Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Workflow: is it a factory or is it Congress?

There have been a number of interesting posts on workflow recently. Some say that workflow is a feature that is often asked for but seldom used. Others tell you that workflow is the foundation upon which automation is built. Both arguments have their points. For me, workflow is what you make of it. Depending on your requirements, you workflows may be sophisticated or simplistic. It just so happens that most organizations do not really know what do with workflow. Their processes were broken before and, until the processes are improved, workflow will only accelerate the transition from one stagnating work queue to another.

A good way to think about workflow is manufacturing vs. legislation. In a manufacturing model, you have a lot of content to produce and you have specialists who are really good at doing one aspect of the content production process (copy-editing, creating graphics, fact-checking, etc.). These specialists are sitting at their workstations waiting for their next task — that's their job. In this model, a workflow tool is tremendously helpful. It's like the conveyor belt in a factory that moves the units from one station to the next.

Unless your organization is in the content business, the manufacturing metaphor probably doesn't apply to you. You can think of your content producers as craftsmen that make unique items all on their own. When it does it occur, collaboration is typically ad-hoc and informal. Workflow is not going to help them any more than a factory is going to help a sculptor. The one exception there is automation. Even craftsmen like their power tools.

This brings us to the other workflow metaphor: legislation. A legislative process is mainly designed to filter out bad ideas. Legislation is the opposite of manufacturing. Rather than speeding things up, legislation slows things down. People complain about Congress being gridlocked or slow but that's the design. Any wing-nut can draft a bill. We live in a polarized society so we need all the checks and balances we can get. What comes out of Congress is hardly ideal but it could be much worse.

It is doubtful that you work in an organization that has the same diversity of opinion that a country or a state has — at least in matters of your business. So it is unlikely that you need an elaborate system of checks and balances. When companies tend to get hung up is when they envision a manufacturing process as they design a legislative process. In these cases, most of the people involved the workflow are reviewers who are only capable of slowing the content down. The more steps, the slower the workflow. These are the workflows that get whittled down until they are single-approval or, in many cases, direct-publish. If your contributors can create their own content and you trust them to adhere to the voice and standards of the organization, why not?

If you are like me and grew up in the U.S. in the 1970's, you probably remember that School House Rock cartoon about a bill and his journey through Congress to become a law. The bill complains about waiting around and getting sent from one place to another. I embedded the video. Watch it and imagine the bill as your content. Painful, right?

This high failure rate with workflow gives a lot of credibility to people who dismiss workflow as being oversold. The workflows that you see in product demos suggest you can choreograph your ad-hoc processes into an efficient assembly line. It presupposes an opportunity for specialization which requires people to be dedicated to a specific task. That isn't going to fly in most organizations until there is enough demand for content to justify building a factory.