The human side of IT automation
IT automation is the new normal. With the market for automation technologies ready to exceed $20 billion in 2022, automation is already playing a considerable role in business operations from invoice processing to customer support, as well as IT operations like deploying systems and automating recovery. But the area continues to grow, unlocking new opportunities to automate that depend on previous initiatives. According to Gartner, by 2023 most organisations will be able to automate an additional 25% of their tasks on top of those they have already automated.
Until relatively recently, automation was relegated to the most mundane of tasks and used only by companies with extensive IT capabilities. Now, businesses of all sizes are starting to realise the benefits of automation – a 2020 McKinsey study saw growth in both pilot projects and successful automation adoption in at least one function. But despite automation being more widely used, misunderstandings about the role of people in automated systems persist; a recent PwC survey found that 60% of staff were concerned that automation would put their jobs at risk.
With over a decade’s experience helping businesses to automate strategic management of applications, we know that there are numerous ways for businesses to use automation – starting from task-based automation to the more mature usage of automation to orchestrate IT processes between environments.
Looking at these stages of maturity it might be said that the more mature an organisation’s use of automation becomes, the smaller the role of people becomes. But that is not necessarily true.
The role of human knowledge
During the Covid-19 pandemic companies were pushed to fast-track the deployment of new technologies, particularly those that allowed them to be less reliant on people. Some of these – such as contactless tills or deliveries made by robots (like those used by grocery chain The Co-op) – will have a short-term impact on jobs. However, the World Economic Forum notes that by 2025 there will a net increase of 13 million jobs created through automation:
Human involvement will be required in large part because, while automation can do things faster and at much larger scale than humans, it can’t always consider the wider context necessary to make a judgement call. For example, highly regulated industries will have governance considerations. In some situations, the best option is to automate a process but require a decision by a competent person to invoke it.
For example, if one data centre goes down, an automated system may automatically choose to fail over applications to another data centre. However, it may be worth having a human involved to weigh up the risks of moving to a data centre in another region or jurisdiction.
There are other situations when automation on its own won’t be enough: energy prices have recently risen but it can take human analysis to consider how a company can use less energy while considering other trade-offs.
Automation: making work interesting
The benefits commonly attributed to automation include increasing efficiency and productivity, standardising processes, performing tasks like data analysis at scale, and reducing costs. However, there are a number of benefits discussed far less often.
From a business perspective, using more automation can increase a company’s attractiveness as an employer. While many businesses claim to focus on innovation, the IT department is typically predominantly concerned with keeping the lights on. By automating the undifferentiated heavy lifting of repetitive tasks, IT teams can be free to focus on more exciting activities that grow or extend the business.
Similarly, automating processes helps to capture human knowledge: automating a process involves formalising it, and so making it available to others in the company as repeatable code. This reduces stress on individuals who may be planning to change jobs but are concerned about leaving a hole in the business, or who feel extra pressure to work longer hours or avoid taking holiday. There are also quality benefits through effective automation improving processes by making them consistent, testable and inspectable.
Automation also reduces stress on businesses who may be reliant on a shrinking pool of people experienced in running older systems. It codifies heritage skillsets and is a step towards digital resilience.
Business’ fear of losing staff and their retained knowledge is a legitimate one: a record four million Americans left their jobs in April 2021, twice the number that did in April 2020. This trend will likely continue, given recent research by YouGov and Vestd which found that 18-24 year olds in the UK are 63% more likely to be looking to switch jobs than the general population. We could be looking at a future where employees, and their organisation-specific skills and knowledge, have a much shorter tenure.
A Gallup analysis attributes the record interest in changing jobs to a “great discontent”, highlighting the importance of making employees feel more engaged with the company and their roles.
The future of IT automation
IT automation is entering a new phase of maturity, with industry leaders already beginning to embrace the next phase: hyperautomation. Gartner defines this as “an approach that enables organisations to rapidly identify, vet and automate as many processes as possible using technology, such as robotic process automation (RPA), low-code application platforms (LCAP), artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual assistants,” noting that it has shifted from “an option to a condition of survival” for businesses. Showing just how prevalent it is, the company anticipates the worldwide market for technology that enables hyperautomation will reach $596.6 billion in 2022.
Ultimately, automation or even AI or Machine Learning will never completely remove the need for humans in the workplace. What we think it will do, however, is change the type of work people will do – and, for many IT people, make the work more interesting. McKinsey’s 2020 study showed that companies who took a ‘human in the loop’ approach to adopting automation were more successful at scaling their initiatives.
In other words, automation is a way to enhance what people do, not replace it entirely. Talented and knowledgeable individuals must remain part of the process.
This article was first published by The AI Journal on 1st November 2021.