Expose routine support for the IT grunt work it is

paperclips.jpegIt was a four-letter word, but I didn’t think people would interpret as cursing.

We were in a management meeting, talking about the steps involved in optimizing the Web stories we publish all day so they would get noticed by search engines. This includes all the deep linking, the uploading of videos, the keyword changes and so on. We’re still a long way from getting our new content management system in place, and given the manual nature of these tasks we users were wondering about the possibility of hiring someone who take it on. I made the mistake of calling it “grunt” work.

You could almost feel a chill descend upon the room.

One of the features of a modern enterprise is the notion that any work that advances business objectives is equally important. Even when we automate it, we don’t dismiss it as trivial, we just emphasize how much freer it will leave employees to concentrate on more “value-added” tasks. To highlight the drudgery of the tasks being automated is a taboo, but it may be what IT managers need to do if they want the budget to purchase some of the product sets hitting the market.

HP, for example, released Automated Operations 1.0 this week as its foray into an arena already occupied by IBM, BMC and CA. I’m sure it does what it’s supposed to do. Most of these systems do. The basis of competition will probably be, as with most software, the ease with which it integrates with other platforms, and the price. HP didn’t announce pricing, naturally, and as much as its executives will talk about the product’s ability to handle chores like removing an employee’s access once they quit the company, budget approval will continue to be a big barrier to adoption.

I speak from some experience here. Unless you can itemize – in fairly granular fashion – how much time routine tasks take up, the number of steps involved and the number of people which become part of the process, it’s hard to get the go-ahead for automation. Management may say they want IT managers focused on more strategic functions, but they have an intuitive distrust of giving them enough time to, say, sit around and think about how to improve the business. They are more comfortable watching them hunched over a keyboard.

CA and others have developed online automation calculators to help make the business case for their products, but any successful sales pitch from IT managers to senior executives has to characterize what the routine tasks are in no uncertain terms. And that uncertain term is grunt work. The catch-22 is that you can break down how simple the grunt chores are, and underscore the fact that even a low-level admin person could do them, but management doesn’t understand what the problem is unless the volume is really high. In practice, grunt work comes at inconvenient times and fluctuates considerably. You may go a week without resetting a password, then have another week where it’s an endless barrage of requests.

Not all IT grunt work can be automated, because there are always going to be new tasks and steps added to processes as IT departments and other enterprise departments come together. But until IT managers are unafraid to declare that some work is beneath them, they’ll never be able to focus on “higher-level” work. You have to walk senior executives through the actual day-to-day, with all its permutations and exceptions, and you have to do it loudly. When they ask – if they ask – why you can’t be more aligned with the business, you have to do more than grunt.

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