legacy operations, implement new technologies, and satisfy the expanding demands of their customers. Automation practices need to be conceived and implemented as broadly as possible to reduce repetitive work, eliminate human errors, accelerate response times, improve IT staff productivity, and reduce IT friction throughout every modern enterprise.
A wide variety of automation opportunities exist within every IT group. Experience has shown that automation innovation can produce material benefits when focused on one or more of the following target areas:
Systems reliability & management. IT systems -- whether they are cloud-based, on premises, or deployed on laptops and smartphones -- need to be monitored and upgraded on a continuous basis. Management software has become extremely sophisticated. Properly configured it can initiate remedial actions in response to service disruptions or degradations with little or no human intervention. It can automatically expand or redistribute computing resources to maintain system response times. It can even diagnose and rank the probable causes of service incidents to assist human administrators in developing their service recovery action plans.
Service quality. It’s sad but true that employees in most large enterprises have very mixed feelings about the support they receive from IT. In many instances, IT’s response to a request or incident report is not resolved to the satisfaction of an end user. Responses are frequently considered to be technically inadequate or too late to be of real value. Workflow automation tools employing machine learning technology are becoming increasingly adept at responding to end user support needs efficiently and effectively. Some tools currently on the market are able to resolve 50% or more of the support tickets that have conventionally been submitted to IT service desks with no human intervention.
IT staff productivity. IT staff members get pulled in multiple directions every day of the week. They’re asked to respond to production support issues, perform sustaining engineering activities recommended by hardware and software vendors, implement minor enhancements to procedures or systems demanded by end users, and contribute their time and expertise to major projects. Conflicting demands and priorities are the root cause of many of the service quality issues referenced above. Work management tools employing Kanban boards automatically reprioritize daily tasks and activities to ensure that individual staff members are working on the right things at the right times in ways that don’t compromise the downstream delivery schedules or work priorities of their IT co-workers. Agile practices and Jira boards that are commonly used to manage work priorities within software development teams have also been widely deployed across many other IT functions. Agile sprints of two or three weeks have proven to be effective in maximizing the productivity of infrastructure management, SaaS support, and data warehousing teams.
Security. Most enterprises have deployed an extensive suite of security safeguards within their business applications, networks, and endpoints. These safeguards generate a continual stream of events and alerts that need to be classified, triaged, and, in some cases, acted upon. It’s no secret that most security teams are overwhelmed by the frequency of false positive events reported by security tools and that they continually struggle to tune such tools to reduce false positive events. When a remedial response is required (i.e. a threat is real or an infiltration or breach is in progress), action must be taken as quickly as possible, preferably in an automated fashion. Security Orchestration Automation and Response (SOAR) tools were developed to directly address the need for immediate automated action in response to anomalous security events. Many Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) platforms provide similar capabilities.
Contrary to popular perception, automation benefits are not solely measured in terms of time and cost savings. The benefits of systems management automation may be expressed in terms of conventional SLAs regarding system uptime or response time. Service quality benefits may be measured in terms of request and incident response times, the frequency of recurring incidents, or end user sentiment analysis.
Employee engagement scores may be one of the most effective measures of automation benefits within teams of knowledge workers. Automation enables IT staff members to spend less time on repetitive tasks and more time on activities that are inherently more challenging and impactful. Challenging work assignments typically result in higher levels of employee engagement and are powerful employee retention mechanisms as well.
Measuring the benefits of security automation is difficult. Some organizations choose to measure benefits in terms of the nature and extent of the systems that are covered by automated monitoring and remediation tools. Others choose to measure the frequency of anomalous events detected and resolved by automation tools. The first is a coverage metric. The second is an efficacy metric. Both metrics are important in gauging the risk reduction achieved through automated security procedures.
Automation as the First Resort
Human beings in general, and IT managers in particular, seem to have a genetic response to expanding workloads that exceed the capacities of their existing teams. Their instinctive reaction to such situations is to immediately request additional headcount. This remedy is colloquially known as “throwing more bodies at the problem.”
The use of automation remedies to cope with rapidly expanding or marginally efficient workloads is all too often considered as a last resort, after all other remedies involving hiring, staff augmentation, or the use of managed service providers have been exhausted. Enlightened IT organizations have realized that the “more bodies” approach to coping with their responsibilities is neither viable nor sustainable. Enlightened organizations are establishing automation centers of excellence and developing expertise in the use of different automation tools to address the automation opportunities that exist throughout their enterprises.
IT automation is no longer a “nice to have” organizational competency that can be applied selectively to improve the efficiency of specific work processes. It is an essential organizational competency that must be deployed broadly to avoid future imbalances between IT demand and supply. It has become a survival skill within every successful IT organization.
Mark Settle, a seven-time CIO and author, will provide the keynote on automation best practices at the Interop Digital virtual event “IT Automation Strategy” on June 15. His most recent book is "Truth from the Valley, A Practical Primer on IT Management for the Next Decade." To register to attend the Interop virtual event, go to Interop.com.