First draft of new article
How workflow management at all levels can keep things moving even when the 'big picture' hasn't been fully thought through, is unseen, or is unknowable; and how market-making collaboration technologies might be able to 'seamlessly' add insight while you work.
I've been thinking a little about the relationship between different types of workflow management. Within the broad category of workflow management I include personal workflow management, managerial workflow management, and organisational workflow management. I've always had a bit of a problem with the idea of workflow management, but in the last couple of years I have developed an appreciation of the skills and practices of workflow management in each of these forms. So I thought it was time I expressed some positive views about an area of management science, for a change. Though I'd still like to draw attention to the risks of potential excesses in their application. Particularly, as these were the basis of my original concerns with the technique.
Workflow management, as a set of practices and either individual or organisation behaviors, is another example of management as a technology. One of the core concepts the ManageWithoutThem model is to recognise that management itself can be viewed as a technology. Like any other technology, management has a number of characteristics: it can be measured by its degree of usability, it must be learnt and used by all participants in order to add value, it may benefit from network effects, and it can be improved or made obsolete by other technologies. Workflow management is an evolving paradigm of organising and collaborating technologies that provides a pragmatic mechanism for moving forward and creating flow, without getting bogged down in over analysis, excessive planning, or overly vision-driven collaboration. It won't always be the most appropriate tool - but increasingly I'm starting to believe that it should always be part of every organising toolkit - it is necessary if perhaps not sufficient.
I've often cynically suggested that 'management is the art of complaining that nobody is seeing the big picture even when there isn't one'. I was referring to the tendency for management as a profession to use their unique perspective across the organisation to exclude and manipulate rather than to enlighten. As a manager, if you find yourself saying 'you're not seeing the big picture' it's likely that you've failed to communicate or otherwise engage your staff I in a manner which highlights that perspective. If somebody was to pause and actually ask 'well what is the big picture?' you need to ask yourself if you could actually answer them and would you even be willing to spare the time to do so?
What does this have to do with workflow management? A lot, if you understand that I've always striven to see and articulate the big picture in all projects I've worked on. As an information or delivery architecture I have tried to ensure everybody knows how information or delivery processes respectively relate and flow through each other. This sort of work suits the analytical and architectural aspects of my personality but I'll be the first to admit that secret is know when to stop. The boundaries of architectural analysis - like the liberation idea of limited government - are what provide for effective allocation of resources, and release professional freedom and responsibility. My popular comments on the folly of 'seamlessness' in systems still stands and is also reflected in my analysis of management teams as cartels. It is the specific seams that you create in your delivery architecture which determine it's operating characteristics.
In many ways workflow management is the opposing and complementary force to architecture. To give a simple example of somebody I would call a workflow manager, picture a person who comes to a regular meeting you have been having for years. They proclaim to not know much about the work you are doing, and really can't provide any insight into how you departments or projects fit together. They seem almost proud of this absence of insight which immediately (and in a way rightfully - but we'll get to that another time) makes you hostile and cautious. Yet you know they have the support of the senior management team and a reputation for 'getting things down'.
But from the moment they start talking all they seem to be doing is creating work! You're already busy or at the very least don't see the value of the new and vague 'action items' you are receiving. But let's step back a little to this idea of 'creating work'. While nobody likes to do work that isn't of value there is a sense in which managers are in fact responsible for 'creating work'. Too much is often made of self-direction and taking personal responsibility. Indeed the ManageWithoutThem philosophy is a deep and practical manifestation of a market-based management model within firms. But at the end of the day it is more important that your management mechanisms have integrity. That is, beyond any particular management model what is most important is that the model is made explicit and the roles and responsibilities that cover both managers and non-managers are open and have actionable authority. It is that integrity which makes your operating model transparent and embeds the spirit of your claimed organisational values into your collaboration processes.
