Automation and digital transformation: 3 ways they go together

Automation and digital transformation (DX) have become one of IT’s dynamic duos: where you see or hear one, the other seems sure to follow.

They are certainly linked by their priority and popularity in IT and business circles. Automation and DX have been high on the strategic roadmap of CIOs and other executives for years. Digital transformation has become an industry unto itself, and few CIOs have highlighted “automate less” on their strategic roadmap.

But do they always go hand in hand? What is the actual relationship between IT automation and DX? Answers to questions like these require more context and nuance.

Let’s justify the relationship in clear definitions. Here’s how we describe digital transformation at The Enterprisers Project (while also acknowledging that the unique needs and characteristics of a given organization mean that the term “digital transformation” necessarily has to be flexible):

“Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology into all areas of an organization that fundamentally changes the way you work and deliver value to your customers. It’s also a cultural shift that is forcing companies to continually challenge the status quo, experiment and embrace failure.”

It is the scope and scale of this definitional change – and the value it is designed to generate – that leads us to automation. Automation is one of the most important catalysts that make it possible to actually achieve large and small DX goals.

Let’s borrow Definition of IT automation from red hat:

“IT automation, sometimes referred to as infrastructure automation, is the use of software to create repeatable instructions and processes to replace or reduce human interaction with IT systems.”

[ Related read: Automation: 5 issues for IT teams to watch in 2022. ]

At first glance, that might sound like a relatively specific domain – that’s just for the sysadmins and infrastructure engineers, right? But that would ignore the increasing role IT shops are playing in their broader organizations: a company driving digital transformation without the CIO and his team is like flying a transatlantic flight without a pilot – good luck and good luck.

This brings us to the first way in which automation and digital transformation fit together:

1. You can have automation without digital transformation, but not the other way around

All types of automation are designed and implemented for specific purposes or tasks, sometimes for refreshingly simple reasons like “Automation makes our system more resilient, and automation makes my job better.”

This is the type of incremental automation that system administrators and other operations-oriented IT professionals have long performed. It is also common in DevOps and Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) roles. IT automation happens for very good reasons and has now spread deep and far down most if not all of the traditional branches of the IT family tree: development, operations, security, test/QA, data management and analytics – you get the idea. None of this need be tied to a digital transformation initiative; The benefits of a fine-tuned CI/CD pipeline or security automation can be both a means and an end.

However, there is no digital transformation without automation. This claim can easily be exaggerated, and reasonable people may disagree. But digital transformation of the ambitious kind that most Fortune 500 executives are now heavily invested in requires (among other things) a massive technological lever to achieve, and that lever is automation.

Here’s more from red hat Definition:

“Automation is the key to IT optimization and digital transformation. Today’s dynamic IT environments need the ability to scale faster than ever before, and IT automation is critical to making that happen.”

Glynn Newby, Global Manufacturing Industry Principal at SAS, illustrates this aspect of their relationship with a simple example of a DX Goal enabled by automation: “Let’s say your company wants to use analytics to improve and increase production quality Net Promoter Scores.” As with many business initiatives, the timeline given for this goal could look like this xbut the true schedule is probably yesterday – hence the modern obsession with cheetah speed and agility – while of course staying on budget and ensuring five nines uptime.

To achieve Newby’s hypothetical goal, integrate a containerized analytics platform that automatically scales up and down based on analytics load and supports real-time or timely data-driven decisions without massive investments in infrastructure and other resources that go unused for non-trivial purposes periods.

“Today’s dynamic IT environments need the ability to scale faster than ever before, and IT automation is critical to making that happen.”

Mission accomplished, or at least mission activated – the product team (and probably other entities as well) can now get their jobs done much faster and at greater scale than before.

This relatively simple hypothesis is the automatable transformation. It’s not technically the only way, but it’s probably the only way that’s sustainable in the long run.

“IT automation techniques — like containerization — are not the only way to achieve digital transformation, but there are clear benefits, including creating a more secure, portable, and scalable IT ecosystem,” says Newby. “A platform also fills the resource, talent and staffing gaps created by the pandemic.”

2. Automation is the connective tissue of digital business

IT pros are familiar with the concept of Day 2 operations, which essentially asks after any significant rollout or change: what happens when we’re live?

Because digital transformation is so often referred to as a “journey,” organizations and leaders should ask themselves a similar question: what happens when we arrive? Or what happens when we are successful?

[ Learn how leaders are embracing enterprise-wide IT automation: Taking the lead on IT Automation ]

Automation is a big part of the answer: as you achieve DX goals, you’re likely to develop new applications and services, new products, new data streams, and so on. That’s a whole lot of “Day 2s” to contend with, and ignoring them will likely erode any initial gains. Automation is the glue that holds things together when DX initiatives are on the rise.

“If digital transformations are the building blocks that create new business opportunities, then surely automation would be the mortar that binds and connects everything,” says Leon Godwin, principal at Cloud Evangelist Sungard AS. “Companies want to do things better, faster and cheaper to gain a competitive advantage.”

Automation is the glue that holds things together when DX initiatives are on the rise.

You could say that all three terms – better, faster, cheaper – could apply to DX or automation on their own. But as a duo, DX is really about “better” while automation focuses on “faster and cheaper.”

We have found several times in this area that automation alone will not improve a broken or buggy process; It only helps that problematic processes run faster and more often. DX is process improvement capitalized on a scale and scale that can completely transform an organization and the way it works. Automation makes this scale and scale achievable within time and budget constraints and sustainable over an indefinite period of time.

“Digital transformation improves processes, while automation increases speed and reduces costs,” says Godwin. “Ultimately, digital transformation offers greater business value when combined with process efficiencies enabled by automation.”

3. They reflect the future of man-machine partnership

Recall a key element of our definition of digital transformation, one that is sometimes tempered by industry hype: “It’s also a cultural shift that requires organizations to continually challenge the status quo, experiment, and embrace failure .”

We’re essentially at a point where the value and imperative of digital transformation doesn’t need much explaining – everyone has seen the proverbial light.

Automation is a core component of digital transformation alongside artificial intelligence (AI), advanced analytics and the cloud,” says Amaresh Tripathy, Genpact Global Analytics Managing Director. “Business leaders understand that without these technologies, their organizations cannot remain competitive in the digital age.”

Indeed they do. However, some organizations are still figuring out the people and culture part. “Adopting these solutions is only half the battle,” notes Tripathy.

As words sound, automation and digital transformation sound indifferent to people – or as if they are actively trying to remove us from the picture. But the true – and almost limitless – value of automation and DX should be very much in human hands, with a technology-driven tailwind at their backs.

Tripathy and others use the term “augmented intelligence” here to describe the ideal (rather than the more dystopian futures) partnership between humans and machines, with automation and DX as the foundation. Most definitions of the term mix human experience and ingenuity with machine intelligence and scale.

“While automating processes can be beneficial, the real value is in how technology empowers people to innovate, create better products and services, and ultimately increase long-term value for all,” says Tripathy.

While the term augmented intelligence naturally leads any discussion to disciplines such as machine learning and other AI fields, the human-machine relationship it describes is fundamentally linked to the relationship between automation and digital transformation: they can make each other better.

[Where is your team’s digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What’s slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask.]

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