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Automating ITIL

ITIL is rife with opportunities to improve IT’s services through automation, writes ITSM Watch columnist Hank Marquis of Enterprise Management Associates.
Nov 2, 2007

Hank Marquis

Replacing manual work with automation is all the rage today. Automation is a hot topic, but its dirty little secret is that you cannot automate something if you do not understand how it works in the first place. This critical detail makes ITIL process definition a cornerstone to success with IT Service Management (ITSM) automation.

Run Book Automation (RBA), IT Process Automation (ITPA), or simply plain old automation is at the forefront of IT operations today because of the commoditization of IT. While the cost of acquisition for new technology continues to plummet as ease-of-use skyrockets, technology still requires support. IT operations staff must configure and maintain all the new devices that customers and users acquire.

Growth in IT infrastructure complexity is outpacing the ability to support it. Simply put, IT workload is increasing exponentially as staff and budgets remain flat. IT simply must work smarter instead of harder. Enter the promise of automation.

There is a good reason for this interest in automation since much of the work IT does is repetitive. Consider the potential windfall in efficiency, effectiveness, and economy made possible by integrating an actionable Service Catalog with a CMDB system for automated provisioning. For example, an executive goes to the service catalog portal and orders a BlackBerry. The ordering, status tracking, configuration, and account activation can all be done automatically if the processes are understood.

Automation is not automatic however. Without sound and documented manual processes in place, there is little hope to ever achieve real benefits automation. What follows are some guidelines for automating IT workflow around ITIL best-practices. These tips show how almost any IT organization can find real opportunities for automation.

Automation Quick Wins

Many think of machine command scripting when they think of automation. While scripting repetitive diagnostic or control sequences and activities is a common automation approach, there are others as well.

Automation is not only scripting. Like most things, too much of a good thing is not always good for you. Create too many scripts and you soon find yourself losing productivity trying to maintain all these scripts. In fact, automation to automate out-of-control scripting is very popular.

Automation includes applying technology to a virtual- and human-intensive operation or activity, and IT is ripe with opportunities. Once you understand that automation is more than scripting, automating ITIL starts to make lots of sense. The question quickly becomes where to begin your automation project. Without care, this can lead to the classic “solution looking for a problem.” Of course, just the opposite is what you really want.

Keeping this in mind, getting started with automation requires that you understand the job, as it is today. What Six Sigma refers to as the “as-is” state. You must document the current process in place from the perspective of all constituents. Understand the business relevance and value of any automation project before you start. Your goal should be evolution not revolution. You will want to aim for a visible and valuable improvement.

Perhaps the best way to approach ITSM automation is to think about reducing IT service variability since business is less accepting of variability in service delivery than ever before. Most variability within IT occurs from manual processes, making sources of variability prime candidates for a quick, visible and valuable win from automation.

Focus on IT Variability

Variability is the measure of how completed tasks that are supposed to conform to a specification vary among each other. From an IT perspective there are two main types of variability: process and service.

First let’s consider IT process variability. For example, consider your change management process. Do workers always input the details your request for change requires? Or do some people always complete the form while others may or may not follow your process? Do all users call the service desk as they should, or do some go around the process? This is IT process variability.

Examples of IT service variability include missing installation or project dates. Does your team consistently meet agreed timeframes for installs, moves, adds, and changes? What about incident resolution? Regardless of the source or type, IT variability is responsible for poor IT service quality, low customer satisfaction, employee job dissatisfaction, and ultimately loss of competitive advantage.

Simply put, variability is the enemy of quality and cost control. IT variability arises from what LEAN refers to as the “7 wastes”: Defects, Overproduction, Transportation, Waiting, Inventory, Motion, and Processing—DOTWIMP for short.

Using the idea of IT variability and comparing your current operations against the framework of ITIL you can probably find “quick wins” for automation.

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