04 June 2006

Why Workflow is Not Good Enough

I enjoyed reading this candid take on workflow, especially this excerpt - I'm liberally quoting from James Robertson's Column Two here:
  • "Organisations looking for a CMS read vendor marketing materials, and all offer extensive and powerful workflow features. These same features are discussed in many of the industry reports, and included on standard lists of CMS features.
  • Organisations naturally assume that this functionality works in practice, and seeing the potential benefits, ask for it in their tenders and requirements lists.
  • Vendors see that organisations consistently ask for workflow features, and often very powerful features at that. This forces them to promote their workflow functionality in their marketing materials, and to develop ever more sophisticated workflow features.
  • Vendors know very well that workflow isn't used in practice, having only 1 in 50 clients ever making real use of it. The problem is that customers don't believe them, instead responding: "you're just saying that because your workflow features are weak!".
  • At so it goes on, in this self-reinforcing cycle, with no opportunity to have a real discussion about best-practice (or even just practical) approaches."
I agree. The issue of the "death of business process" in knowledge-based organizations was quite alive a few months ago (see for example the articles by Irving Wladawsky-Berger and Ross Mayfield). Business Process, when knowledge workers are concerned, does not work very well. Knowledge workers work differently. Don't even get Dave Snowden going on this, because if you do, you're in for an intellectual ride, taking you to the same destination but on a much more sophisticated and entertaining way!

Being a knowledge worker is very different than working on an automobile assembly line. By focusing efforts on developing and maintaining a rich and optimized information environment for their knowledge workers, organizations will get better overall results than by focusing on "business process re-engineering" (BPR).

Mapping business processes has its uses, for example, when the exercise is conducted to a reasonable level of granularity to exemplify information flows. Such maps inform the business systems analyst on what are the information requirements flowing for any given activity performed by a knowledge worker. These mapping exercises, however, should always be complementary to other methods of deriving information requirements, to include, at least; business line analysis and end-user interviews.

Solely relying on workflow and business process analysis is not good enough, as you risk capturing only a subset of the real set of information requirements in the workplace.

Knowledge workers are rarely bound to particular processes. They often acquire and derive knowledge from a variety of sources and activities that are not tied to any process. Information managers should therefore strive to provide their knowledge workers with a rich information environment, maximizing opportunities for knowledge creation, sharing and acquisition. This is done by planning the delivery of integrated information management.