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What automation can mean for your service management
Service management of the future won’t be about service desks, call centers and support tickets. It won’t be about response times, first-call resolution and satisfaction surveys. Service management of the future will be about automated workflows, self-service capabilities and self-healing IT systems. Machine learning will be the engine for resolving routine requests. Artificial intelligence (AI) will modernize end-user experiences. IoT and embedded sensors will provide accurate and real-time monitoring of both technological components and end-to-end services.
If you are having trouble visualizing service-management operations of the future, then look at customer service related industries where modern service management techniques and capabilities have already become mainstream. Self-service, automated provisioning workflows, technology-enabled incident management processes and advanced resource scheduling capabilities are not only transforming user experiences but also improving profitability as well. Here are some examples:
The airline industry has become almost completely automated since 2009. Online ticketing via websites, mobile applications and 3rd party aggregators (such as Expedia and Orbitz) have replaced human staff at airports and traditional travel agents. Customers can browse offerings; compare prices and flight options anytime, anywhere; and make purchases without waiting in a queue to talk with an agent. Customer seating preferences, frequent-flyer perks and other provisioning policies are managed electronically and applied using business rules, leading to greater efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Airport check-in processes have migrated from ticket agents to self-service kiosks, mobile apps and home-based capabilities, so customers are able to print their boarding passes and baggage tags. Electronic boarding passes have eliminated the need for some travelers to visit the ticket counter entirely, making airport logistics much more efficient.
Behind the scenes, machine learning capabilities are powering pricing algorithms, so airlines can implement demand-based variable pricing to achieve an optimal balance between asset utilization and the profitability of operations. For flight operations, data from sensors embedded within planes are used to drive maintenance scheduling and prevent asset downtime for repairs. Air traffic control data, weather forecasts and flight schedules are used to predict disruptions and service delays – allowing carriers to provide more consistent, on-time arrivals.
The retail industry has been experiencing a technological revolution since 1999, primarily through a shift towards e-commerce. Grocery stores are one of the few segments in the retail industry that, until a couple of years ago, had been successfully focused on brick-and mortar-operations due to the fresh and refrigerated products they offered. That changed during 2018, as customers sought the same conveniences of at-home grocery shopping to which they became accustomed to retailers, such as Amazon and Walmart. Automation combined with local-delivery capabilities has transformed the grocery-buying experience.
Customers can use store Websites, mobile applications and, most recently, inventory capabilities built into smart appliances to compile shopping lists at home that can either be transferred to the store for delivery or accessed via a mobile app while browsing the grocery store in person. Many grocery stores now offer self-service checkout capabilities, leveraging barcode scanners, visual recognition of produce items and weight sensors embedded in bagging areas. These self-checkout kiosks allow a larger number of customers to check out simultaneously, utilize less floor space in the store and don’t require a cashier for each kiosk (significantly saving operational costs).
Online ordering, self-service kiosks and delivery services are integrated with inventory management, scheduling and supply-chain systems with automated workflows for stock replenishment, inventory forecasting and real-time profitability analysis. Some stores have even used this capability to determine the optimal time to bake fresh bread at in-store bakeries to create pleasing smells that lead to increased impulse purchases.
While some industries have focused on automation to enhance customer experiences, the telecommunications industry (formerly phone and cable companies and now Internet and TV providers) are using technology to streamline service provisioning and reduce their dependency on field-service technicians. The results are reduced operating costs, faster provisioning times and more accurate monitoring of service outages and disruptions.
Customer service has always been a challenge for the telco industry and for many years, providers were ranked as having poor customer satisfaction, due partly to time delays associated with manual ordering, installation and service repair. Customers now shop for service offerings on providers’ websites, making subscription choices and managing billing without having to talk to an agent on the phone or visit an office.
For customers in newer homes or where service was provided previously, installation appointments are not required. Equipment is shipped directly to the customer, pre-registered and activated automatically the first time the customer plugs in the device. In some areas, customers using self-service capabilities can complete as much as 90% of new service installations. If an installation fails, then company technicians can access diagnostic data and logs remotely – to perform remote troubleshooting, which results in more efficient scheduling of field staff. Customers manage their subscriptions on the provider’s Website and/or mobile app, so they’re able to respond to marketing offers, upgrade service and manage billing anytime and from anywhere.
Behind the scenes, service providers use real-time data from user devices to offer customized advertising based on viewer demographics and locations, which helps drive greater ad revenue. Usage data also determines content offerings and meters bandwidth to achieve optimal infrastructure-capacity utilization. Device-diagnostic data is used to monitor service outages and disruptions. This data is combined with infrastructure-dependency data to pinpoint the cause of outages and expedite restoration of service.
