Monday, November 10, 2008

Optimisation of Workflow and Collaboration Platforms

View of Vale of Blekeley from Uley BuryImage by Simon Cast via FlickrOptimisation of workflow is the aim of the game. We want to reach the goal with as little expenditure of resources as possible. Unfortunately, much of the optimisation game has been played at the level of the individual action, which usually results in a destabilised system. This post in the series on collaboration and workflow will look at how workflow should be optimised and the role that collaboration platforms can play.

Reasonable question to start with is why optimise? Optimising or improving workflow increases the throughput. More simply, optimising workflow means more gets down with fewer resources. For business it means they can focus on producing the most value without wasting resources.

Optimisation of workflow is not about making a single action overly productive but instead about balancing the various actions in a workflow to produce the best overall throughput. It is about making the system robust rather than optimising for a particular scenario. “The Goal” by Goldratt provides a useful case study on optimising workflow.

Actions within a workflow can be re-arranged, removed, melded together and improved. The key is the modification of actions within the workflow all needs to focus on improving the overall workflow throughput. This may mean that while an individual action’s throughput can be increased from say 80 to 90%, there is no point in doing this if it does not increase the overall throughput of the workflow.
So where do collaboration platforms come in? Collaboration platforms have two functions (1) they serve as a framework within which to improve workflow and (2) they offer a way of improving individual actions.
The improvement of individual actions is a tried and tested use of collaboration frameworks. Think parallel editing of a client document and the management of tasks for a project. The improvement of individual actions is a well developed use of collaboration platforms but this only works so far as it does not optimise the action in context of the wider throughput of the workflow in question.

The framework aspect of collaboration platforms is very under developed and in terms of overall impact on business this is where changes will have the most dramatic impact on a workflow. The collaboration framework allows users to optimise and control actions within the context of the overall workflow.
The idea of a framework is to allow users to build a workflow from individual actions, examine how this workflow works and selectively change (add, remove, optimise) actions all with the aim to improve the overall workflow. It is like using plant control software to change various flow rates and values in order to change the amount of a chemical produced.

To illustrate what I mean let us look at the example of putting on an event. An event requires the coordination and completion of a series of actions such as booking and managing the venue, managing attendance and paying various entities. Each of the activities would be arranged as required into a workflow with the collaboration platform ensuring the smooth handoff between activities. None of the activities need to be powered by the platform rather they are coordinated and controlled using the collaboration platform in order to achieve the goal of the workflow. Using real world companies the venue would be booked and managed through BookingBug, RegOnline handles the registration and attendance management, produces the tickets and ID, PayPal is used to manage payments to various entities and Huddle coordinates all these activities and manages the communication and information between the event organisers. The event organiser can focus on creating a compelling event that runs smoothly.

It is the coordination and control of actions that produces the dramatic improvement in workflow and consequently the value created by the business. As workflow now and increasingly extends across multiple organisations coordination is key to ensuring that workflow is as effective as possible. At the same time, as collaboration platforms improve the coordination of workflow then increasingly workflow will become made up of various groups working on the actions to which they add the greatest value (think of the example above). It is a positive feedback back cycle – improved collaboration increases the value of various groups working together which in turn drives improvement in collaboration and so on.

We are seeing the rise of workflow specific platforms such as Amiando and RegOnline in the case of event management. I suspect this trend will continue but there is a lack of flexibility to this approach. The real revolution will happen as the current crop of collaboration platforms along with new entrants evolve towards workflow coordination platforms that support the plug-in and specialist modules. Most groups require more than a single workflow to operate and I expect single workflow services such as Amiando and RegOnline will work within generalised coordination and collaboration platforms.

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