You Can’t Automate What You Don’t Understand
By Doug Tedder
| July 16, 2019 in ITSM
In a blog I wrote last year, I said that automation is the next evolution of service management – that the way we do ITSM was going to change.
Guess what? Not to sound smug, but heck, I was right!
The way that we’re doing ITSM is changing – and changing for the better. Over the past year, many ITSM tool vendors (SysAid included) have incorporated automation and orchestration capabilities within their toolsets.
But automation is much more than routing a ticket. And even with all of the advances in technology, what I also said in that previous blog still holds true –
“You can’t automate what you don’t understand.”
Automation vs. orchestration
First, there’s a subtle, but distinct difference between “automation” and “orchestration.”
Automation is setting up a single task to run on its own. Orchestration is the automated execution of many automated tasks – think process or workflow.
Automation is the basic building block for orchestration; orchestration builds upon automation – essentially, orchestration automates process execution.
Why automate? Why orchestrate?
While automation may be all the rage currently, I would argue that automation is not one of those things you should necessarily do “just because you can.” So why automate tasks?
- When the benefit of automation outweighs the cost of automation.
- Automation requires an investment of time and resources. While the right tools can help, someone has to understand the task to be automated to the depth needed to automate it. Moreover, because of the needed investment in time and resources, task automation should provide a measurable and distinct return on that investment.
- When the tasks involved are highly repetitive and have predictable variability.
- Let’s face it – it is a waste of brainpower and time to have humans performing those highly repetitive, predictable (and frankly, boring) tasks. Automation can free up valuable human resources to do the work and thinking that really is more suited for humans anyway.
Once you’ve automated tasks, it’s time to determine if those tasks are part of a process that can be orchestrated. Some tasks, such as a password reset, are usually fairly self-contained. But if you automate tasks without in turn orchestrating the process in which that task executes, it is just a local optimization. Experienced ITSM practitioners understand the pitfalls resulting from local optimization – and the same applies to automation. Then the question becomes “are you really gaining anything from automation?”
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What can be automated or orchestrated?
Like I said, any task that is highly repetitive and has predictable variability can be automated. Examples from an ITSM perspective could be updating a CI attribute, or assigning an incident record to a workgroup. Likewise, workflows and processes that are highly repetitive and have predictable variability can be orchestrated, such as adding space to a filesystem, rebooting a server, or performing regression testing on newly-integrated code.
Basically, if it can be defined, mapped, and the outcomes are predictable, then it can be automated or orchestrated. Otherwise, you’re not ready…because you don’t fully understand what you’re trying to automate.
You’re not ready for automation and orchestration if…
So how do you know if you’re ready for automation? Here are some indications that you’re not ready for automation or orchestration:
- Tasks or processes are poorly defined or not comprehensive.
- It’s fairly easy to define and map the “happy path” of a task or process in which everything goes exactly as anticipated. But what about the error paths? If a task or process definition doesn’t also include exception processing, it’s not a candidate for automation.
- Defined processes do not consistently deliver expected outcomes.
- Similarly, if the outputs or results from tasks or processes are wildly inconsistent, don’t automate it. Automation won’t make a bad task or process better.
- Processes lack transparency or require manual intervention.
- If it’s not clear how a process is designed, if it’s not clear how data and information move through a process, if processes require lots of manual intervention, or processes lack effective and meaningful measures, then I would argue that you really don’t have a process. Fix processes before orchestrating them.
- Lack of effective or appropriate tools.
- Technology is a crucial variable for automation and orchestration. Trying to use the wrong technology, or trying to use technology that is not fit for use for automation and orchestration is a recipe for frustration and failure.
Critical success factors
Automation and orchestration deliver numerous benefits, from actually being able to “do more with less (human effort)” to freeing up people’s time to think creatively and strategically.
So, what are some critical success factors for realizing the benefits of automation?
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- Having and growing the right skill sets.
- There is a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that surrounds automation – how automation will eliminate jobs and enslave people to technology. I think the exact opposite is true. Yes, some jobs as we know them today can and should be automated. But good automation is critically dependent on having the right people with the right skills – design skills, logical thinking and reasoning, organizational knowledge, and more. Having (or building) these skill sets are important for effective automation and orchestration.
- Strong management support.
- Automation and orchestration are not magic. While many tools can provide help with mapping and designs, automation and orchestration require ongoing investments in people, time, and resources. Like most things, automation is not a “one and done” activity, and will require both initial and ongoing investments of resources and in people.
- Tools and capabilities.
- Automation and orchestration are highly dependent on using the right technologies and having the right capabilities. At the risk of saying the obvious, a job scheduling solution is not an automation or orchestration solution, for example. Do your homework – understand the vision and objectives for automation and orchestration – then get the right technologies that will enable you to achieve that vision.
- Systems thinking.
- Systems thinking is an approach for understanding how individual components interact with other components or parts of a system. Systems thinking prefers to look at the interactions within and between organizations as a whole, rather than focus on the individual parts of an organization. Systems thinking, when applied to tasks, activities, and processes, helps organizations take a holistic approach to automation and orchestration, reducing the risk of local optimization.
Get ready to automate!
Here are my three tips for getting started with automation and orchestration:
- Develop and agree on the vision.
- What is the “to be” state that you want to achieve? How will automation and orchestration benefit not only the IT organization, but the enterprise as a whole?
- Clarify objectives.
- Automating everything all at once is simply not an option. Start with “automating the obvious” – those simple, repetitive, or tedious tasks that not only can deliver immediate returns, but also provide learning opportunities. Being clear on the objectives of automation and orchestration helps the organization focus on doing the right things in the right sequence.
- Map and simplify processes.
Value stream mapping is a great technique not only for visualizing a process, but also to identify waste (such as bottlenecks or manual decision points). You will likely find opportunities to streamline and simplify a process – which makes orchestration much more likely.
Automation and orchestration can benefit any organization – large or small, private or public. But automation and orchestration are not “silver bullets” that will make poorly designed processes or tasks suddenly perform better. Take your time, iterate, keep it simple and pragmatic, get the right people involved using the right technologies, and reap the benefits that automation and orchestration can bring.