Five Steps to Successful IT Process Automation

Follow these five simple steps to make sure you’re ready to implement IT process automation

by Travis Greene

Does this sound familiar: An hour sitting in a change management meeting, a half-hour provisioning new-user services, forty-five minutes rebooting a server farm to deal with memory leaks, another hour deleting files to free up disk space. Before you know it, an entire day has slipped by while your systems administrator slogs away at a pile of mundane tasks -- tasks that can’t be ignored but hardly make the best use of such a valuable staff member’s time. In the meantime, project schedules suffer and strategic business programs get put on hold for a lack of IT resources.

What’s an IT manager to do? A good start is to join the fast-growing ranks of IT professionals implementing IT process automation (ITPA). According to one of the industry’s leading analyst firms, a survey in late 2006 revealed that 16 percent of IT managers planned to invest in automation technologies in 2007 and 2008. This year, that number is expected to exceed 34 percent as more companies recognize the benefits and vendors expand solution portfolios.

ITPA, at its best, effectively captures organizational knowledge to help offload repetitive, manual tasks from heavily taxed IT staff. In addition to enabling better use of administrative time and expertise, ITPA reduces service variability by minimizing the risk of human error. Furthermore, the most valuable ITPA solutions include tools that measure and improve processes to drive continuous improvement and operations efficiencies across the broader IT department.

Every organization must ultimately make its own path to process automation, but understanding common challenges and employing five important preparatory steps will accelerate the time-to-value of your ITPA investment. If you do it right the first time, you will be able to achieve quick wins, saving IT staff time and realizing the efficiencies that will help your team deliver greater and longer-term value to your organization.

These Things We Know

Anyone who has implemented ITPA knows:

  • If you automate a bad process, you make things bad faster. Think critically about improvements you want to make to processes before you automate them.
  • Automation that takes too much work to set up and maintain will not be worth the effort. It’s analogous to implementing a self-driving car -- barring some serious and rapid technology advances, at present it’s just plain faster and simpler to steer the car yourself.

However, certain elements of the driving process do lend themselves to, and benefit from, automation. Cruise control, lights that turn on automatically, distance control -- micro processes, if you will, that can be used as building blocks to eventually achieve the fully automated, self-driving car. In this case, taking a bottom-up approach clearly delivers more immediate benefits than would be possible if you tackled the job at a macro level.

  • IT administrators are used to being heroes and will likely resist giving up the “tribal knowledge” that has made them such. Although great for an administrator’s job security, information exclusivity is an organizational risk. Your administrators need to understand up front that it’s the repetitive, mundane tasks you expect to offload -- not the high-value, high-visibility projects like new-service design and implementation.

Five Steps to Success

Although the nirvana of fully automated IT operations may sound appealing if you are continuously fighting daily IT fires, achieving this vision requires more than purchasing an ITPA solution. Here are five specific things you can do to make sure you’re ready for implementing IT process automation.

Step 1: Identify the Best Candidates for Automation

Ask questions of your staff and your user community. What processes do customers complain about -- does it take too long to publish Web content or are new servers never configured with all of the current patches?

What activities currently occupy too much staff time -- is there an application with memory leaks, requiring hours of an administrator’s weekly time to remediate? What activities cause the biggest budget surprises -- does your organization’s love of virtual machines leave you constantly scrambling to add VMware server hardware? What activities does your IT staff complain most or most loudly about -- does updating help desk tickets cause aggravation? What activities waste time -- are events raised for servers that are undergoing maintenance?

Don’t forget to look outside your organization. What processes are your competitors automating -- are there case studies you can find?

Step 2: Determine Your Approach

Evaluate your organization’s level of process maturity. Have you already implemented many of the ITIL processes? If so, your organization’s level of process maturity is probably such that you can approach automation at the macro or cross-silo level -- for example, automating standard changes across departments.

Otherwise, it probably makes the most sense to address automation at the micro level where tasks tend to be narrower in scope. Micro-process tasks (such as server reboots or new-user provisioning) tend to be easily defined and automated to yield quick wins through notable time savings and quality improvements.

Once you’ve thought about this, go back and categorize the candidate processes you identified in Step 1 as either micro or macro. Based upon your assessment of your department’s process maturity, you’ll know which list -- macro or micro -- to tackle first, and whether you should take a bottom-up approach or opt for a top-down approach across functional areas.

Step 3: Rank Candidate Processes

Take your list of micro or macro processes and rank them by the value each provides to your business. Base the ranking on the potential for cost reduction and/or quality improvement.

Improving quality means that the process automation must help you reduce defects in IT service delivery by reducing re-work, minimizing unplanned downtime, or improving communications (and therefore the timeliness and/or accuracy of the process).

Improving the efficiency of delivering IT services includes reducing the time to provision new services, so there is less wasted time waiting (or perhaps more time making money on the new service), making better use of resources and inventory, reducing repetitive work that requires little analytical skill or easing manual review requirements.

Step 4: Identify the Tools Required

Before you consider IT process automation platforms, take stock of the tools you already have in place (available or already in use) and identify missing elements. You probably already have a wealth of underlying management tools for such tasks as monitoring, diagnostics, and provisioning. Know what you have -- you’ll want your ITPA platform to fully leverage and integrate information from those tools.

As you evaluate ITPA solutions, remember that some software systems work particularly well at the macro level to facilitate cross-silo collaboration, others geared to automating run-book workflows are better suited to address operational discipline at the micro level. Although such singularly focused systems can help you achieve automation benefits, they won’t go the distance with you. Today you may be concentrating on micro processes, but ultimately you’ll want to automate IT processes across functional areas. Likewise, although you might initially focus on macro-level processes such as those defined by ITIL (e.g., incident management or change management), you’ll eventually want to backfill some with automated micro processes. The IT process automation solution you choose should allow you to address both process levels within the same platform.

Step 5: Prepare Your Staff

The last step on your path to ITPA success is bringing your staff into the process. Solicit their help identifying processes to automate. Tell them what you expect for results, and let them know what their roles will be in the new process. Make sure they understand how they should plan to use their reclaimed hours and assure them that there will always be plenty of business-critical IT work to do.

Get Started Now

The bottom line: Start now so you can stay ahead of your competition. In an economic slowdown (which may occur globally), having fewer resources will make automation all the more valuable. Get prepared by taking the five steps outlined above, then choose an ITPA platform that will help you automate the mundane, repetitive aspects of operations as well as aggregate tasks to achieve the larger goal of automating processes that span functional disciplines such as those defined by ITIL.

The right preparation combined with the right platform will improve efficiency, speed service delivery, reduce human error, reduce the risk of knowledge flight, help implement ITIL faster, and enable rapid ROI on your IT process automation investment.

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Travis Greene is a service management strategist at NetIQ Corporation, where he works directly with customers, industry analysts, partners, and others to define service management solutions based on the NetIQ product and service base. You can reach the author at