Automation strategy: 6 key elements

An incremental automation strategy that is enabled by technology to prioritize people and processes will serve you well. IT leaders share six fundamental factors as you shape a successful strategy
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IT automation often occurs organically – a sysadmin writing Bash scripts to simplify redundant tasks in their day-to-day job, for example. This kind of incremental automation doesn’t preclude big-picture vision and planning, however.

Automation strategies should be incremental. As recently noted by Red Hat technology evangelist Gordon Haff, incremental progress is part of the attraction. It’s in automation’s DNA.

“This is automation through the lens of traditional system admins and even site reliability engineers in many cases,” Haff says. “Do something manually more than once and automate it so that you don’t have to, ever again.”

This is a perfectly reasonable progression that can also be aligned with a higher-level strategy.

3 benefits of a step-by-step approach to automation strategy

In fact, incremental progress enables IT leaders and teams to address challenges in your business processes, organizational culture, and tech stack. A step-by-step approach to automation helps ensure your strategy will be:

  • Productive: You can generate and share results without waiting to reach some faraway “finish line.”
  • Flexible: You can review and revise priorities as conditions change.
  • Attainable: Your team can actually execute the strategy – a wildly underrated characteristic when setting even the most ambitious goals.

In other words, incremental automation is good. It’s the “automate first, ask questions later” (or never) approach that tends to exacerbate underlying issues. This approach tends to treat automation as purely a technical matter. The mindset sounds well-intentioned: “Let’s solve this problem with technology!” The reality is more like: “We buried that problem under a bunch of new tools. Now we have new problems!”

It’s like the “buy a box of DevOps” idea: It’d be nice if it was that easy, but it isn’t.

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

6 automation strategy essentials

Incremental automation is good. An incremental automation strategy is better. An incremental automation strategy that is enabled by technology to prioritize people and processes is best.

Several IT leaders have recently shared with us their automation insights and advice as part of a series of articles. Here are six fundamental elements that you should consider as part of your automation strategy:

1. Identify the starting point – and the criteria for ongoing priorities

So-called “boil the ocean” strategies offer an attractive cop-out: No one has to decide where to begin if you’re going to try to do everything all at once. (Needless to say, that strategy comes with its own problems.)

If you’re going to take a step-by-step approach (and most experts recommend it), you need to decide on step one – and step two, step three, and so on.

Use boring, annoying, or downright painful work as a guide when prioritizing automation areas, especially early in your strategic initiative.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Use boring, annoying, or downright painful work as a guide when prioritizing automation areas, especially early in your strategic initiative. (This is essentially what your sysadmins and other IT pros have been doing on their own, by the way.)

“CIOs should seek out areas that cause frustration or angst among their employee base,” says Puneet Mehta, founder and CEO of Netomi. “Eliminating these will have a positive impact on the culture.”

This isn’t limited to IT, as we wrote recently: You can find automation candidates in virtually every department. Does someone have to manually enter the same data into multiple systems to complete a single task? That sounds like a starting point.

“For example, when customer data needs to be updated across multiple systems, automating this process can ensure it’s not only done properly and consistently but it’s completed instantaneously,” Mehta says. “It’s this type of mundane work that can make humans feel like robots themselves and leads to burnout and turnover. When humans are empowered to focus on higher-level tasks, you see employee satisfaction rise.”

2. Link automation with broader business goals

Ad hoc automation tends to occur independently of other efforts. Even if it solves a problem at hand, there are unclear (if any) links to how that aligns with broader goals.

While that might be fine to some extent, it can also breed silos, cultural resistance, and other potential issues. Strategic automation can be both incremental and well-connected to the big picture.

“While there are many questions a CIO will have along the way when deciding their automation strategy, the single most important question they should ask themselves is: ‘How will automation help my organization achieve the business outcomes we need to get to where we want to be in 4-5 years?’” Becky Trevino, VP of operations at Snow Software told us.

Trevino notes that a “yes-no” matrix can help guide decision-making and prioritization, as in: “Does automating this help us achieve X?” If the answer is yes, then you do it. If the answer is no or maybe, then you should at minimum be asking deeper questions about why you’re doing it.

