BULLET # 56
THE STAGES OF AUTOMATION
Like Piaget's stages of maturation, I/S organizations undertaking automation of their operations pass through similar stages of development. We see five phases: Noise Control, Routine Operation, Escalated Recovery, Performance Enhancement and Reengineering.
I. Noise Control
The first stage of automation seeks to gain control over the avalanche of information and messages produced by current systems. This is most visible in the noise of multiple printers spewing status information, warnings and error messages. The simple fact is that as messages to operators increase, their usefulness decreases. Automation tools provide an external method of filtering system and application messages without the longer-term task of rearchitecting all the programming.
II. Routine Operation
The second stage is to use automation to run well-established jobs and handle the interdependencies. In its simplest form, this is a type of batch job automation. In a more advanced use, it can replace some shift work altogether. For routine sites, where operations plays mostly a watch dog role, this phase can provide the first step toward "lights out" operations. However, the key distinguishing feature of this stage is automation of the routine operational processes.
III. Escalated Recovery
During the next phase, the escalation of system problems is automated. Initially this may be a matter of auto-dialing people up the chain of command and simply reporting the problem and requesting an acknowledgment. This involves handling alternates much in the fashion of a help desk's calling list. It also means going the extra step of providing communications, or auto-bulletins, during extended recovery operations (i.e., while everyone's busy recovering applications and systems). Later, the set of routine recovery actions is itself programmed, but requires an operator to set in motion. Finally, the actions are taken automatically without the intervening step.
This is the time in the life cycle of automation that the opportunity for building a knowledge base is possible. By automating the problem resolution process, the knowledge of the "expert" operator is programmed into the system for the common, anticipated problems. When added to help screens in the automation system, this knowledge base acts as a training tool for new operators, and leverages the skills of the more senior operators across the entire organization.
IV. Performance Enhancement
During this phase automation systems are used to achieve gains in reliability and operations performance. Automating operator processes ensures that actions are taken consistently first time, every time. For example, routine shift checklists can be automated. The automated checklist allows far more exhaustive testing of the system for each shift, and permits more checks per shift. Under an automation system, it is possible to run thousands of checks per shift, and run it the same way day after day without fail. Reliability naturally improves. The added benefit is that now operators are freed to do higher level tasks and projects usually requiring additional resources.
The automated checklist can be further developed into a definition of the optimal system. This means the creation of a data base defining process states, start times, object code dates, file update periodicity and size, etc. The automation system is then employed to query the system in each of its elements, comparing the results with the optimal configuration stored in the data base. As a result, discrepancies can be quickly identified and corrected. Since the configuration data base defines the optimal system state, auto-verification can also be used to test the proper restoration of the system following outage recovery operations. Finally, auto-verification provides an additional way to check that system changes are rolled out as expected. Since system changes mean changes in the definition of the optimal configuration, the exceptions noted by auto-verification can be in turn verified against the nightly change list. Afterwards, the exception report can be used to update the configuration data base.
Another benefit of automating operator processes is the opportunity to gather more data about system and operations performance. This information can then be fed into reporting tools for Executive Information Systems (EIS) and other MIS applications. For example, data about the number, severity and duration of application and system outages can be automatically gathered over time and improvements tracked against objectives.
The most promising part of this step is the ability to put operations performance data directly into the hands of the front-line operators. For example, the automation system can track the speed of problem resolution on an individual operator basis. Operators can then compare themselves with their individual best and the department's best performance. Now, operators can "keep score" on themselves and take actions to improve performance with immediate and frequent feedback.
Soon after achieving automation gains it is apparent that the next level of benefits can be achieved only by redefining the processes themselves. Ideally, the development of automation tools in an I/S organization ought to be the occasion for examining all of the operating procedures and processes. The name of the game here is to eliminate as many steps and hand-offs as possible in order to achieve faster turnaround and to move the information closer to the customer.
To further bring the company closer to the customer, automation systems can be used as a way to plug customers into internal systems. This may involve both monitoring of information important to them and the ability to take actions on the system to impact service to them. In this case, automation tools can provide the security buffer between the system and the customer, controlling and monitoring their actions.
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