Whither the humans?

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The impact of automation on IT work is going to be massive – but not at all negative. Based on what we have seen in other industries, jobs will change, but they will not go away.

Many people are very concerned that automation and AI will do away with jobs. This concern seems to make sense on the face of it; for instance, when is the last time you went into the bank and spoke to a human cashier, instead of just using the ATM out front?

It’s not quite that simple. ATMs automated certain tasks that human cashiers performed, but for a very long time, the machines augmented the abilities of the bank, for instance by offering out-of-hours service, rather than replacing humans. This increase in capabilities led to an increase in the number of human tellers, even during the rapid roll-out of ATMs.

Contrary to early sci-fi expectations of humanoid robots capable of replicating humans’ extreme flexibility, what we actually got was a variety of single-purpose machines, each one only capable of performing a single task. This did indeed replace some human jobs, but generally the jobs that were replaced were the ones which had already been broken down into atomic tasks, such as on assembly lines.

As technology continues to develop, new areas of employment are being affected. Automation is getting into much more customer-facing industries, such as the front desks of Las Vegas hotels. Once again, the machines are replacing the mechanical task of checking each guest in and issuing them a key. The hotel would far rather all of that were taken care of without tying up expensive human employees and a chunk of prime real estate in the lobby. Meanwhile, the guests are also happier, because they don’t have to wait in a line in the lobby, as their room key is already on their smartphone.

So what do those front desk agents do instead? Checking people in was only one task which made up that job. They also act as adjunct concierges, store people’s luggage, make restaurant bookings, and a hundred and one other jobs that provide value for guests.

Enterprise IT groups would do well to learn from these examples to avoid being replaced by automation or outflanked by shadow IT. The specifics of each situation are going to be different, but here are some suggestions.

Humans are valuable; don’t waste them

Employees are too expensive to waste on single-task jobs. Back in the day, as a junior sysadmin one of my tasks was to swap backup tapes. This task took up maybe an hour of my time spread over a week, so this wasn’t a problem. However, the company’s central tape vault wasn’t staffed by an army of tape jockeys; it had a very impressive tape robot.

Automate any simple tasks which are taking up too much of people’s time.

Don’t forget about Day Two (and Year Two)

Going back to that hotel example for a moment, let’s think about how all those automated systems are going to work a few years down the line. One hotel in Japan found out the hard way. Japan’s Henn-na “Strange” Hotel has laid off half its 243 robots after they created more problems than they could solve. Many of the robots that have been retired were in service for years, making them outdated. The hotel decided it was easier to fire them than to replace them, citing high costs. And in the end, a lot of the work had to be left to humans anyway, especially when it came to asking more complex questions.

Don’t just consider day one; think about long-term operations. Bringing this back to IT, even if you could freeze everything and take a perfect snapshot in your CMDB, what is your plan to stop that snapshot from drifting further and further from actual reality? If you commit 100 per cent to a single vendor across your entire stack, what is your backup plan if that vendor changes its roadmap, gets bought, or goes out of business? And what resources have you set aside to support all of this?

Be visible

No savings will be achieved by a hotel that just takes a bunch of employees who are no longer needed on the front desk and puts them in a back room. Instead, clever hotel managers will extend the concierge desk, the valet desk, or other front-of-house jobs; all the things they had always wanted to do but didn’t have time/budget/resources for. There is scope for outside-the-box thinking; for instance, give employees iPads and set them roaming the property, actively looking for guests who might welcome assistance.

The same thing can be done in enterprise IT. Every IT manager has a long backlog of things they wish they could do – or even things which they know they should be doing, but simply can’t get to. The right question is not “which jobs could you eliminate?” but “which additional jobs could you do?”. A big part of that is making IT proactive instead of being reactive. Don’t wait for users to come to you with a specific request; instead, engage with them to understand what they need to achieve, and propose solutions that they might not even have considered.

Look for the next thing

Once we have automated away the low-hanging fruit, what can we do next? Going with the hotel metaphor one last time, checking guests in on smartphones only recently became possible, but card keys provided value long before. Instead of waiting to replace mechanical locks until the whole ecosystem was in place to support mobile check-in, hotels adopted card keys and embraced all their possibilities: custom branding, access to different areas of the hotel (gym, members’ lounge), and even payment for in-house services. Now all of that is moving to mobile, but how much was saved in the meantime by using the stepping-stone solution?

There is a saying: “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. This is particularly true for IT professionals, who are prone to searching for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, instead of focusing on piecemeal improvements which can be made quickly. Take a leaf from developers, who work with toolchains of diverse products, and upgrade or replace individual links in the chain as and when it makes sense. The savings from an improvement in one place can be applied to another part of the chain which needs attention.

The bottom line is that there is plenty for humans to do, in hotels and in enterprise IT. Deployed right, automation helps them do it, and do more of it, better. The results can be impressive, both in hard economic savings, and in softer terms of user satisfaction.

AI is a great example: deployed for the wrong use case and without thought for the longer term, it can even be counter-productive, sucking up scarce resources without much return. AIOps is AI focused on a particular task – in this case, IT Operations – in a way which augments human capabilities and opens up new possibilities for engagement with end users. That is the way to achieve lasting value.

Dominic Wellington, Director of Strategic Architecture for Europe, Moogsoft
Image Credit: Computerizer / Pixabay