6 ways to build a culture of automation in your organization

In a world of persistent macroeconomic and business uncertainty, organizations are increasingly looking for ways to grow revenue without adding capacity. Hiring is expensive, takes time, and can be full of risk. It’s also increasingly difficult to do in an environment where ITOps talent is in short supply.

The simple answer to this capacity conundrum is automation. On paper, it can help to eliminate manual toil and free staff up to work on higher value, more motivating tasks—creating a virtuous circle of happy, productive employees. It can also help to ensure operations run more smoothly without adding extra cost and risk. But getting there isn’t easy. Here are six ideas for building the right culture (as shared with me by Jamie Vernon).

1)         Start small with routine tasks

Automation is about accelerating the business with small successes. They may not be the kind of major wins that generate plaudits, but they should provide incremental success stories that increase employee satisfaction and help the organization to operate better. In fact, a recent Gartner report recommended that I&O leaders “identify the biggest areas of low-value repetitive work.” (Source: Gartner, Inc., “Let the Robots Enhance Your ITSM Service Desk,” Chris Laske, Chris Saunderson, Chris Matchett, 21 December 2023). GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.

These should be the kind of tasks that you’d otherwise want a junior team member handling—whether it’s switching a network interface, restarting a Windows server, or cleaning off temporary disk space. These are the routine tasks nobody wants to do, and no one is going to benefit professionally from doing them thousands of times in their career. For your automation efforts, it’s about hitting singles every day rather than swinging for the fence: small, repeatable, and expandable wins.

2)         Get the team on board

One of the biggest challenges with transitioning to an automation-centric culture is pushback from engineers. Whether it’s automating code releases, network changes or server builds, one of the most common responses is basically “Why would I sign up to you scripting me out of a job?” That’s why it’s important not to present automation as a mandate. An ITOps manager needs the support of their team to push through a change of this magnitude.

Instead, try to sell them on the adventure. It’s about positioning this journey as one where the organization is going to eliminate all the manual, repetitive work that the team hates and replace it with a new kind of role and new, more advanced technical skills which will make them happier and more employable going forward. As Vernon notes, “People want to grow(…) especially in IT,” so it’s your job as a leader to help people understand their growth potential.

3)         Build a culture of trust

This is something that should ideally happen before embarking on that automation journey. By building trust and goodwill over several years with the ITOps team, managers can reduce the likelihood of pushback and make those initial conversations easier. That’s not something that can be achieved overnight. It comes from being on outage bridges countless times together and working through incidents.

Even after building this kind of goodwill, there are always some team members who flat-out refuse to change and continue to do things the old way. But eventually, those manual tasks become the lowest-hanging fruit to be automated. And when these people see that their colleagues get their days back and have an opportunity to work on higher value projects, in Vernon’s experience then the pushback will usually drop away.

4)         Aim to build momentum quickly

Once the function has begun its automation journey, it pays to look around the business for opportunities to demonstrate the value this approach can bring. This could mean partnering with the security team, for example, to automate and standardize incident response processes like disabling accounts following a suspicious activity alert. Something like that can demonstrate tremendous value because it locks down a potential breach faster than a human could do it, and without waking someone up in the middle of the night.

HR could be another function to benefit from more automated processes, such as rapid offboarding of high-profile/senior executives in the organization. In those situations, discretion is important so that HR can manage the story and the process more effectively. Automation ensures you’re minimizing the number of people involved in sensitive personnel change.

Wherever in the organization ITOps goes to add value, it’s a worthwhile endeavour to build momentum and demonstrate value and relevance to the business.

5)         Integrate new team members effectively

Inevitably there will be people joining the ITOps team that weren’t around when the automation journey began. And that can be something of a culture shock for them, depending on the organization they came from. But there are ways to get them up to speed pretty quickly. As part of onboarding, get them to check that the automation scripts are running properly, and if they aren’t, to look for opportunities to update them. That’s a great bridge between directly managing the network and learning how to build in automation, and it will get them used to the new way things are being done.

6)         Establish clear criteria for automation candidates

Once an automation culture is up and running, and demonstrating clear value to the organization, the last thing the ITOps function needs is to overreach. That’s why it’s important to have a clear set of guidelines, based on risk appetite, as to what processes/tasks should be considered for automation. It should include an evaluation of how mission critical the task is, how complex it is, and how many discrete technologies are involved.

Ultimately, it’s about ensuring that the ITOps team has the skill sets and the tools it needs to make a success of any new automation project. Start small, get the team on board, build momentum, and find new opportunities to demonstrate success across the organization.

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