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Top 3 ways to overcome automation barriers

Understanding and addressing what can go wrong is an important step in any successful initiative, and that's especially true when it comes to automation efforts.

Any change requires support to make it easier, and that is especially true for automation efforts.

Many enterprise leaders say automation is a top priority for them. Just saying that doesn't make it true, and it doesn't guarantee any changes in staff behavior. To meet goals for automation, IT and business leaders must avoid or clear the top automation barriers by focusing on getting the right tools, building the right processes and providing the right employee support.

Here's a deeper look at how these approaches help overcome enterprise automation roadblocks.

1. Getting the right automation tools

We can't expect everyone to become a coder. Certainly, IT staff should focus on doing ad hoc code-based automation right -- by implementing code management and change management on production scripts, by setting standards for which tools and languages are used, and by settling on some basic, standard coding practices.

Beyond folks in IT doing traditional automation better, though, enterprises should be engaging other major means of automating work inside and outside IT to facilitate automation efforts:

  • No-code and low-code tools. IT staff might use low-code/no-code tools, but IT's greater role will be setting up environments in which staff in other departments can make the safest and most effective use of the tools.
  • Robotic process automation (RPA) tools. RPA supplements low-code tools in helping to shift rote work from people to software robots. IT can help in RPA efforts, especially when the RPA system will work to discover for itself places where bots are useful.
  • DevOps configuration management systems. These can take the place of old-style scripts in systems and network administration work.
  • Integration platform as a service (iPaaS) tools. These event-driven integration engines enable people to set up process flows across platforms. IPaaS tools are usually reactive and event-driven. For example, if these tools see a change in system A, the integration engine triggers an action in system B.

2. Processes that promote automation

Processes define the flows of work and data through an organization. To be reliable and resilient, staff must document these processes. Reviewing process documents regularly not only keeps them reality-based, it also brings opportunities for automation to the surface. Documenting a process for the first time offers the same opportunity, as manual steps in any process present automation opportunities.

Staff who are documenting processes must take care to distinguish between a purely mechanical manual step and a step with significant staff input. An example of purely mechanical looks like this: Take information from system A and reenter it in system B. An example of a step that is more ambiguous looks like this: Take information from system A and decide whether to retain it in system B as well, put it into system C or flag it for further analysis.

The more sophisticated the required decision-making process is, the more difficult it is to automate.

Automating a purely mechanical step is usually straightforward and is the focus of RPA tools especially. Automating a more nuanced decision may still be possible, but the more sophisticated the required decision-making process is, the more difficult it is to automate. In that case, it may be easier to automate support for the knowledge worker in that position rather than automating the step itself. This might involve giving the worker a simpler push-button means of implementing the decisions they make.

3. Accountability, support for staff

People can make or break any technology initiative and that includes automation efforts. To overcome staff-related barriers to automation, leadership must support goals with clear directives and meaningful compensation.

If leadership simply expects employees to add "automator" to their task list, staff are unlikely to pursue that directive energetically. If staff fear they will lose their jobs thanks to automation, reluctance and apathy can turn to downright resistance.

Management needs to start from the ground up to motivate employees' automation efforts. Make it a part of annual goals for each position to develop and deploy, via whatever means, automation relevant to repetitive and manual tasks. In some organizations, that will involve first making automation a part of each job's description, which is a longer and more difficult process.

Leadership should clearly communicate that employees should look for automation opportunities that can help free up any time spent on rote tasks for more sophisticated and potentially rewarding work. In most organizations, staff are likely to have more work than they can comfortably handle, even with regular rounds of automation. Management should reassure staff that the goal is moving the company forward, not moving staff out.

Leaders should also build in compensation for automating more work -- for example, offering bonuses specifically for automating task work -- to keep automation efforts moving forward or help unstick a stalled effort.

Automation barriers are a common reality, but with the right mix of tools, processes and support for staff, IT leaders can unstick or accelerate their automation strategies.

About the author
John Burke is CIO and principal research analyst with Nemertes Research. With nearly two decades of technology experience, he has worked at all levels of IT.

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