3 kinds of automation CIOs should prioritize in 2020

Three types of automation – CI/CD, workflow, and RPA – are poised to transform business processes and boost efficiencies. Consider these examples and related advice
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“Two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”

That’s what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a recent earnings call, offering one reason the technology firm beat analysts' estimates.

COVID-19 has made digital transformation mandatory almost overnight as companies scramble to adjust to the new reality of remote work. One of the most promising areas of digital transformation lies in automation.

[ When you say RPA, do people hear "job loss?" Also read: How to tame Robotic Process Automation (RPA) anxiety. ]

Automation usually falls into one of three camps: code automation ( CI/CD), workflow automation, and Robotic process automation (RPA). Each one takes a manual human process and turns it over to the power, efficiency, and precision of a computer.

Let’s explore each of these areas to see where CIOs can maximize their automation efforts.

1. Code automation: Continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD)

Does pushing out a software release consume your team? Does the thought of rolling back a production build make you break out in a cold sweat? Are files and configurations constantly getting missed in your releases?

Adopting code automation like continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) may reduce your team’s stress level and boost the efficiency of your software deployments.

Adopting code automation like continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) may reduce your team's stress level.

In a nutshell, CI/CD uses automation tools to help teams release better software faster. Better means code that meets high-quality standards and a more secure application that adheres closely to business requirements.

Continuous integration (CI) weaves together frequent code updates from various developers to form a production-ready release. Every update goes through the same process to ensure the change integrates with the existing code base and doesn’t introduce unintended side effects.

Continuous integration goes hand-in-hand with continuous testing. More frequent software releases outpace what can be done with manual testing. Increasingly, QA teams are developing automated tools to perform their tests quickly and consistently, removing human error from the equation.

Continuous delivery (CD) gets your software build to its ultimate destination, whether this is the QA environment or all the way to production. This CD process also applies environmental variables like database connections and cloud configurations to each release, customizing the build for each target environment.

Better yet, the next frontier of CI/CD incorporates machine learning and artificial intelligence to automatically spot bugs, highlight performance degradations, and flag security holes before they ever reach production.

2. Workflow automation

Is your team working at peak capacity? Are your projects managed through a maze of email trails and Slack messages? Is your help desk buried under support calls? Workflow automation is your savior.

Workflow automation creates automated actions for each step of a business process. Consider a scenario where you accept help desk inquiries through a support email box. Someone on your team needs to monitor that mailbox, forward the request to the correct developer, follow up within a designated timeframe to meet your SLA, and reach out to the user to verify that their issue was resolved. In this process, each user request becomes hugely time-intensive and vulnerable to mistakes along the way. This process is screaming for workflow automation.

With the help of workflow automation, users could create a support ticket via an online request form, which then gets routed to the appropriate developer based on the system selected. Tickets can easily be reassigned if they fall into the wrong hands and can be centrally monitored to ensure the development support team follows up in a timely fashion. Tickets that are incorrectly closed can be reopened by the end-user with relevant feedback provided. This process continually generates data that can be aggregated to identify inefficiencies and help your team sharpen its focus to better serve the user community.

This is just one process that is ripe for automation. Workflow automation saves time, makes processes more efficient, and uses data analysis to help your team operate more effectively. IDC found that organizations lose as much as 30 percent of their revenue each year to inefficient processes. It’s time to wrestle those efficiencies back.

Workflow automation saves time, makes processes more efficient, and uses data analysis to help your team operate more effectively.

Automation doesn’t stop at your department. Lead the charge in spreading the workflow revolution to the entire company. 

3. Robotic process automation (RPA)

When it comes to innovation and creativity, humans are irreplaceable. But unfortunately, they get sick. They get grumpy when they have to work too many hours. They need time off for vacations. They get bored slogging through routine tasks. They make costly mistakes.

Robotic process automation (RPA) farms out dull, mundane tasks to computer software, freeing up valuable human brainpower for more interesting work. Many processes can be automated through RPA, such as:

  • Daily scraping of data off the Internet to feed into another program
  • Automatically backing up and archiving data
  • Alerting the development team through email or Slack when a critical error has been tripped
  • Constantly running complex calculations to execute stock trades based on thresholds crossed
  • Analyzing sentiment analysis on social media posts to alert the marketing team when a dissatisfied customer is venting all over your feed so action can be taken

Once the business rules are defined, you can build RPA processes to model tasks around these rule sets. The key is they must be repeatable and occur at volume to make implementing a solution worth the time and effort.

[ Not every process suits RPA. Read also: How to identify Robotic Process Automation (RPA) opportunities. ]

Gartner labeled RPA as the fastest-growing enterprise software category of 2018. Deloitte says we will see near-universal adoption of RPA within the next five years. The success stories of RPA can be nothing short of transformative.

With automation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach; it can be implemented to help different industries in different ways. Start by exploring your business to see where inefficiencies have taken root. But don’t be surprised if the head of HR comes knocking on your door inquiring about how their onboarding process can be improved. The genie is out of the bottle, and your team needs to be ready to take these issues head-on.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at InformationWeek.