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Building an ecosystem to assist scaling automation

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The Problem

We have automated 40+ business processes across John Lewis and Waitrose using RPA (Robotic Process Automation) software (Blue Prism). We started automating business processes in 2017 starting with proof of values and then moving quickly to pilots and moving those pilots into production. With a small automation DevOps team, it became quickly apparent that there were two main threats to delivery by scaling automation and those were:

  1. The growing complexity and time investment for operational support, which started impacting delivery timescales
  2. Growing demands for automation performance reporting to support various stakeholder conversations across the business

The Solution

There were various technical solutions that could help us, however, there were certain elements that we prioritised:

  1. Fully automated
  2. Self serve functionality
  3. Single channel/source
  4. Minimal tooling
  5. Integration with wider IT to accelerate adoption
  6. Application notifications rather than emails

The final solution meant integrating two tools (Splunk Slack) into our automation ecosystem, understanding how best to pass the data through those tools and lastly, harnessing the appropriate features of these tools to provide a simple, but effective solution.

A quick overview of the solution below shows the data flows and tooling integration:

– Splunk

Splunk’s core offering connects to applications & devices, collecting, analysing and correlating high volumes of machine-generated data. This data can then be visualised in dashboards and reports. Alerts can also be generated based on highly configurable rules.

We utilised Splunk by ingesting Windows and Blue Prism logs from our production ecosystem into Splunk where the Splunk engine provided:

  • Alerts: Monitoring and then alerting to ServiceNow, Slack and in high priority scenarios triggered operational callout:
  • Dashboards: Automation platform and performance dashboards support stakeholder analysis and decision making assisting measuring KPI’s and tracking SLA’s:
Splunk Dashboard: Management Information Automation Dashboard

– Slack

Slack is a collaboration hub where you and your team can work together to get things done. From project kick-offs to budget discussions — and everything in between. In Slack, work happens in channels. You can create channels based on teams, projects or even office locations. Members of a workspace or org can join and leave channels as needed. Apps and integrations are the tools that will help you to bring your existing workflows into Slack. The Slack App Directory has thousands of apps that you can integrate into Slack.

  1. We created Channels in Slack for each of the business areas that we developing automated solutions for (Single channel/source)
  2. Onshore and offshore DevOps team and business SMEs subscribed to the appropriate business channel(s)
  3. Standard comms to the business are sent via these channels
  4. Through Splunk integration, Splunk alerts (working from rules within Splunk) are sent to the appropriate Slack channel
  5. These alerts are highly visible and operations teams are instructed to respond to the alert thread within the Slack channel in order to maintain high visibility of issue response and resolution time/action
  6. Core features of Slack enabled: Slackbot is configured to find answers about Slack, add customised automatic responses and access personal reminders and tasks. Slack also integrates with other tools — Google Calendar, Google Drive, JIRA, Trello, GitHub
Slack Channel: Splunk alerting to Blue Prism business process failures

The Benefits

The benefits to the Automation team (by integrating Blue Prism with Splunk and in turn Splunk with Slack and ServiceNow) were:

  1. Defined communication channels allowing developers to focus on development in Blue Prism
  2. The ability for the wider business to self-serve on operations and management information
  3. A reduction in the automation adoption barriers for the wider business because of the integrated and easily consumed solution for operational support and management information
  4. The ability to perform analytics/trending on the automated business processes, gaining previously unknown insights into day to day operations. This, in turn, provides more opportunities for continuous improvement of the automated processes and the business units
  5. An effective 1st line monitoring and alerting service that tees up 2nd and 3rd line support
  6. Simplified onboarding for new joiners

These benefits have enabled the automation team to scale and expand its automation activities to meet the growing business appetite for automation, at a time where it was starting to suffocate with increasing, conflicting DevOps demands.

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RPA, Scaling

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