Let’s Be Clear: Automation is Not New Technology

The idea of automation technology has resonated among many in the sourcing community. In some cases, the coverage has been breathless. But what new tangibles does the idea really bring to the table? Since the days of heavyset computing engines that dutifully added, subtracted and multiplied, the raison d’etre of IT has been to reduce manual labor – in other words – to automate. So is automation indeed a new kind of technology? Is it powerful enough to enable significant improvements in IT and business process efficiency?

The new interest in automation may just be old-fashioned marketing. Enterprise software and services vendors have certainly selected labels based on the flavor of the month before. Salesforce.com spent a few summers being a “social” company – when social media monitoring accounted for less than 5 percent of revenues – before admitting that the market did not quite accept the categorization. New labels and the new claims that come with them must be examined critically. In the early 90s, scientists renamed the grizzly bear to the Ursus arctos horribilis from the somewhat less comely Ursus horribillis, which presumably changed neither the realities of being a grizzly bear or the experience of dealing with one.

An array of technologies has existed for a long time with the express purpose of automating hitherto human-executed tasks. Business Process Management (BPM) software can enable “straight-through” execution of complex process flows that have otherwise been mostly manual. BPM tools, through configured rules and process paths, have, for a long time, reduced manual labor in traditional business process outsourcing (BPO) and shared services domains such as finance, accounting and procurement. Specialized customer service management tools, such as Starview, can analyze customer interactions and buying patterns to prompt a human call center agent during a client conversation with alerts personalized for the caller (”make a particular cross-sell,” “propose a survey”). IT management tools, such as those from the stables of CA, IBM, BMC, and HP, establish patterns of normal behavior and alert administrators to breaches and impending breaches. Data centers with virtualization technology and the intermeshing of software-defined abstractions and hardware at the computing, storage, and networking level would be unmanageable without automation. And none of these technologies is new.

BMC acquired an IT infrastructure vendor called ProactiveNet partly for the latter’s automated base lining technology in 2007. In the years between 2005 and 2009, CA, BMC, Symantec and EMC were busy acquiring application dependency mapping specialists to automate discovery of their data center topology and populate Configuration Management Databases (CMDB). What is being called a revolution in automation is actually a fairly old idea.

The difference now is the advent of non-linearity. After decades of outsourcing and offshoring, the efficacy of revenue models that are linked to FTE counts is in question. Service providers, more than ever before, have an incentive to decouple their pricing models from a known number of human resources and have an incentive to reduce the FTE count. After decades of outsourcing, raised expectations for quality and performance have increased demand for innovative technology such as automation.

The concept of automation, in and of itself, does not represent a technology revolution or a paradigm shift in outsourcing. The term automation is too imprecise, encompassing technologies as diverse as BPM, analytics and infrastructure monitoring. When an emerging idea and its marketing term become all things to all people, it may ultimately signify nothing. But that is the subject of another post!