4 trends to watch as IT automation expands

Experts explain how IT automation trends will impact business strategy
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We recently examined some of the fundamental factors that have fueled IT automation to this point. “To this point” is the operative phrase – there’s not necessarily a finish line for automation, and even as it matures, automation is going to continue evolving from a technical, business, and people standpoint.

With that in mind, we asked a variety of experts for their insights on the current trends to watch as automation grows inside of IT shops going forward, with a particular eye on the relationship between IT automation and business strategy. Here are four of the big trends likely to continue to shape automation and its impacts on how IT teams and businesses operate.

1. Automation as a business tool

As automation expands inside IT shops and especially along the spectrum of the software development lifecycle, it is likely to become more visibly and specifically linked to business strategy. In other words, companies will approach automation as a means – a tool for achieving specific business goals – rather than an end, as in automating certain processes and infrastructure components simply because they can.

“Automation is not a goal in and of itself, but more an approach to take towards technology,” says Ned Bellavance, director of cloud solutions, Anexinet.

Reducing the time to deploy a new service might be a starting point or initial reason for automating certain processes, for example. But there will be growing interest in defining how doing so helps enable business priorities and creates additional opportunities, such as redirecting IT talent to higher-value tasks.

“If you can now deploy a full development environment in two hours when it used to take you two months, then you are able to focus on things like security, feature enhancement, or cost management,” Bellavance says. 

Defining what those things are in your organization is increasingly important. And it’s a continuous process, too. By automating certain processes, organizations can learn from the results and tweak future plans.

“Automation simply for automation’s sake yields no practical results,” says Wayne Ariola, CMO at Tricentis. “Automation that provides critical feedback that is actually consumed by the organization is key.”

IT leaders have a growing opportunity to show how automation can drive digital transformation plans and other big-picture business priorities.

“Businesses are trying to make their IT departments drivers of value rather than a cost center,” Bellavance says. “Automation helps enable that ambition.”

2. More selective approaches to automation

Mark Kirstein, VP, products at BitTitan, notes that in 2017, “intelligent automation” was one of the big buzzwords. Much of the current discussion of automation focuses on machine learning, AI, robotics, and other technologies. That discussion typically envisions a more sweeping automation revolution than actually exists at the moment. Kirstein expects “selective automation” to be the next trend that moves IT automation into the mainstream.

“Fear – stemming from lack of knowledge, technical skills, or simply aversion to change or risk – will hold businesses back from trying to automate everything,” Kirstein says. “Instead, IT will identify low-risk, smaller scale projects to get their feet wet with automation.”

Whereas a cloud-native software startup innately subscribes to an “automate everything” mindset, the broader business world might not be so quick to do so. Yet digital disruption and transformation exist in just about every industry, and so IT automation will be an important enabler across sectors. And starting small, just as some companies did with cloud, for example, will be important for many organizations.

This poses other benefits, too – including real automation pilots that will enable companies to more specifically link automation to specific business strategies early in their adoption. (See also: #1.)

3. Greater alignment of people and process with automation technologies

Ariola of Tricentis notes above that automation for the sake of automation isn’t likely to yield results. In his view, unlocking automation’s potential depends upon thinking more specifically about people. He says, for example, that in Tricentis’ testing automation space, just dropping an automation tool into an existing team and its processes is a recipe for failure. That principle extends widely across automation and IT operations.

“To achieve the desired results, the people and associated business processes must be aligned in a way that lets them take advantage of that automation,” Ariola says. “We need to transform the people and processes so that automated tooling has the desired impact.”

In a sense, this is a key principle behind DevOps. You can’t expect to drop continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) tooling on a traditional software team and say “have at it” to produce positive results. Automation more broadly isn’t a magic wand. Expect IT organizations, especially those that make missteps in their automation strategies, to pay closer attention to how to better align their people and processes to ensure that they’re getting the results they need.

4. A growing need for continuous learning and reskilling

Speaking of people…

Flavio Villanustre, VP of technology and head of HPCC systems at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, believes that the pace of change in modern IT has created a paradox of sorts: IT pros are increasingly asked to be both generalists and also highly specialized in certain areas. Take DevOps: In a DevOps shop, a developer is no longer someone who only writes code and then throws it over a wall for someone else to deal with; they need to take on responsibilities for, say, deployments or infrastructure operations, too. In other words, they need a broader range of skills than in the past.

But that same hypothetical, DevOps shop has also likely required team members to develop increasingly specialized skills in areas like CI/CD, containers and orchestration, microservices, and, you guessed it, automation. While it has always been a truism that IT pros need to keep their skills current, it’s now a table-stakes necessity – one that IT leadership will need to heed and support on their teams.

[ Get wisdom from your peers on leading DevOps teams: Culture, metrics, talent, and more. See our resource DevOps: The IT Leader's Guide. ] 

“This accelerated rate of change in IT has created a skills gap which continuously forces the retraining of the existing workforce,” Villanustre says. “The only way to address this skills gap is through continuous learning.”

The good news: There is a similarly growing menu of opportunities for this kind of ongoing learning, from online courses to microdegrees or nanodegrees to peer-based learning and mentoring, all of which can be effective training tools and cost-efficient.

There’s another upside to continuous learning, too – one that brings us full circle back to #1: Enabling continuous learning as IT automation increases can help spot new business opportunities. 

“Ongoing talent development and training introduce new opportunities to innovate,” Villanustre says. “Professionals learn ways to improve existing processes and systems, which can have a very positive impact – some leading to new revenue generating opportunities for the organization.”

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Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.