The human context: an important workflow consideration
If it’s a machine process, get a machine to do it, but if it’s a human process then give people the ability to properly apply the skills, experience and situational awareness that you pay them for.
Many organisations discover that developing the web forms is actually the easy part of their “going paperless” project. However the startling reality with any existing paper trail is that there are likely almost as many exceptions and deviations as there are straight-through “happy day” results. When people set out to document the supposed process from start to finish in a tool like Microsoft Visio, they calibrate themselves to the arrow, “what happens next?” But in the fluid world of human processes codifying all the possible exceptions becomes an almost impossible task. People discover that:
- Sometimes we don’t do all the steps in this process, and that’s OK.
- Sometimes we do the steps but in a different order, and that’s OK.
- Sometimes we have to introduce some unique new steps on the fly.
- Sometimes we have to discuss this step with a number of people to make a judgement call on the matter.
- Sometimes we have to ask ourselves the following forensic questions to help us make the right decision.
This is real-world workflow within a human context. White collar “knowledge work” is not like a production line. Processes and tasks weave their way through people’s experience and judgement. It’s not always possible to define and follow the next logical arrow. In looking for a workflow platform to help digitise and more importantly speed up and clean up your process execution it is critically important that you seek these key features:
- Unstructured process flow – the ability for users to decide which is the “best next step” based on the current situation and their own expertise. This allows processes to proceed in an acceptable path based on the influences and knowledge to hand, even though it may not be the usual sequence. This critical feature means process builders do not have to codify every possible sequence of events, and processes in train do not get delayed because a particular step cannot be completed just yet even though other steps can proceed.
- Ad hoc tasks – the ability to introduce additional steps in a predefined process, allocate them to other parties and have them fully visible and tracked within the audit trails. This feature stops people from invisibly dropping out of a process into email or telephone to get some additional information or task completed prior to them being able to proceed. This is important for process builders because recurring adhoc tasks are an indication of where a process can typically be improved, and important for management because they keep all steps and requests within a single platform and can monitor and track what’s really happening and where things actually are.
- Social discussion – the ability for someone to have a “chat” with one or more of their colleagues in order to help them understand what best to do in a particular situation or get clarification on any matter associated to this task. These casual conversations need to be recorded, fully visible and tracked in the audit trail as they provide support for why a particular decision was made and also offer process builders triggers for process improvements.
- Best next action – There are times when you need to provide some specialised decision support to people at a particular step in a process. It may be that external data needs to be assessed to help make a decision. It may be that there is a specific sequence of questions that need to be asked and what the next question is will depend on what the answer was to the last question. These are things the human mind can apply itself to easily, however many systems fail to include best next action decision support. This feature is important when matters of probity or due diligence may be involved and explicit issues need to be assessed and affirmed by the person doing the task.
- Entities with multiple personas – Throughout most organisations there are entities that are represented differently or at least partially across multiple business systems. For example each staff member will have a master data record in the HR/ Payroll application which is most likely the system of record for employees. It is likely they also have other details about them stored in other systems such as the ERP and finance modules, security and access register, etc. In a workflow scenario you frequently need to aggregate data about a person from multiple sources.
For proper governance in workflow you need to ensure that all the correct information is coming from the approved sources, through a compliant selection method and surfaced securely. For the process builder this means they are confident that they always have all the right data to hand for their processes.
If an underlying data source is changed at some time (eg implement a new HR system) then you only want to have to modify that in one place in the workflow environment and have all current and future processes automatically and seamlessly absorb the change.
- Event-based processes – Not every process is started by a person with a form or a document. There are many processes that may start from a specific event happening. We call these business moments. Real-world workflow needs a method to automatically trigger system responses and human processes when situations occurs, thresholds are broken or milestones are reached that brings proactive process response into the hands of the people who care about the situation rather than reactive response through reporting after the fact.
These are just some of the critical matters to take into consideration when turning a paper process into a digital one and ensuring it is reliable, relevant and truly usable within a human context.
You can read more about Professional Advantage and business process management here.
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