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Robotics in IT service management – fantasy or near future?

IT has advanced service automation rather slowly even though there have been many possibilities. Now signs of development are in the air as robotic process automation is rising and new technology is taking down old barriers. Still, the key question is whether IT management and other parts of an organisation are ready to learn from each other.

Seven years ago I wrote about IT service processes automation. I optimistically described possibilities for eliminating manual work stages and making the delivery chain of IT services more efficient by automating processes from one end to the other. As examples of the first steps I gave a few ”easy” targets that would yield benefits quickly, such as resetting passwords, granting access rights, installing software and using automatic configurations.

The idea was – and still is – that after quick wins automation should be systematically advanced towards other targets that produce cost savings within the IT.

As I now watch the situation from a bird’s eye perspective, IT has done annoyingly little for service automation over the years. Many organisations have participated in audacious development programs and drafted significant policy outlines regarding automation but the results, despite a handful of successes, have not been very impressive.

Bits and pieces have been automated, but on average we are still wrestling with the same manual processes day after day. Service automation cannot be said to play an important part in modern-day work, at least not in the IT services.

What is slowing down automation?

There are probably many reasons for the modest results. I do not believe it to be due to lack of vision or trying, because many development programs have been launched. Often the reasons for sticking with manual processes have to do with such wretched things as the inadequate interfaces of legacy systems, or integration projects that have snowballed into complicated exercises. Many systems speak a language of their own, and a common standard has not yet been created despite good efforts.

Should we throw in the towel and accept the fact that manual processes will be here as long as systems and solutions built in the last millennium are used in IT management? Maybe not, because technical solutions for constructing service automation have improved in recent years.

Software robots on the rise

The trendiest solutions of today are based on software robots. These simulate a user, and the necessary transactions are done through a user interface – for instance a piece of software or a browser on the workstation. This makes sure the inadequacy of the target system’s integration interface does not prevent service automation. Another benefit of these solutions is that they can relatively easily be taught new processes that need to be automated.

It has been a delight to recently see many front-running companies and public administration authorities start new projects related to software robots, aimed at automating high-volume processes. Typically the projects have been in connection with services outside of IT management, such as financial and HR services that deal with enormous numbers of routine contacts every day. Examples of these could be requests related to purchase invoices and sales invoices, different situations regarding employment, and office services.

The next level of software robots will be automating the traditional customer service channels with virtual agents, meaning that e.g. the customer service person in a call centre would be an intelligent robot. Projects related to this are also running, although the technology is still developing.

Is IT management ready to learn from others?

IT management has been a forerunner in many things: Users are being offered services through self-service channels and instant messaging. Service requests are being handled systematically and effectively. The customer service experience is being measured and developed.

IT departments have surely (hopefully) been involved in robotics projects in the role of enabler or supporter, but there is still a lot learn in increasing the level of automation. Now IT has a great opportunity to draw information from other parts of its organisation and thus develop its operations in IT service automation. The key in this, too, seems to be co-operation and taking down extra barriers. The question is: is IT management ready to be the apprentice for a change?

I believe and hope that when another five years have passed we will be able to say that the automation of IT services has developed significantly. This will not happen by itself, so I challenge all IT departments to participate in the effort to make work more effective.

About the author

The writer Jussi Vuokko has helped companies of different sizes to develop their IT management and service production for nearly two decades. At Sofigate, Jussi answers for service management solution deliveries to international organisation and is therefore able to experience the everyday work in enterprise service management from a front row seat