Automation is such a broad category that it can be tough for people to wrap their heads around in a practical manner. Outcome- or goal-oriented automation strategy can be a big help.

3. Create value for individuals, not just the organization

People are tired of business platitudes like “do more with less” and “achieve new operational efficiencies.” Even when there’s a necessary kernel of truth behind them, they’re worn out – and they tend to stoke rather than solve automation-related conflicts. Left unchecked, these conflicts can crush your program’s momentum.

Instead, use your strategy (and any corresponding documentation and communication) to show how it will create value for individuals and team units, not just for the company and its financials.

Getting people truly on board means showing them what's in it for them as individuals.

Automation can help do more with less, Trevino says, but getting people truly on board means showing them what’s in it for them as individuals, whether that’s career advancement, financial upside, or other benefits.

“CIOs need to think long-term, communicate their vision, be direct and transparent on how these changes will impact staff, and invest in their people to bring them along this journey,” Trevino says. “Vision aligns disparate groups and helps them understand what’s in it for them.”

In a field that is placing increasing emphasis on automation capabilities and experience, you should be able to create a means for people to build such skills on the job as part of your strategy, for example.

[ Also read: Why automation progress stalls: 3 hidden culture challenges. ]

4. Acknowledge and address concerns about job impacts

An automation strategy is incomplete if it does not address the anxiety it may cause in terms of effects on people’s jobs, including the possibility of job loss. Dismissing or ignoring these fears increases the likelihood of resistance to automation-related changes. It might also make you seem out of touch: In a PwC survey of 32,500 workers worldwide, 60 percent of respondents said they’re worried that automation will put many existing jobs at risk in the future.

IT leaders can and should address these kinds of fears proactively, and there are multiple ways of doing so. This starts with transparency and communication: Silence will almost certainly be treated as further reason to worry.

“A lack of information creates anxiety and fear,” says Thomas Phelps, CIO at Laserfiche. “You don’t want anyone to fill in the blanks with assumptions about the impact of automation on their job and career. As IT leaders, we need to be mindful of employee perception when approaching automation initiatives.”

That applies even if you do need to deliver bad news. Honesty and empathy should guide that process.

Fellow IT leaders also recommend carving out a significant piece of your automation strategy for investing in current staff whose jobs may be affected. You can’t cry about a skills shortage later if you do nothing to create development opportunities for current team members today.

[ Read more advice from Phelps and other execs in our related article: Automation vs. IT jobs: 3 ways leaders can address layoff fears. ]

5. Lay a foundation for measuring results

Ad hoc automation tends to be invisible: even when it has a positive impact, no one knows about it.

As Waleed Kadous, head of engineering at Anyscaletold us: “It is important to choose automation projects that have measurable benefits, especially at the beginning. As a CIO making the case for automation within your organization to both senior management and to employees, you need to build a portfolio of success.”

Kadous further notes that this doesn’t need to be overly sophisticated, especially in the earlier phases of your plan. Time savings is a good place to start.

“The math is simple: Calculate how long it took before, count how often it happens, measure the new approach, and you can very quickly measure the productivity gains,” Kadous says.

And while everyone loves quantitative measures, don’t discount qualitative assessment as well.

“It doesn’t have to be super-fancy: a little bit of instrumentation and a few ‘ethnographic’ – sitting next to people and recording what they do – studies go a long way,” Kadous says.

6. Equate automation with improvement

Your strategy should not simply ask “where can we automate?” but “where can we improve?” Automating something just because you can is fine from a learning and experimentation standpoint, but not as useful from a goals and results standpoint.

If you can’t answer questions like “how does this help people?” or “how does this make us better?” then you should ask a different question: “Why are we doing this?” A clear focus on improvement – not just to the bottom line, but to people’s jobs – is by definition results-oriented.

“If automation simply replaces one tedious process with another, then it’s likely to fail,” Kadous says.

Automation that makes people’s jobs better ultimately sells itself over time; “do this or else” mandates do not.

“The best automation approaches make existing employees feel like they’ve been given a superpower,” Kadous says. “They’re like, ‘Wow! I can do so much cool stuff now!’ You can then rely on word of mouth for usage to spread. If it spreads organically, that’s a very good sign.”

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

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 story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.