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15 best practices for automating IT tasks

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The automation of IT tasks is a crucial priority for IT departments short on staff and long on workloads. Not only can automation relieve administrative burden, but it can also help ensure the accuracy of processes, as sometimes human carelessness, fatigue or error can lead to mistakes.

“Recruitment challenges, budgetary pressure and increasing customer expectations are driving organizations, public and private, to maintain and often expand their operations despite fewer resources,” said Nick Stevens, senior director of product management at Active Network.

Faced with this challenge, many look to efficiency improvements as a solution, commonly in the form of process automation. By employing a structured and strategic approach, your organization can mitigate many of the common pitfalls in process automation and greatly increase the chance of success.

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Stevens pointed out that for government agencies, it’s especially important that all automation projects are given the best chance of success, as taxpayer funds and critical public services may be at stake.

Here are 15 best practices assembled in collaboration to help promote IT automation. Stevens contributed the first three automation best practice tips along with recommended reading: “Intelligent Automation in Government” and “Can Robots Help Your Business Be More Human?” The next nine tips stem from my own observations and experience, and the final three tips were contributed by Alessio Alionco, founder and CEO of Pipefy.

Top 15 IT automation tips

1. Select processes fit for automation

The success of your automation program is dependent on the specific business processes you choose to automate. It is critical to acknowledge that some workflows are better suited for automation than others and to focus your efforts on the use cases where ROI can most easily be realized.

Processes fit for automation have the following characteristics:

  • They are repetitive and high volume.
  • They currently require a large amount of staff time to complete.
  • They follow simple business logic and use structured data.
  • They benefit significantly from increased accuracy and 24/7 operation.

2.   Think big, but start small

While you may wish to automate many processes throughout your organization, it is important to begin the journey with straightforward and low-risk processes that can be automated quickly and successfully.

Not only can these first implementations be used as an example to drive awareness of the benefits of automation within your organization, it will also provide your team with invaluable first-hand experience which will enable the intelligent selection of additional use cases.

3. Before you automate, optimize

Is the business process you wish to automate already as streamlined as possible? Older processes, especially those that may rely on legacy technology and outdated practices, are ripe for optimization.

Before automation work begins, take the time to analyze and simplify the target process, redesigning from scratch if necessary. Doing so will reduce the complexity and ultimately the cost of automation.

While the benefits of process automation are clear, they cannot be obtained without careful planning and execution. By keeping these principles in mind, companies will be well on their way to building a robust foundation that will support their automation goals for years to come.

4. Determine the needs, issues and requirements involved

Automation is intended to solve a problem or fulfill a need, so begin by identifying the problem or need. Do you need to synchronize files from a source server to a target server? An automatic expiration for inactive accounts after 90 days? To schedule a system or systems reboot after hours?

These scenarios may be requested by the user community or simply come from the IT department, but either way the goal should be to reliably conduct an IT task without requiring manual human intervention.

5. Assess the methodology to provide the best solution

Automation processes can come in many forms, such as bash scripts, cron jobs, PowerShell scripts, scheduled tasks, written code and APIs. Make sure to keep things as simple and direct as possible. Whenever I am able, I avoid complexities like scripts that call other scripts or systems that rely on other systems.

6. See if existing solutions can be used

Recycle any automation processes you can — for instance, utilize GitHub code, public PowerShell resources and the like. There’s already so much shared knowledge and so many resources out there formulated by great minds that finding existing solutions and modeling them for your own company’s purposes is quite common. If you are unable to do so, then determine how to implement these solutions anew using in-house resources or consulting.

7. Ensure a risk and security review are completed

It’s important that no standards or protocols are violated by the proposed solution, such as unencrypted traffic, stored passwords, or inappropriate access and permissions. If passwords are required, they should be hashed to prevent security breaches.

8. Develop a test solution and present to stakeholders for confirmation

Formulate a working model of your automation mechanism and ensure that it includes alerting mechanisms so that its success or failure is logged. Pass it off to relevant personnel if applicable to confirm it meets their approval, and make any further adjustments as needed.

9. Implement the solution and monitor the results

When the solution goes live, make sure you thoroughly confirm that the processes work as expected and can run independently without manual intervention. I recommend spot checking the results for a few days.

Check in with any related stakeholders periodically — such as 30, 60 and 90 days later — to gauge the results. Often, an implementation deemed successful from the outset will need further refinement as new details are uncovered or new requirements turn up.

10. Look for ways to improve the automation as newer technologies arise

New technologies are always appearing on the horizon. Make sure your automation processes leverage these advances to stay as nimble and up-to-date as possible.

Alionco advocates the use of low-code software when automating IT tasks for this purpose.

“Implementing tools that support non-technical teams is necessary to achieve business agility, to meet the growing demands developers are faced with and to alleviate the developer shortage,” he said.

Low-code business process automation fills the gap between the business team’s need for quick turnaround and the IT team’s need for control. This makes it easier for staff to build, modify and standardize business processes with an IT-approved set of tools that don’t compromise security or compliance.

As organizations strive to be more agile, resources that promote speed and consistency are key to the future of IT task automation and digital transformation.

11. Determine the right automation tool

Discrete tasks like moving structured data from one system to another might be best addressed with robotic process automation. If there are many different types of tasks that need to be automated, or the automation target is really a process and not a task, then a business process automation tool may make more sense.

12. Aim to augment the existing stack

As tech stacks become more complex through addition or customization, they also become more difficult to manage and secure. Consider an automation tool that integrates with a variety of apps and systems to enhance their functionality and achieve stack extensibility. In particular, BPA tools can help solve the workflow gaps and process fragmentation that arise when new systems are added to the stack.

13. Map the end-to-end process

Having total visibility into the IT process from start to finish can determine the difference between an automation that works and one that fails. Identify the process trigger, each task or activity in the flow, and the outcome that signals when the process is complete. Then review each component of the process for automation potential.

14. Standardize the process

When processes and tasks are standardized, they deliver more consistent results and make it easier to enforce security and compliance requirements.

15. Rely on rules and conditionals

To avoid issues with missing or incomplete information, and to ensure proper routing of information and requests, use rules and conditionals to help control the workflow.

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