The implicit agreement between the workflow manager and the rest of the team is that the workflow manager is 'creating work' so that those 'doing work' can just focus on getting that work done. The implication here is that as long as people are doing the work that has been created, and doing it in a timely manner, they don’t' need to worry about the big picture. They don't need to know how everything fits together and they can leave at 5 o'clock each afternoon with no guilt and no unfinished business. This approach to work may not suit everybody but it certainly has a place in everybody's work life. After all, if you want to stay at work all-night you probably want to be working on your own pet projects anyway.
In the above example we are talking about managerial workflow management. Below the level is personal workflow management and above that level is organisation workflow management. In managerial workflow management it is the willingness for the workflow manager to take responsibility for the end-to-end result that makes this managerial workflow management. In managerial workflow management the manager is actually putting a process and themselves between other individual's performance and the end result. In fact, this sort of action is the hallmark of managerial workflow and management in general. To allow others to do 'work' without knowing the big picture adds tremendous value in complex environments.
| ||What is interesting is that Franklin was able to schedule hours of time labeled simply 'work'. Pre- my discovery of personal workflow management I would have found it pointless to schedule a vague activity like 'work' in my diary.|
Where the benefit of managerial workflow management is that you don't need to know the big picture in order to contribute, the benefit of personal workflow management is a little more, well, personal. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, talks about 'mind like water'. He says the benefit of writing things down into his/a system is that you aren't thinking about the items when you should be doing them (as he said in his Cranky Middle Manager interview - 'there is a inverse relationship between on-your-mind and getting-done'). The accumulated benefit of this system is that you are always doing what you should be doing at the moment. All of this organising effort means that you can relax and just 'work'.
To make it even more personal than that, say you're at a point in your life where work isn't particularly important. Say you're burnt out, need a holiday, don't like your current assignment, have family problems at home you need to deal with - but need to work to pay the bills. Personal workflow management will allow you to get lost in work and get things down without being particularly interested in work. All of the office bickering, politics, and things you always wanted to change about work can actually be put on hold and ignored. This can be done for as long as you like - particularly if you give yourself time to record grips that you might one day want to fix in SomedayMaybe lists). You might even find that you like working this way or that it helps you meet career goals that have otherwise alluded you.
Before I move onto organisation workflow management I want to mention my objections to personal and managerial workflow. Managerial workflow annoyed me because the people seemed proud of not knowing technical issues (even when they actually did know), they created work, and they didn't offer anything in terms of a better fundamental understanding of the situation. Personal workflow to me seems like over organisation and seemed to reduce some of the passion and personal professionalism I felt about work. In both of these cases the grips I had are actually also the post powerful features of these two types of workflow. However, they are both potential negatives if workflow management is used exclusively without also applying architectural thinking and skillsets.
Finally, let's consider organisation workflow. This is workflow across multiple departments and even organisations. Because of its grounding in information technology minds this sort of workflow is often implemented as form/document management systems with associated approvals, business process orchestration, and integration with various computer systems. I love the idea of integration between systems but this all starts to sounds a little like automating a managerial and command-economy. Without the injection of a market-based coordination mindset organisation workflow becomes automated bureaucracy. Rather than market indicators and allowing the market to increase the transparency of your organisation, the over-litigation of existing organisational workflow management thinking may in fact cause the creation of workflow 'black markets' which drive effort off the systems and therefore reduce organisational transparency. IT systems should have their usability measured in terms of it being easier to use the system to do your job than it is not to use the system to do your job.
Social and collaborative web 2.0 sites such as Flickr, 43Things, myspace, etc give better clues as to what organisational workflow management should look like than say middleware software. I call these systems market-making technologies where the Web 2.0 terminology has become social networking technologies. I would suggest that social networking technologies are a subset of market-marking technologies.
The advantage of thinking of management as a technology means that you can apply criteria such as usability and enabler-of-transparency to improvements in that technology. Web 2.0 style tools that support workflow management processes at each level would enable more transactions to be carried out 'on the market' and therefore allow better information about the dynamics of the organisation to be gathered and published.
As the sophistication of automatic ontology generation tools improves, and as they better allow for additional manual explicit categorisation techniques and visualisations which allow architectural knowledge to contextualise the data we'll have somewhere to throw this market knowledge we are silently creating as people go about their daily work.