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Business functions such as accounting, logistics and human resources have all benefited from IT-led process automation — everyone, it seems, except for the IT department itself. But that’s all changing thanks to the growing acceptance of automated process management systems

Business functions such as accounting, logistics and human resources have all benefited from IT-led process automation — everyone, it seems, except for the IT department itself. But that’s all changing thanks to the growing acceptance of automated process management systems, Brad Howarth writes

It used to take BT Group’s security team 46 steps to set-up a new user account. The New Starter procedure was laborious for the team, and generally led to a poor experience for new employees.

So the financial services company turned to IT process automation technology for a solution. By taking a subset of this on-boarding process — including creation of a user account, e-mail, and additions to security and applications — and creating a proof-of-concept automation project, BT has been able to reduce a process that was previously taking seven minutes per user to something that can be completed in less than 15 seconds.

It is now looking at how automation can be applied to the remainder of its on-boarding procedures. The result: happy IT security personnel and happy new employees.

Information technology has done an incredible job making life easier for almost everyone but the people responsible for it. Business functions such as accounting, logistics and human resources have all benefited from IT-led process automation, but when it comes to actually helping the IT department itself, the report card is not so favourable.

Through mergers and acquisitions or simply the rapid evolution of technology itself, IT departments have found themselves managing outdated and incompatible systems that require a large amount of hands-on management — even for simple tasks such as provisioning new users.

An unfortunate truth for many organisations is that the state of the IT department and the tools it has to work with are less of a priority than helping the business to get the job done. The problem is further exacerbated in those organisations that treat IT as a cost centre.

So while many IT departments invest most of their time and effort in activities designed primarily to “keep the lights on”, there is rarely any money left in the annual budget for projects that might free up some of that time. Getting a business case up for easing the workload on IT staff is rarely an easy prospect, and such projects are often first in line to be dropped in the next round of cost-cutting.

But for those IT organisations that rushed to install new technology in the lead up to Y2K, and then suffered as budgets were reined in across the IT industry in the years that followed, the mid part of this decade has seen many CIOs begin looking at their internal processes and asking whether things could be done better.

According to Gartner’s vice president of research David Williams, IT management systems vendors have recognised this. Hence the second half of this decade has seen the releases of numerous new products for automating and streamlining IT process. Williams counts at least 26 automation products in the market today.

“To automate the infrastructure easily has not been achievable until recently when these new automation products started to appear,” Williams says. “Now every single big software company in the management space has got one of these products. They are starting to use these automation products like glue.”

Many of these are aimed at taking the human friction out of IT departments, yet Williams says it is important not to confuse automation with cost reduction. “They think if they automate their infrastructure they can eliminate costs from the human aspects,” Williams says. “That sort of works, but mostly in small automation procedures that don’t require a lot of administration and ownership.”

Unfortunately, however, most IT environments tend to be very ad hoc, with multiple non-standard elements. Removing costs in IT can mean focusing on a large number of very small processes, and requires investment in people and processes.

“Organisationally, companies have to be at the point where they can support the process end to end,” Williams says. “The software can do what it says it is expected do, but organisations are not mature enough at this moment in time to bring them in and see the value. The initial costs can be very high if you want to get the operation efficiency gains and do that big work. But in the mid- to long- term they tend to get that efficiency back.”

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