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NotesOn: IT Fundamentals – Do Not Automate Confusion

Introduction (V1.0):

Interestingly, the subject of automation has come up in a number of different conversations lately; generally around the area of trying to automate a business process that didn’t seem to be ready to be automated.  I was chatting about this very subject with my wife (a long time CAO/CFO type) the other night and she just shook her head and said, too, it can’t be done.

Rule #1 of System Automation:

There is a rule (which I touched lightly on in NotesOn:  The Three Sins Of Software Development) that I’m now going to expand on as it applies to Business Analysts, and Project Managers, and so forth, in spades (i.e. fully):

It is impossible (or nearly so) to successfully automate confusion.

That seems incredibly, terribly obvious.  So much so that when I mentioned it in a business meeting everyone nodded and agreed.

Of course, you can unsuccessfully automate just about any process you could dream up or dig up.  But what would be the point of that?

When confronted with this situation you have two, and only  two possible solutions:

  1. If your business process doesn’t make sense … if it doesn’t run smoothly manually … do not … under any circumstances … attempt to automate it until it does.  Remember KISKIF?
  2. Or.  Throw out your business process completely and do it exactly the way the off-the-shelf solution forces you to do it.  In other words adapt your business to the software.

Given a choice, and under certain circumstances you may have none, do keep in mind that ‘2.’ is the least desirable solution.  Your business may not work well or at all under the pre-designed, pre-configured architecture of the off-the-shelf software package.  “Typical” or “average” or “80%” may not work for your business model.  So do an un-biased risk analysis before throwing yourself over that particular cliff.

The best solution is to map out, plot out, work out, draw out, talk out, exception hunt, proof-of-concept, obtain buy-in on, implement, test, monitor and tweak the manual process until it is running smoothly and works for your company.  Then.  And only then.  Look at automation.

Trust me on this one.  Experience speaks loudly and clearly.

Breaking News:

The following was announced today just before this article “went to press” (a most happy coincidence):

From Bloomberg BusinessWeek:  LONDON (AP) — Britain’s media are in a meltdown and its government is gaffe-prone, so Oxford Dictionaries has chosen an apt Word of the Year:

omnishambles. Oxford University Press on Tuesday crowned the word — defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations” — its top term of 2012.

And you want to automate a condition like that?  Yes that may call out an extreme state of business affairs (though hardly rare), but even lesser “messes” are undeserving of the effort to automate them.

The Three Rules of System Automation:

So in honor of this word being made newly official, let’s inaugurate these three new IT rules:

Automation Rule #1:  It is impossible (or nearly so) to successfully automate confusion.

Automation Rule #2:  Before automating a manual process make sure it is a successful, workable process first.

Automation Rule #3:  If you are having trouble automating a manual process see Rule #1, then fix the process applying the KISKIF principle.


These may seem entirely too simplistic.  Until you comprehend the amount of outright havoc, not to fail to mention horrific lost costs, associated with violating them.

When all else on the subject of automation fails, follow the above three rules.  These truly are best practices.

Chances are you will succeed if you do.  It’s virtually guaranteed that you won’t if you don’t.

Hope this helps,

DP Harshman

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