Customers consider Internet and TV providers as utility services – they just expect them to work and, unless they are broken, customers don’t actually think about them often. With self-service capabilities and automation, providers are able to relieve many of the customer pain-points, which are the causes of dissatisfaction, while also reducing internal costs.
It isn’t surprising most companies first invest in technological solutions that directly relate to customer engagement and decreasing the costs of producing and providing goods and services. These investments have a clear ROI and tie directly to competitive differentiation and company profits. The impact of entire industries modernizing with self-service and automation capabilities is a change to the underlying expectations of consumers about how they interact with businesses. Consumers from the Millennial Generation who have come to expect self-service and real-time and automated experiences throughout their young lives now represent a large proportion of the global workforce and they are bringing their consumer expectations to work with them.
IT departments face internal pressures to provide modern employee experiences, utilizing technologies, such as mobile apps and real-time data, while also reducing operational expenses and overhead costs. Service-management automation applied to internal business processes is providing IT departments with a means of achieving both goals simultaneously.
During the past, automation and developing modern employee experiences have been expensive undertakings. Only large companies with well-funded IT departments had the resources to invest in the custom development, integration and maintenance necessary to provide the experiences that employees desired. Small and medium-size companies simply could not afford the investments, and still mostly use the same manual processes they have for decades.
The popularity of cloud services and SaaS offerings have changed the situation. Providers, such as Freshworks, offer subscription-based, cloud platforms that support core business functions, such as HR, finance and IT operations, which offer the same features of large, custom solutions with a pricing model that small IT organizations can afford. These platforms include many of the most commonly requested self-service capabilities, automate provisioning and approval workflows, and include full-featured support for mobile devices.
Emerging technology, including machine learning, artificial intelligence, global broadband and IoT devices, are poised to accelerate adoption of service-management automation during the next few years by making devices easier to connect and providing management capabilities that cross the boundaries of individual technology types. Machine learning (ML) has already become a mainstream technology embedded in ITSM systems, integrated with cloud-management platforms and extendable into business services. ML empowers companies to orchestrate complex workflows efficiently for the many systems that use business rules and pattern recognition. Once a skill has been “learned,” it can be executed repeatedly without human intervention.
Artificial intelligence is transforming the interface between IT systems and the physical environment. Since the beginning of the computer age and to the present, a keyboard and computer screen (sometimes a mouse) have been the primary interface tools for humans to interact with computer systems. AI has introduced a new set of natural-language-processing capabilities (such as popular digital assistants Siri, Alexa and Cortana) that allow users to interact with devices and technology services using voice commands. Those commands are then translated through “AI skills” into tasks, queries and commands that are executed in the IT environment. AI’s capabilities extend beyond voice interactions to image matching, pattern recognition and statistical forecasting of potential outcomes. The total impact of artificial intelligence on service management has not yet occurred, but it is anticipated AI systems will oversee most service-management functions during the next few years.
One of the biggest challenges in service-management automation today is connecting devices and people who are not physically located at a site with reliable broadband-Internet access. Recent announcements of multiple initiatives to develop commercial broadband internet access globally using a network of low-orbit satellites have the potential to allow companies to overcome this challenge and provide automation and self-service capabilities anywhere on Earth. Connectivity is important, particularly considering mobile technologies and IoT devices, which require access to cloud services and other centralized resources.
Technology is a fantastic tool that can be used in many ways throughout your organization. There are a seemingly endless set of options for what you could automate, and it is easy to become overwhelmed. The best way to prioritize your service-management-automation investments is to focus on the reasons you want to automate and the benefits you expect to achieve. Not only will this help you prioritize automation investments, but also it will help you direct your automation efforts to achieve quantifiable results.
One of the biggest reason’s companies automate service-management activities is to improve the speed of issue resolution. Repetitive tasks may only require a few minutes to complete manually, but when staff members are managing a large volume of requests, they often result in a queue, causing processing backlogs.
Automation can both allow tasks to be completed faster and for more tasks to be performed in parallel (avoiding queueing). For more complex activities with multiple steps, entire workflows can be completely automated – reducing the number of handoffs between staff members and the risk of duplicate data-entry errors. In many cases, service-management automation can provide resolution times measured in seconds instead of hours or days.
Many of the service requests support teams receive from customers, employees and suppliers are activities that they can do themselves if they had the right information and tools. Consider the customer-service examples mentioned earlier and the opportunities to remove the agent from the picture for simple requests. Service-management automation can help companies provide a one-stop shop for routine service requests, such as access, password resets, provisioning and updates of software or performing tasks related to job-role changes.
