Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Only the Finished Product Matters

For many years, people have lamented the ever increasing use of automation in the workplace.  In the 80's it was on the assembly line, and people complained that the impact on the blue collar labor force would have a detrimental and even a material impact on the economy.  Since the late 90's, this discussion has shifted to the white collar labor force, especially as it relates to IT Automation, and the resulting amount of noise has increased exponentially in the last 10 years.

"The robots are coming!"
What, specifically, is the complaint? "Replacing people with robots" (as we've often heard it characterized) eliminates the need for the people in the first place.  They lose their jobs, which is bad for both moral and economic reasons.  Often, FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) is incorporated into the message along with "#skynet" as people say that we will only be one step away from computers taking over the world and eliminating humankind a la Terminator.

Ok, maybe it's not quite as bad as the last statement, but I have seen inklings of that in the various comments whenever this topic is discussed.

From a purely business perspective, however, it's a much easier discussion since business is driven by money.  Ignoring the "money is the root of all evil" commentary, business simply want to bring in more money than they are spending, and they want the distance between those two numbers to increase over time.

As I've written before in The Executive Relationship (parts 1, part 2 and part 3), one of the ways companies achieve this is to streamline existing processes (also a core tenant in Lean and DevOps) by removing unnecessary waste built into these processes over the years.  But when you consider this from the perspective of Value Stream Mapping (also a part of Lean and DevOps), one of the ways to streamline an existing process is not to eliminate useless activities but also to simply speed up steps to be executed to complete the process as a whole.  This is where IT Automation comes into play.

My personal definition of IT Automation (a.k.a. IT Process Automation, ITPA, Runbook Automation) is the following:

IT Automation is the process of executing tasks with minimal human intervention to achieve a well defined result.

The advantages of incorporating IT Automation are numerous:
  • It executes much more quickly even when done sequentially
  • It can execute tasks in parallel
  • It provides consistent and repeatable results
  • It won’t mistype a command line parameter causing problems
  • Because run books defined in an automation system are self-documenting, the need for people with specialized knowledge is significantly reduced or eliminated

But I would argue that even these items are not what matters most.  What matters most is the end result, because that is what your customers want.  If I go into a fast food place and order a "number 3, medium, with a diet soda" I don't care if people or robots fulfill my order.  All I care about is getting the food I requested so that I can satisfy the need that resulted in the order (i.e. hunger).  And if I feel like I cannot get what I want from this location in a timely manner with a level of quality that I expect then I'll go to another location that can meet those requirements.

This concept extends across all industries, meaning that your end users don't care about how things get done - they just want results.  Don't believe me?  Consider for a moment the multiple corporate scandals that are happening at Uber that have recently resulted in co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick being ousted...I mean taking an unspecific leave of absence.  In case you are unaware, Uber has taken a lot of heat for having a poisonous work environment where sexism runs rampant, the drivers are underpaid or are cheated of their ability to participate in higher rates changed by the company, etc.

Yet Uber still has a market capitalization of USD$69B.  That's B as in Billion.  For a company that owns no vehicles of its own, that number is mind boggling.  Is it justified?  That's a discussion for another blog entry.  But this much is clear:  the company itself is doing quite well when you measure success from the perspective of how many people are using Uber to get from point A to point B.

In other words, riders don't care about the significant challenges the company has at the moment.  They simply need to get to their son's baseball game, their daughter's dance recital, their customer meeting.  They only care about results and whether the company can deliver the results in a way that meets their expectations.

As long as this is what is ultimately driving our economy (Results as a Service), companies are going to do whatever is necessary to improve their ability to deliver the results including incorporating IT Automation to whatever degree is needed.  And if your company hasn't adopted this "do whatever is necessary" attitude by looking at IT Automation as a means for increasing the quality of the goods and services it delivers then it needs to wake up and smell the roses quickly before getting left behind by its peers.