Working together.The power of automation and directed workflows.
Part 4: The power of automation and directed workflows
The final part three of this four-part blog series concludes our look at how workers and companies can work more effectively together.
Missed the third part? Read it here - Part 3: Keeping business data safe in the cloud
The process of making things
A good example of the concept of ‘workflow’ is the use of the production line in the mass manufacturing of commoditized items. Whether it’s making something small and technologically advanced like a smartphone or an industrial item like a digger, Henry Ford is widely credited with development of the first large scale commercial application of the technique of mass production.
If we drill down into the topic a little we discover, that formally speaking, production methods fall into three main categories:
1. Job - one-off production
Example: Wedding cakes to order
2. Batch - multiple items, one step at a time for all items
Example: A bakery producing a specified number of identical loaves each day
3. Flow - multiple items, all step
Example: Mass produced automobiles
From physical items to knowledge work
If we transpose the idea of the production of physical products on to the outputs produced by today’s white-collar labor force of the service economy, we are really talking about the first one of these.
Frequently, the proposal or the brief is unique to each job and the specified project outputs or deliverables are rarely exactly the same from project to project. In other words, although there may be a broad overarching objective, there is almost always bound to be some variation, and identical projects are an exception.
Take for example a marketing company handling a project to boost sales for a client. The overarching objective - ‘boost sales’ might be to uplift turnover by 25%. Beneath this, a range of deliverables - ‘marketing activity’ may be required.
Even when different clients have the same objective of boosting sales by 25%, the range of activity varies enormously depending on the client’s marketplace, communication channels and budgets.
The business of defining these workflows is an important point of efficiency. The need to maximize profitability and obtain competitive advantage is ball that even the most successful businesses cannot afford to drop.
Across the broad scope of operations, companies creating value through delivering IP rom the skills of their employees and contract and freelance staff have different workflows for different departments.
Sales as a simple example of workflow
Sales teams frequently work using documents like quotes or proposals. For arguments sake, for any sales document we can define ‘states’ and ‘actions’.
For a simple sales process, the possible states are:
- Proposal requested; With the client; Accepted by the client; Changes requested by the client; or Rejected by the client.
And, the actions that fit with these states are:
- Send proposal to the client; Client accepts; Client requests changes; Client rejects.
The actions are the steps that transition sales documents from state to state.
The different responsibilities of each organizational department create different and unique workflows. And there are likely to be multiple workflows of varying complexity and sophistication for managing essential functions like Client Support; Complaint resolution; Client fulfillment, and so on.
Across the many multi-functional operational teams that comprise today’s businesses, there can be any number of different workflows. Th workflows of finance departments might be broken up as invoicing; accounts payable; accounts receivable; debt recovery; payroll, etcetera.
From manual to automated workflows
Many companies have adopted digital tools to manage their core business areas. Specialized Line-of Business (LoB) applications are now available for the vast majority of businesses of all types.
From Accountancy to Zookeeping, there is likely to be an online cloud-based application dedicated to your specific line of work. While many of these offer significant improvements over manual methods of managing core business activity, many lack the capability to drive the workflow.
The most forward-thinking companies are adopting solutions that possess the capability to automate actions and direct the transition of documents between the different states.
In the example of our simple sales process above, such software automatically performs the action, such as emailing the sales document to the client, or prompts the responsible individual to which the task is assigned to carry out a task, such as making any changes the client has requested.
When we scale this simple functionality across the sophisticated sets of states and actions which might be needed to perform or resolve areas of business operations, the advantages become clear.
For any business operating in the service economy where knowledge workers collaborate to deliver value to clients, it certainly pays to think about the advantages of a cloud collaboration platform which enables workflows to be automated. Here are some key areas where a workflow-oriented collaboration solution offers benefits:
Workflow set up and management
Get the ability to design workflows that match the document-based processes of your business. This lets you set up automated actions and schedule when documents should be transitioned between states. A good system should enable alerts to provide notification of when conditions that require manual intervention crop up, such as when ‘action by’ dates are exceeded.
An automated workflow means every member of your team, no matter how inexperienced (or experienced) is in no doubt about the process steps of the workflow.
You don’t have to worry about juniors (or middle ranks and seniors) missing out steps or doing things in the wrong order. The different functional areas of your business operations perform with fluency. They achieve efficiency that maximizes profitability because time isn’t wasted, and work can be prioritized more effectively.
A good system is likely to let you automate the creation of your documents and emails from templates. For tasks where time is often short, this enables your business to respond to requests for documents like sales proposals or quotes quickly.
Standard document metadata fields - Properties fields like Author, Department and Statistics - are a little limited, so it’s good to have metadata editing as a feature. This enables a range of user-friendly things to be done, such as deeper, contextual search and to categorize and organize data outside of the conventional file system folders.
For instance, you might want to keep all files for a client in a Client_name folder; but you might want to see all outstanding sales proposals for every client without ploughing through each Client_name folder one-by-one. Using metadata tags or attributes lets you sort all the files in any way you want outside of the filing system you are using.
File storage in the cloud
A good workflow-centric collaboration platform integrates file storage in the cloud. This enables files to be stored alongside collaborative messaging, grouping all project data together. From the perspective of workflow, it just makes sense. Cloud storage simplifies file sharing with co-workers, third parties and clients. It also simplifies the need to store and back up files on-premise, reducing the cost of IT admin, infrastructure and software.
For companies that are conscious of the complex issues attached to the GDPR, data security and privacy, think about choosing a platform that is appropriate to your needs. Data sovereignty, the issue of where cloud data is geographically stored, is very important. The potential for governments to demand access and to assert control of data stored or ‘owned’ by companies registered in their dominions should not be taken lightly.
Sure, cloud storage eases the problems associated with sharing across organizational and geographical boundaries, but it needs to be executed with a strong emphasis on security. A good collaboration platform that is intended to simplify workflows lets you set document permissions and security for sharing files.
Whether your collaborators are co-workers, third parties and clients, sharing files as part of an automated workflow should feature strong permission-based security.
Sharing files in this manner prevents the need to share files through public cloud platforms like Dropbox, which means it may end up in the hands of people that are unknown to you. A good collaboration platform may well provide a corporate portal that is accessed through secure client accounts or download links via your company website. This provides a webpage that is branded with your company’s business identity, reinforcing ownership and demonstrating professionalism to your clients.
Supporting workflow automation with policy
Any decision to migrate to a collaborative platform should be taken as part of an overall strategy, a holistic review of how your business operates.
With specific relevance to automation and directed workflows, an appropriate policy should set out:
- Productivity files are created, stored and shared only from the collaboration platform
- Only administrators with the right knowledge set up and configure workflows
- Put in a program of training to ensure every user knows how to use the system
This is the final blog of this short series on working together better with collaboration best practices. You can discover more great content from Breeze PM on our blog.