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Where content meets technology

Mar 22, 2011

Is your workflow working for you?

This is the third installment of a series of articles on content management assessment. The most recent article ("Have you modeled your content effectively?") introduced warning signs that may indicate that your CMS implementation can be improved by adjusting your content model. In this installment, we will be looking at how you did with workflow.

Workflow has always been a key selling point for content management systems. In sales demonstrations, multi-step workflows give the impression of efficiency and time-savings. Workflow holds the promise of being able to choreograph the presently inconsistent efforts of different stakeholders to achieve high levels of efficiency and consistency. Workflow represents the "Management" in the CMS value proposition. Who doesn't want to transform their chaos of content into a well oiled publishing machine?

In the real world, however, the editorial process is often less repeatable and the manufacturing metaphor doesn't fit so well. It takes time to figure out what aspects of the editorial process are stable enough to encode into a workflow. Maybe the reason people are not doing their content tasks is something other than not knowing about them — like other responsibilities have a higher priority or they procrastinate. Unfortunately, CMS buyers often reach this level of understanding after the budget has run out. The result is a system that is over-engineered to support some idealized representation of the editorial process.

Here are some key questions to determine if your organization has fallen into the workflow trap.

  • Did the workflow that you wanted to accelerate publishing slow it down?

    There are really two purposes for workflow: to speed publishing up or to slow it down. A workflow speeds up publishing when it coordinates a creative process. For example, a graphics person may be responsible for finding and editing images to be used in the content. Workflow can also execute automated steps such as tagging and placing the item in the site hierarchy. You can think of a little content assembly line here where different specialists and robots all have their role in producing the asset.

    Workflow slows down publishing when it is used to support a review process. The function of reviewers is to send back content that is inaccurate, inappropriate, or off-message. The reality is that most organizations dream for the assembly line but wind up building review-oriented workflows. Often new review steps are added when a workflow is implemented. It is much easier to find reviewers than it is to find creative specialists that can speed up content production.

  • Do contributors find themselves clicking through workflow steps without actually doing work?

    When collecting requirements and selecting a CMS, it is good to look at your editorial process and a natural outcome of this analysis is a flow chart. Like any diagram or model, when you are making it, you know that you trying to illustrate how the process can or usually works — not how everyone must work all the time. You might have even overstated the complexity just to make sure that you select a product with flexibility just in case you need it in the future. Many CMS products have visual workflow designers that can transform that flowchart into a workflow that drives your editorial process. The next thing you know, boxes that were put in the diagram for talking points (like something that one would do offline) become mandatory steps that people have to click through — formalities that provide no value. Asking this question may also hint at a common syndrome in web content management where all of the editorial process happens before the content is even put into the system. Users often prefer ad-hoc tools and processes to generate and review content and the web content management system is simply used as a publishing tool to get it out to the various digital channels that it serves (web, mobile web, applications, RSS, Twitter, etc.). There is nothing wrong with this unless you pretend that you are doing all this editorial work in the system and you have to unnecessarily click buttons to imitate the work that you already did.

  • Do contributors find themselves playing multiple roles in a workflow?

    During a CMS selection, design, and implementation there is a tendency to be inclusive. You want to engage potential users to design a system that will work for everyone. Everyone is a stakeholder; everyone has a role in managing content. People attend the meetings and play along. It's fun to talk about content and communication .... until actual workflow assignments start to pile up in their queues. Then all of the sudden people get less interested in having their approval be a bottleneck in the editorial flow. People bail out leaving the hardy core content team to play roles that were abandoned.

  • Are there workflows that are rarely used?

    Workflow, like any business process optimization, requires trial and error and continuous improvement. When a workflow doesn't seem to work for an editorial group, content type, or circumstance, there can be an urge to build a new workflow. This is especially the case if workflows are fine-grained and tightly bound to individual people. This often leads to a proliferation of workflows that clutter the interface and confuse users. When you see this happen, it is useful to step back and ask if every nuance of every process needs to be encoded into the software as a formal workflow. Can decision points for special cases happen outside of the workflow? For example, perhaps once a year there is an annual report that needs to be reviewed by the CFO. This is the only piece of content that the CFO needs to review. In this case, it would probably be better to handle that step as part of a more generalized step. Perhaps, during the legal review step the corporate council (who reviews lots of content) knows that he needs CFO approval so he works with the CFO out of the CMS to review the documents (perhaps in email or some collaboration tool).

It is healthy to look at every step of a process and consider its positive or negative impact towards outcomes. This is what Lean Production and value stream mapping is all about. The workflow engine that comes with a CMS can help by forcing conversations about processes and how they can be improved. However, most of the workflows that are implemented to guide these processes wind up wasting time on formality that doesn't apply. Because of this, workflow tends to be the most over-sold and under-used CMS feature. To get the most out of a workflow system, you need to have goals for the process that it supports. Are you primarily focused on time to market? Maybe direct-publish is the way to go. Are there automatable steps like publishing a link to Twitter? Workflow can help by providing an event-based trigger to execute some code. Are you focused on brand consistency or compliance? Start measuring your success against those goals and figure out how to achieve high scores with as little effort as possible. The workflow capabilities of your CMS may assist improvements but they may also get in the way. If you don't use workflow properly, don't blame the CMS.