Prepare Your IT Staff For Automation
Mind the gap between the vision of automation and the reality
Automation of IT procedures and services holds the promise of bringing tremendous efficiencies to the organization. Being able to deploy automatically, update, and repair your IT infrastructure according to approved and consistently applied procedures is key to realizing the full potential of cloud computing. Without functioning automation and orchestration procedures on the back end, all the innovation on the front end with software-as-a-service and agile, cloud-enabled applications is like trying to implement a state of the art command center supported by a bunch of frantic IT guys in the back room running on ever-accelerating treadmills.
A better long-term strategy would be to implement automation aligned with effective IT service management. This is the path you will need to navigate, but, don’t assume it’s going to be a walk in the park. Unless you tightly integrate your technology with associated processes and procedures, automation can set loose any number of devils from the details within your IT environment.
I know this from experience. Within every IT infrastructure, there are so many layers accessible by so many people with a wide range of skills and intentions that you need to approach automation very carefully.
Here are four key steps you need to take to prepare your IT environment and your staff for automation:
Learn to walk before you run
- The best way to get hands-on experience with automation is to begin with purpose-built tools that are easy to deploy, access and use. Don’t rush into the assortment of one-size-fits-all tools in the market. Without the experience, the wide array of capabilities of big tools can be overwhelming. Give yourself time to develop some understanding of what automation can do for your IT organization before you commit to a more systemic automation approach implicit in a comprehensive toolset. Start by implementing automation on a small scale, and use that direct experience to help you evaluate which capabilities you really need. Before you throw the harness over a big toolset, you need to understand strategically what you want to accomplish.
- Look for firewalls and other obstructions that could prevent automation from reaching specific areas of your IT environment. If you access a multi-tenant cloud, you have the advantage of separate environments running on shared resources, but you have also walled off each of those environments from the reach of automation. Automation has the potential to give your systems an intelligent way to respond to changing demands and capacities, but the intelligence has to come from you. Automation can’t think for itself. If you don’t tell it about the firewall, or any other impediment, the best automation script will run right into the wall.
- Look for existing processes that have built in inefficiencies. A classic example is the necessity of faxing documents for non-electronic approvals. It may be great for controls but it’s very clunky to use. If the process isn’t efficient, it isn’t going to be much improved by automation. It’s often not a technical issue. You may have a contract that requires some manual process between steps. Or you may have billing information that is isolated from the system you are automating. Automation can do a lot of things, but it can’t walk over to your accounting office and ask for data that only lives on your CFO’s laptop. You need to centralize information and have one source for the truth.
Untie The Knot
- Look for existing controls that would conflict with automated procedures. Controls are great, but they can also be problems that need to be worked around. A good example is monitoring. You may automate a procedure for the user to turn off a Windows server, but, if you have monitoring in place, you will end up sending high-urgency alerts when the server is shut down unless you have a way to suspend monitoring as part of the automation. Basically, the left hand has to know what the right hand is trying to do, or it will have a tendency to undo it…or worse. As the scope of your automation effort expands, you have to carefully untie the knots of processes within your IT environment. Eventually, you’ll need to know everything about everything.
All these things I say with great pain because I have bumped into each one of them. Automation is an adventure. Prepare to run into the unexpected somewhere along the way.
And that’s just looking at the technical issues. Automation has to take into account all the technical complexities within your IT environment. It also has to be rolled out with a high degree of diplomacy if it is to earn the support of your IT team. Automation has the potential to free technologists and others from repetitive and/or mundane aspects of their jobs—which seems like a good thing. Eliminating aspects of what employees do for a living, however, can also make them very uneasy.
My next column will provide some guidelines to help you navigate the challenges you will encounter on your automation journey. As with any journey, setting out is not without risks, but it’s not as if you can decide to stay safe at home with the status quo. Ever increasing demands on the performance, flexibility, responsiveness, security and financial accountability of your IT environment leave you no realistic choice but to set out from wherever you are on an IT Transformation Journey toward the goal of a fully-realized, self-service cloud environment for your organization. It needs to be in your future.
By Brian Day