With staff preferences shifting from desktop to mobile devices, self-service capabilities can be enabled through mobile applications to provide access to resources anytime and anywhere. This allows employees to focus on time-sensitive business-process activities when they are in the office and perform administrative tasks during other times of their day.
Every minute spent on a service request disrupts normal business activity. When customers and employees must spend their time waiting for a response, waiting in line or waiting on hold is wasteful and disruptive to your business. This is the time they could be using to focus on their primary job responsibilities and renders them essentially idle and unproductive. Service-management automation and self-service capabilities can help you reduce the time staff members are waiting for support and increase their productivity.
Routine maintenance, change implementation and incident managements often cause system downtimes, which automation in IT can help reduce – avoiding service outages that impact business productivity. An issue can be addressed with automated monitoring of system and business-process performance before they escalate to complete outages or work stoppage.
Every company experiences business cycles, both busy and slow periods. Examples include Black Friday in retail, financial-closing periods, open enrollment for employee benefits and new-product launches. During these periods, service-management staff members often experience large spikes in workloads, leading to increased wait times and requiring more time to resolve issues.
Service-management automation can help your operations expand during peak periods with self-service capabilities performing some activities and allowing service-desk agents to manage more issues. The results include both better SLA compliance and a greater peak workload.
Agents go home at the end of the day, but automation is always working for you. Providing 24-hr. service-management support 365 days a year is a costly operation for most companies and which smaller organizations simply cannot afford. Unfortunately, globalization, e-commerce and virtual-work arrangements have made 24x7 support a necessity for most businesses.
With service-management automation, you can provide always-available services to employees, customers and suppliers without implementing shift-work for your staff or leveraging outsourced call-center services. Self-service capabilities can be made available on any device, at any time, at any location (even at home or while traveling). Some companies have even expanded these capabilities to support localized languages when working with people in different regions.
There is no definitive list of service-management automation scenarios. Every company is unique, and your automation strategy must be focused on the areas that address the biggest pain-points and generate the most value. Think of it as harvesting low-hanging fruit. Once automation opportunities with the largest priorities are addressed, there will be a new set of opportunities – either what is next on the list (ripe fruit ready to pick) or new problems and opportunities that emerged as a result of business changes and technological evolution (new trees in the orchard). Automation is a journey, not a destination, and your company’s goal should be to harvest as much value as possible early, so you can reap the benefits as you continue on your automation path.
Identifying high-value opportunities for service automation isn’t difficult in most companies, but it is easier if you have some idea of what you’re seeking. Service automation isn’t just for IT (although there are many ITSM activities that could be automated). HR, sales, customer service, manufacturing, finance, procurement and many other business functions can benefit from automation too. Here are some of the most common areas where companies are leveraging service-management automation.
Company operations have many repetitive tasks. They aren’t generally difficult and individually aren’t time-consuming, but in aggregate consume much time and many resources.
IT – Scheduled backups, checking the status of software versions and resetting passwords
HR – Job/manager changes, address updates, name changes and basic payroll/benefits requests
Procurement – Processing catalog-based requests, approving low-value purchases and updating asset records
Service-management automation can be used wherever a group of activities must be performed sequentially. Automation makes it possible for you to start new tasks immediately when other processes complete, eliminating unnecessary waiting time. Automated sequences should always include appropriate error-and-exception rules to inform staff members if data, systems, etc. aren’t processing correctly.
IT – Applying updates and patches, installation of new software, provisioning devices and infrastructure
HR – New employee/vendor additions, background checks, reorganizations, terminations and job/salary changes
Provisioning – Ordering catalog-based products and services, coordinating delivery and billing/chargebacks
With service-management automation, many automated activities can be executed systematically without human initiation. System rules, exceptions and workflow triggers can generate alerts, initiate diagnostic routines and execute workflow tasks.
IT – Capacity management, performance alerts, error/exception handling and service outages
HR – Policy violations, abnormal activity (such as excessive absences) and management notifications
Security – Unauthorized access, Information-security events and disaster protocols
Some activities are only performed periodically (they aren’t repetitive) but require significant time and effort to complete. Service-management automation can be used to improve staff productivity and reduce the cycle time for completing these tasks.
IT – Asset Inventories, software license management, software installation
HR – Résumé screening, job role/salary normalization, employee satisfaction surveys, major reorganizations and layoffs
Business environments change quickly. Service-management automation is one of the best methods to monitor changes and update your operational records and IT systems.
IT – Dependencies, service monitoring/alerts, movement of assets and cloud-service utilization
HR – Employee availability, time tracking and salary benchmarking
Security – Threat detection, loss prevention and security notices
Logistics – Supply-chain disruptions, delivery tracking and real-time inventory
Finance – Market changes, treasury, cash management and budget tracking
Even small companies often have large-scale events. Before you add temporary staff members or re-allocate resources, consider whether service-management automation can help you scale your team.
