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ITIL Service Automation – Are we even needed any more?

Once upon a time, if an end user had a computer-related issue, IT support had to leave their desk and pay a visit to the end user. That end user might be located in the office next door, in a neighboring building, or in a town 300 km away. Therefore, for distant remote locations, the common solution was to have on-site technicians to provide support. With time, technology – and more importantly, communication technology – advanced, so instead of providing support in person, we could use a remote desktop connection to troubleshoot a great proportion of issues end users may experience, which consequently diminished the need for on-site support personnel.

This advancement is most visible within the Service Desk organization, as the first line of support, which is described in my previous article ITIL Service Desk types. With the abovementioned example of technology advancement, IT organizations achieved better response times, decreased time to resolve issues, and increased service quality in general. Does this mean that automation is the Holy Grail of Service Management?

Service automation in retrospect

After that first step in service support automation, IT technicians discovered that the majority of issues end users were reporting were somewhat password related. At that time, best practice for complex passwords and password-related policies was introduced (e.g., password had to be changed once a month, must contain uppercase letter, number and special character, etc.). Users kept forgetting their passwords, mistyping the password and getting locked out of the computer, or simply couldn’t find the right combination that would fit within all constraints.

It’s not really a complex task to unlock a user account and set up a new password, but it’s repetitive, boring, and when it has to be performed over and over again – may become prone to errors. But the biggest issue of such a simple task is the time a user has to wait from the moment he reports a password-related issue to successful resolution. I’ve witnessed cases where users were unable to log in to the computer for a whole work day, as IT support was flooded with different requests, and password-related issues were identified to be of the lowest priority.

With further technology advancement, we’ve managed to automate password-related issues with Self Service Portals, which enabled users to utilize alternate identification methods and unlock their account or set a new password. Then we used Self Service Portals to enable automated service orders; you could order a new service from the IT service catalogue (e.g., larger email quotas, access to file share, etc.), which would only need proper approval to be automatically executed and provided to the requester. Nowadays, cloud service providers use automation for almost every single process: service ordering, sizing, configuration, provisioning, billing, etc.

Benefits of Service Automation

Impact of Service variationFigure 1 – Impact of Service variation on Service quality

One of the most beneficial properties of Service automation comes from the fact that a process will be executed in the same way every single time. Such precision in repetitive execution is virtually impossible when human labor is involved. As shown in Figure 1, if great variation within process execution is introduced, it has great impact on real and perceived service quality.

Automation is generally considered to improve both utility and warranty of services. Moreover, you can easily adjust capacity of automated resources, as a response to variations in demand volume. Such level of response presents a great challenge for most manual tasks. As automated tasks are always performed in the same manner, you can easily measure, analyze and implement potential process improvements, which again can be measured, analyzed and compared to previous values. It’s easy to improve automated process compared to those performed manually.

Challenges of Service Automation

There’s a need to hide the complexity in the relationships between customer outcomes and the service assets that produce them, and present only the information the customers need to specify the utility and warranty needed with respect to any particular outcome. When you possess knowledge about such relationships, automation is nothing more than a means of capturing that knowledge and distributing it throughout the organization in a consistent manner.

It’s possible to handle routine service requests with at least some level of automation. Such requests should be identified, classified and routed to automated units or self-service options. Good practice is to simplify processes before automating them; however, simplification must not impact outcome.

Risks of automationFigure 2 – Risks of automation (source: https://xkcd.com/1319/  – published under Creative Commons A-NC license)

Are we even needed any more?

With rapid advancements in technology, especially in machine learning algorithms, we might see the day when programs will not only be able to execute predefined processes, but improve them by learning, redesign or even design new ones in order to meet the current need. However, I believe it’s safe to assume that such technology won’t be available in the near future.

Any form of automation relies on knowledge regarding the relationship between assets and desired service outcome. In order to gain that knowledge, you need to transform raw data into information, which requires understanding. At the moment, we can only program machines to manipulate data and information based on our own knowledge of the subject matter. An automated process will only be as effective as the person who designed it, or as coders like to say: “garbage in – garbage out.”

To compare the issue with a more common topic, smart kitchen appliances didn’t eliminate the need for the kitchen itself, or the chef. They only make our lives little bit easier and homes more comfortable. I still yearn for the smart fridge that would automatically order stuff when I run out. Oh, and alert me to expired products. I’d buy that in a heartbeat.

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