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Automation & the Digital Workplace: The End of the IT Generalist

Automation & the Digital Workplace: The End of the IT Generalist
February 2nd

Everyone knows that automation is set to have a profound impact on the world of work in the coming years. Often called the ‘fourth industrial revolution,’ the impact is widely expected to be as profound as the industrial revolution itself. Just as mechanical systems replaced the works of human hands in the 19th century, artificial intelligence is expected to significantly supplant human brainpower in the 21st century, with equally profound impact on our personal and professional lives.

Based on a survey by senior business leaders representing nearly 300 global companies, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, automation will disrupt 85 million jobs globally in medium and large businesses as employers divide work between humans and machines. 

The events of 2020, of course, have only put things into sharper focus. “Covid-19 has accelerated the arrival of the future of work,” says the World Economic Forum’s Managing Director, Saadia Zahidi, referring to the organization’s survey.

But what will it mean for IT professionals in the coming years?  It means that, as individual professionals and collectively as an industry, we need to be prepared for radical change.

The end of IT (as we know it)?

For years, generalist IT workers have played a key part within businesses – dealing with everything from a company’s networking and security requirements, to computer set-ups, software installations, database management and all manner of troubleshooting.

However, with critical infrastructure abstracted off-site thanks to the cost and efficiency benefits of cloud services like Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure, and home-working via collaboration software like Office 365, Slack and Zoom now widespread, it is unclear what the office will even look like five years from now.

For IT, like many other sectors, automation will take on processing and administrative tasks – and in many organizations the impact is already being felt.

As automation helps to make proactive responses possible, the problem-solving IT generalist will see their importance diminished compared to an IT specialist. IT workers with deep and valuable knowledge of a particular area – be it networking, security or the cloud – will play a key role as smaller tasks get commoditized. Furthermore, it’s important to note that value here will be demonstrated by the capacity to translate this knowledge into demonstrable business value.

Alongside core IT specialists, a new breed of business advisor with start to come to the fore as the second key pillar of the IT department of the future: IT advisors. These individuals will use their technical knowledge and understanding of the business to advise on tech solutions in ways that go beyond the cost-benefit analysis of partnering with a particular vendor.

These IT brokers will help to find solutions based on a range of factors, including security and privacy requirements. They will be people-focused, liaising with teams spanning from legal to marketing. While they will still make calls on server infrastructure, they won’t be on the ground plugging it in or connecting it up. In short, popular culture’s IT-worker stereotype will finally step out of the basement and into the light.

Meanwhile, more conventional IT skillsets are already becoming outmoded in many forward-facing organizations. Paradigms are already discernibly shifting.

“I’ve long suspected that the ITIL model is bankrupt,” comments Jon Grainger, Chief Information Officer at law firm Slater and Gordon, “From what I’ve seen, its model is still based on the response coming back from the users. You don’t do anything—you wait. Nexthink allows [our IT team] to be much more proactive.”

Sid Suri, the head of marketing for Jira Service Desk, agrees that “the best IT jobs will go to people who learn how to collaborate with both people and technology.” Writing on the Atlassian company blog, he says: “The new stars of IT will be the rare few who know how to speak both languages, bringing humans, technology, and AI together for stronger collaborations with even better business results.”

Talking to the business

An important part of the IT broker’s future remit will involve paying close attention to how technology fundamentally changes the relationship between customers and colleagues. While this may have previously been out of scope for your typical IT worker, some IT departments have already had a flavor of this during the pandemic.

In recent months companies like Microsoft, Dropbox, Reddit and Twitter have all announced plans to make remote work a permanent option for staff. Twitter was among the first companies to announce this, back in May, while Dropbox announced its “virtual first” approach after commissioning an Economist Intelligence Unit study, which found that knowledge workers are more focused at home and just as engaged as before. Its own internal surveys found that nearly 90% of employees were able to be productive at home and didn’t want to return to a rigid five-day in-office work week.

Reflecting on the IT trends that have come to the forefront during this year’s crisis, Paul Hardy, the Chief Innovation Officer of cloud-based workflow automation platform ServiceNow, recently told Nexthink that it had “seen the service desk essentially become a customer service desk and the customer desk an experience desk.”

“Often in organizations the only service desk they had for employees was the IT service desk, so naturally a lot of the work that the service desk started doing or had to do was actually cross functional or cross departmental,” he says, explaining that it was able to deal with this by automating the “mundane administrative tasks” that the service desk previously dealt with.

For IT professionals ready to embrace change, there are multiple ways in which they can seek to develop their career and expand the scope of their profession. For years, IT has been at the forefront of providing colleagues – from accountants to salespeople to marketeers – with automation technologies. These technologies have enabled their colleagues to grow as professionals, even as they made certain skills outmoded. In the coming years, IT will itself be confronted with the same challenge and opportunity.