Events (trade shows, product launches, company parties, etc.)
Benefits open enrollment
Re-organizations (including mergers and acquisitions)
Automation opportunities exist throughout your organization. IT service management and operations-management tasks are obvious candidates, however, many of the most valuable opportunities can be found in other internal operations functions, such as HR, finance, security and logistics.
Use automated monitoring of infrastructure capacity, performance and availability to optimize resource allocations dynamically for utilization and cost.
Use business rules, automated workflows and messaging automation to support incident management, knowledge management and request management.
Leverage self-service catalogs, rules-based approvals and fulfillment-workflow automation to reduce provisioning cycle-time and administrative costs.
Provide a one-stop shop for users to request IT resources, browse knowledge content, request support and perform common tasks, such as password resets.
Use messaging automation and rules-based distribution lists to alert users, support staff and management stakeholders of outages, known issues and planned changes.
Use runbooks and workflow automation to perform routine maintenance activities consistently.
Use business rules, escalation workflows and automated messaging to manage SLA compliance and exceptions.
Use self-service capabilities and runbooks and other automated processes to allow end-users to design, schedule and automate management and operational reports.
Empower users to request and manage subscriptions to cloud services using self-service capabilities and leverage business rules and workflow automation to optimize cloud-resource utilization throughout the organization.
Use automated software-asset-inventory capabilities to track license usage to ensure compliance and minimize the costs of under-utilized software.
Leverage automated workflows to distribute and install software updates to user devices and infrastructure components.
Use automated workflows to add new employees, including provisioning access, creating HR records and establishing accounts in IT systems.
Leverage self-service tools, messaging, business rules and workflow automation to streamline employee performance reviews and feedback.
Use self-service capabilities, so employees are able to manage PTO, sick time, jury-duty and on-call schedules as well as traditional time tracking for hourly employees.
Use automated workflows to support employees who request leave time and management approval of paid and unpaid leaves of absence.
Use self-service tools to manage common payroll tasks, such as updating tax withholdings, printing paystubs and making direct deposits.
Use automated workflows to ensure manager changes, promotions, salary adjustments and other common events properly update employee records and IT accounts.
Provide self-service tools for employees to update names (common after a marriage or divorce), home addresses and emergency contact information.
Use self-service training portals, so employees are able to browse training offerings, request training and track certifications/credentials.
Use automated workflows to ensure terminated employees’ physical and system accesses are revoked and that termination-related HR processes are compliant with local regulations.
Provide self-service tools for employees to enroll for benefits and use automated workflows to ensure benefits are available in a timely manner.
Use mobile applications and workflow automation, so employees are able to submit and manage expense claims for faster processing.
Use business rules and automated workflows to computerize the approval and fulfillment of purchase requests with suppliers.
Use mobile technologies, RFID, barcode scanners and GPS to track and manage inventory through the supply chain to track accurately the value of available inventory.
Enforce corporate policies through the use of business rules and automated approval workflows.
Use business rules and workflow automation to monitor for theft or improper use of company assets, equipment or resources.
Leverage monitoring-based triggers and self-service tools to identify information-security threats and automated workflows to initiate threat-abatement measures.
Use automated workflows and messaging to alert authorities of emergency situations and engage external police, fire and medical support.
Use employee ID cards, badge readers, cameras and other devices to automate employee, contractor and customer access to company buildings.
Use automated scanners and cameras in addition to business rules to manage inventory throughout your supply chain.
Provide self-service tools for employees and customers to view real-time order status and expected shipping dates.
Use self-service portals, so customers are able to view availability and schedule service appointments.
Use business rules and automated workflows to reduce work-in-progress inventory through on-demand ordering of raw materials and other components.
Integrate order-tracking systems with delivery vendors (such as UPS, FedEx or DHL) to provide customers real-time updates of deliveries.
Provide self-service tools for customers to process product returns and request refunds using business rules to monitor abuse of returns policies.
Service-management automation, like any other automation within your company, can be done in many ways, depending on the activities being automated and the goals you are expecting to achieve. IT automation will have a different approach than business-process or customer-service automation. Here are the 6 tools that all companies should have in their service-management-automation toolkit:
Runbooks are pre-defined scripts and packages that are executed on an IT system. They may be used individually or sequentially as part of a workflow. They are typically stored in a library and managed with some type of orchestration tool. The most common uses for runbooks are routine IT maintenance tasks, such as backups and repetitive tasks, such as configuring servers and infrastructure devices. The use of runbooks in IT allows for efficient execution of tasks and reduces the likelihood of human error.
