When the COVID-19 pandemic led workplaces to move to remote or hybrid operations last year, many enterprises sped up their automation efforts out of necessity. Now that many organizations are moving back to an in-office workplace model or continuing in some fashion with hybrid operations, it’s time to evaluate where those automation efforts made sense – and where (and how) they should continue moving forward as organizations push toward digital transformation and pandemic recovery at the same time.
Figuring that out is going to require an automation strategy, one that takes the new realities of the workplace into account and incorporates the lessons learned during the pandemic. But those strategies also have to consider the workers who must implement them after a stressful year and a half that has increased job switching and left many people overwhelmed and burned out.
Enterprises have had to increase their automation adoption processes just to keep their heads above water amid the challenges of the pandemic, said Jeff Aaron, vice president of enterprise marketing at Juniper Networks. The trend isn’t a new one – worldwide industrial robot installations have been steadily increasing over the decade, for example. But a year ago, the National Bureau of Economic Research predicted that the pandemic would accelerate automation, and in January of this year an International Monetary Fund working paper found that concerns about automation during the pandemic displacing workers long-term may be founded.
While the pandemic isn’t over, vaccination means that many organizations are planning for a new normal, if not a return to normal as it once was. That planning has to include a strategy for automation – one that ensures it is implemented effectively and securely, in a way that makes work easier for employees during this time instead.
Beyond Automation for Automation’s Sake
“Automation has been around in one form or another for a while, so it is not that enterprises don’t know how to leverage it, but the problem has often been the haphazard deployment of automation in the enterprise,” said Hansa Iyengar, principal analyst of enterprise IT strategy at Omdia.
Automation for automation’s sake is the wrong way forward. That said, automation does have significant potential to transform business operations – and is, one way or another, likely to impact your enterprise in the coming months and years. For example, a Bank of Canada working paper from May 2021 found that the pandemic may accelerate automation, particularly in jobs typically held by women with low-to-mid-range wages and education levels. And Gartner predicted in late 2020 that this year would see a big jump in automation software revenue.
With all that in mind, the value of a cohesive automation strategy is clear, Aaron said. With one, enterprises can free up time spent on mundane tasks, spot patches in a more timely manner and more quickly alert teams to potential attacks, among many other functions. If done well, this can reduce or streamline the immediate workload for some employees as they adjust to a shifting workplace, freeing them up to contribute in more strategic ways going forward.
The most obvious areas to bring automation into a hybrid/remote working environment are in the operational side of things, Iyengar said: provisioning, security/monitoring, HR processes such as onboarding, finance processes such as expensing and workflow automation.
“These elements can help businesses streamline their processes, reduce load on the IT department and free resources up to focus on delivering excellent customer engagement to both internal and external customers,” she said. “Delivering superior experiences has to be the Holy Grail which guides the adoption and scaling of automation across the enterprise. Automation has to augment human resources and arm them with the tools to drive collaboration, communication and engagement.”
A Focus on Security
As employees return to the office after working from home, prepare to work remotely over the long term or get set up for hybrid work arrangements, a good automation strategy must consider security. There have been major failings over the past year or so in ensuring enterprise data security, Iyengar said.
“Over the past year we have seen organizations completely transition the way they operate from IT to information security by rapidly introducing new software [tools] into their environments to support remote workers across the globe,” said Josh Rickard, a security research engineer with Swimlane. Automation both supports this increase in demand and speeds up the enterprise response to threats, the number of which is only increasing.
“Automation, especially SOAR [security orchestration, automation and response], has proven to help not only the traditional response activities from phishing or SIEM [Security Information and Event Management] alerts but also other business processes like employee onboarding and offboarding, compliance management and even physical security measures,” Rickard said.
That will continue to be the case as enterprises adjust to different work environments, and it’s important for it to work as planned at all stages – both for employee and organizational security, and to prevent frustrating issues with access and permissions.
Don’t Forget Your People
However, in automating enterprise processes, the focus needs to remain on the humans using the service, Iyengar said. “As the world limps back into recovery, businesses have to now take a more cohesive approach to automation and link it back to long-term objectives and weave it into ongoing roadmaps rather than look at it as a short-term ‘fix,’” she said.
For example, automation can help employees by providing ways to deal with the ever-increasing amounts of data that enterprises generate. But that data often exists in siloes. “Different enterprise systems do not essentially talk to each other, so that data does not necessarily provide a complete picture of what’s going on with the business or the customer,” Iyengar explained.
Organizations must focus on removing these siloes and ensuring the free flow of information in real time, to enable sharper insights for decision making to be delivered by analytics solutions, she said. With a strong automation strategy in place, there can be a roadmap for dealing with data siloes first, then moving to automation that will remove employee frustrations and streamline their job processes.
“The bottom line is that while the pandemic was certainly a forcing function for automation adoption and accelerated digital transformation, the need doesn’t end with the pandemic,” Aaron said. “If anything, we should be reminded now that adopting new and necessary technologies cannot wait until an emergency and should instead be prioritized before they are needed most.”