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Software bots, AI technology to transform IT operations model

CIOs will need to plan for a future in which automation and artificial intelligence will play an increasingly important role in the IT department and required skill sets.

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on how emerging technologies will reshape the IT department and change the skill sets CIOs pursue. Part one focused on the effects of testing automaton and no code/low code platforms.

Data center automation has been around for years, but more sophisticated forms now entering IT departments have the potential to liberate or potentially displace employees.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is perhaps the most discussed example of a technology that stands to significantly reshape the IT operations model. RPA tools aim to create an army of bots that can take over manual, rules-based IT department chores. But RPA is part of a broader spectrum of automation that ranges from simple scripts and macros to still-emerging cognitive platforms that merge automation and artificial intelligence.

Automation in all its forms "is definitely going to have a big impact on the job market," said Susan Tan, a research vice president at Gartner. "IT departments will require fewer people and different skills."

Susan TanSusan Tan

With respect to those different skills, automation could spark a revival of a 1990s throwback: business process re-engineering. There's no sense in automating a broken or inefficient process, so the thinking goes. This re-engineering redux could lead to increased demand among CIOs for IT personnel able to rethink and redesign processes.

Along with automation, AI is poised to influence the direction of IT shops and their required skill sets. AI in the IT department is in its infancy, so developments here will likely trail the effects of automation. But the results could prove similarly dramatic.

Automation's double-edged sword

Whether increasing levels of automation will augment tech workers and free them to do different tasks or replace them is the question facing IT departments and the industry at large.

Relatively simple forms of automation will automate mundane, repetitive tasks such as data entry, trouble ticket resolution or infrastructure provisioning, Tan noted. 

"All these repetitive tasks that can be automated will be automated," she said. "People who do these kinds of repetitive tasks will be replaced or freed up to do different things."

Those alternative tasks might include employees using analytical skills to spot opportunities to exploit corporate data and leverage emerging technologies. Tan said IT staffers may or may not be able to rise to the skill level they need to perform such functions.

"The question is can the people whose time is freed up actually do those higher value-added activities?" she asked.

David Schatsky, managing director, Deloitte LLPDavid Schatsky

David Schatsky, managing director at Deloitte LLP, agreed with that assessment: "The question about the impact of automation on jobs is being asked all the time now and it is harder to talk about jobs than it is to talk about tasks. Routine, repetitive tasks that don't require lots of skills ... are going away. Whether the people doing them lose their jobs is the question."

The economics of automation technologies such as RPA has yet to be fully felt, but the effect on the IT operations model may become apparent fairly soon.

"I think you are seeing [RPA] in IT departments now, but in many IT departments it is still in its very early stages," Schatsky said. He added that the "big impact" will unfold over the next 12 to 18 months or so.

At that point IT organizations will face a choice: cut workers or retain them for a transition to higher-level jobs.

"It really depends on the organization and what their talent strategy is," Schatsky said.

Wanted: Process redesign skills 

Some IT departments may indeed prepare workers to take on new IT roles once they are freed of lower-level chores. Another possibility: reskilling IT personnel for opportunities in and around the RPA technology itself. CIOs and industry consultants suggested business process re-engineering could become a hot skill in light of automation.

Ted Ross, CIO for the city of Los Angeles, said RPA reinforces the need for business process re-engineering.

Ted Ross, CIO, city of Los AngelesTed Ross

"If I am automating something ... it is in my vested interest to automate 15 steps not 100, he said.

To help employees understand how to refine processes before digitizing them, the Los Angeles IT department sends staff members to Lean Six Sigma training, Ross noted. The training is facilitated through the mayor's Office of Budget and Innovation.

Chris Curran, chief technologist at PricewaterhouseCoopers' U.S. advisory practice, also noted the need for process redesign know-how in automated IT departments.

Chris CurranChris Curran

"I suspect what we will see is more emphasis on documenting the current processes, so they can be scripted and automated," he said. "And also, stepping back and looking for ways to redesign them and simplify them so they can automate using the new tools."

Once the process redesign work is done, the task then shifts to the care and feeding of software robots. Tan envisioned a future of "bot farms" consisting of numerous task-performing software entities all requiring training, maintenance and upgrades.