Most IT systems (including HR, finance, manufacturing and ITSM platforms) are built according to the capability for workflow automation. Both system workflows and business processes can be automated using these tools. The keys to successful workflow automation are: reducing the amount of queueing that occurs between steps in the workflow, ensuring data integrity and managing workflow exceptions properly. Some companies have implemented workflow-orchestration systems that are capable of coordinating processes throughout IT systems. This is becoming more important as companies pursue digital-transformation initiatives.
In addition to workflows, business rules are one of the foundational building blocks of any automation capability. They enforce company policies, avoid conflicts and guide workflow execution. Rules may be managed within individual IT systems, employees use of interfaces or in a separate business-rules-management system. As automation capabilities become more sophisticated, business rules become more important to ensure the right automated tasks are being executed.
Just because you implement automation doesn’t mean that humans don’t need to be involved in the process. Effective service-management automation is a balance between human and machine interactions. Messaging templates, distribution lists and business rules can help ensure the right messages is sent to the right people without creating excess noise.
Parts of your service-management-automation solution occur behind the scenes within your IT systems. Other parts involve interaction with support staff and users. Self-service tools can be directed at either of these audiences. Self-service capabilities for end-users are often packaged into a Website or mobile application while those self-service tools support staff use may be integrated into call-center or ITSM tools. The goal of initiating self-service is to eliminate the need to engage someone else to perform an activity.
Automation isn’t perfect and sometimes even the best-defined business rules and automated tasks encounter unexpected conditions. In these situations, the automated capabilities must communicate with your staff members that there is a problem or other issue requiring their attention. Monitoring-based triggers are a specialized type of business rule that searches for exceptions to normal processing (performance issues, errors, outages, etc.). They can be used to initiate either messaging to support staff (or end users), prompt an alert on an operator’s dashboard, initiate the execution of some type of diagnostic workflow or open a support request in a ticketing system.
The goal of service-management automation is to help your company operate more effectively. While it can yield tremendous benefits, automation is not your only option and isn’t always the best choice. By focusing on the goals you are trying to achieve and the benefits you expect to gain (avoiding automation for the sake of doing it), evaluating the ROI of different options will be much easier. Here are some of the related considerations to ponder when determining what and when to automate.
There are many factors impacting this choice, but it’s important to understand automation isn’t the only option – you have choices. IT staff members may be quick to embrace a technical solution to business problems. “We could create a tool to do that!” The nature and duration of the need, the time and effort to develop a technical solution and the cost of contingent staffing all impact the ROI of an automation project. If it is a one-time activity and temporary staffing is inexpensive, then outsourcing the activity by adding a team of people to do it manually may be a better option than automation. Likewise, activities you might outsource could be considered for automation – why hire someone to perform tasks that can be automated once and executed repeatedly?
A common scenario for service-management automation is creating workarounds to address known system issues and business-process constraints to alleviate the impact on staff. Examples include creating scripts to clean bad transactional data or restart services experiencing degraded performance. It is important to acknowledge when you apply automation to these types of scenarios that you are often masking symptoms of an underlying problem. A conscious decision should be made on whether resources are better spent developing automated workarounds or resolving the root cause of the problem.
Many companies are adopting DevOps methodologies to deliver IT solutions to their business clients. Service-management automation is a critical component of a successful DevOps process – providing developers the information and tools to manage their products/projects both through the development lifecycle and in production environments. Automated testing and deployment capabilities support change and release management while monitoring and diagnostic capabilities generate continuous feedback.
The opportunities to use service-management automation to increase productivity in your organization are endless. Companies are already applying these techniques to transform the customer experience, improve the quality of products and services and decrease the cost of providing them. Internally, automation opportunities in IT, HR, finance and other business functions are allowing employees to solve their own problems and avoid the business disruptions of waiting in-queue, in-line or on-hold to receive the support they need. With the right information, tools and access, many routine tasks and well-defined workflows can be automated and implemented through self-service to improve resolution times, decrease processing costs and improve the consistency of execution.
Business rules and automated workflows developed today will become the building blocks for the next generation of service-management-automation capabilities, which will be built with emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. As these new technologies become mainstream, they will fundamentally change the way service management is performed within companies. Bots and other AI capabilities will replace call centers, service desks and support staff. IT systems and resources will be continuously monitored using IoT devices and embedded sensors with AI management systems dynamically optimized for maximum resource utilization and/or cost efficiency. Company policies will be enforced through business rules, with exceptions managed through automated workflows, notifications and exception procedures – minimizing business risk and ensuring continuous compliance.
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