"Someone has to become the bot boss," Tan said, noting that bots, at least for the time being, can't manage or maintain themselves.

Emphasis on exception management

Bots may eventually become self-managing and self-healing, but in the meantime a technologist will need to correct misbehaving bots that have learned to execute bad processes and perform updates as new RPA functionality becomes available, Tan said.

Another outgrowth of automation is a greater focus on exception management within the IT operations model. As RPA and other forms of automation become more prevalent, people with analytical and troubleshooting skills could see higher demand.

Atilla Tinic, CIO, Level 3 Communications Atilla Tinic

Atilla Tinic, CIO at Level 3 Communications, said his company has done some work in the software robot field, focusing on some of the more tedious manual tasks IT staffers perform in the operations group. Service-oriented architecture and platform integration -- the tying together of ordering and billing systems, for instance -- have also helped reduce manual labor, he noted.

In such environments, IT operations staff won't be called on for hands-on-keyboard intervention as business transactions flow uninterrupted across automated and integrated systems. But they will be needed to look into those transactions that stall somewhere in the process. Accordingly, Tinic said he believes the operations side of the IT house should become more exception-focused.

An operations staffer "becomes an investigator," Tinic explained. "Why did this transaction not move from here to here?"

AI on the horizon

AI may be the next technology wave to shake up the IT operations model. AI will likely play numerous roles, from providing cognitive capabilities to process robotics to enabling natural language processing chatbots.

CIOs need people who can bridge the gaps between the business, users and the technology.
Susan Tanresearch vice president, Gartner

In this environment, Tan sees continuing demand for data scientists who can generate and validate hypotheses, create algorithms and understand aspects of AI such as machine learning and deep learning. But people skilled in data science "are not easy to find," she conceded.

"Data scientists are at a premium," Tinic agreed. "We're not going to staff the organization with hordes of data scientists."

Instead, Tinic said his approach will be to evolve systems engineers to become more analytical and up to speed on data science. He said Level 3's technology teams already deploy AI in various flavors. Uses include bolstering cybersecurity, identifying patterns that indicate possible systems issues and optimizing resources -- identifying which employee will be the soonest available to do a particular task.

Training IT staff is one approach for overcoming the shortage of data scientists. Another is to acquire software tools that can turn business users into citizen data scientists. Business teams are beginning to use tools that automate elements of the data science process.

John ReedJohn Reed

In any event, retooling and reskilling appear inevitable as AI makes its way into the IT department. John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, an IT recruitment firm, said AI will likely create a shift in the way some people work and the skills they will use every day.

"The strength of technology professionals, though, is in their ability to be flexible and constantly learning, which will help them take any changes to the way we work in stride."

But what they end up learning may stem from experimentation, rather than a formal program of knowledge. PwC's Curran said he's a big believer in demonstration labs as a mechanism to help determine what skills an organization will need to absorb a particular technology.

"The AI domain is perfect ... for experimentation," he said.

A demonstration or innovation lab is the ideal setting to kick the tires on AI tools and find out what IT staffers know -- and what they don't know, he said. Curran said AI experiments can help determine what kind of skills development and training will be necessary and what kind of third-party help might be required.

"I think that is a best practice -- having that capability to do the hands-on experimentation."

Building bridges

As automation and AI continue to make inroads, CIOs will need people who can close the gap between humans and machines.

"In an AI world, you need people ... who can work equally well with people and technology," Tan said. "CIOs need people who can bridge the gaps between the business, users and the technology."

Organizations are going to rely on people -- equipped with technical knowledge and business acumen -- to advise business stakeholders on how to apply technologies such as automation and AI to their business challenges, Tan said.

"You have to define the problem you are trying to solve and then you can leverage technology to solve that," she said. "Bots aren't going to do that."

Steve BrownSteve Brown

Steve Brown, author, futurist and former chief evangelist at Intel, said businesses need to begin a dialog on how to build teams in which humans and machines participate as partners.

"It is very easy to look at automation as a way to reduce your labor costs," Brown said. "Which jobs can we get rid of? That is a simplistic and shortsighted view."

The task at hand, and a one that should involve a company's IT and human resources departments, is to find the best person, or machine, for the job, he said.

"Look at every business process in your organization and parse that out into which ... tasks are best done by human, algorithm or robot," Brown said. 

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