Dec 12, 2009

Workflow Management at the Speed of Light

Having worked on the client side most of my career, I've always been aware of the swiftness with which folks expect to get things done. It's a constant tug of war -- the people at the top (who don't have to actually DO the work) always want the work to get done faster. Whereas the people who are doing the work always wish they had more time to produce the work.

Now that I oversee process on the agency side, I'm realizing that a client's lightning fast demands force agencies to move even faster than the client; particularly because the approval process on the client side eats up valuable time for all - so the agency must over accomodate or risk under delivering. And this forces the ultimate challenge for the agency -- deliver to your client's rapid-fire expectations and maintain or improve the quality of the work you are delivering. It always amazes me that more people don't understand the complexity related to cramming 43 steps into a 3 day period. "That doesn't sound impossible"; sure it doesn't (keep telling yourself that), if that's the only thing you and everyone involved in those 43 steps has to do in the 3 day span. Multiply that 1 request times 20, 30, or 40 other assignments, and it is entirely possible that there are 1720 tasks or activities happening at the same time for one client.

In my previous role overseeing Marketing Operations on the client side, I spent years implementing a robust 3rd party application to help the Marketing department manage all the work. The system was considered the best in the marketplace and yet, from my current vantage point I have been able to recognize many of the shortcomings in the system. I've evaluated many applications at this point (dare I say all of them), and I don't think any one of them is the "end all be all" that they claim to be. I actually believe that the best move may be to develop your own customized solution that meets your business needs and follow one rule, KEEP IT SIMPLE.

The biggest opportunity I see, and I've been watching Google Wave for this very reason - is real time workflow management. Bear with me for a second as I describe what I've envisioned as a potential to the future of project & workflow management. Picture the air traffic control room at O'Hare in Chicago. There are multiple activities happening all over that airport: people coming and going; people waiting for friends & relatives; flight attendants & pilots moving from one plane to the next; airport employees managing luggage, and seat assignments, and disgruntled passengers. Now imagine if the flight status board was a computer that you had to physically log on to, remember your flight information, search for it, and dive deep into the system to actually determine when your flight arrives or departs. Most of the 3rd party workflow apps do exactly that. They want people, who are already strapped for time, to stop what they are doing and dive into the belly of the beast to retrieve the information they are looking for.

These systems are touted as time savers. They actually suggest you'll be able to reduce your headcount after you install it. I call b.s. on that. People don't have enough time to dig; so most of these apps are only moderately useful and in many cases, they're a hinderance to productivity.

My vision revolves around the Twitter/Tweetdeck/Facebook concept, using Google's search result methodology to help the most important information appear at the top (cue eye roll). As a project moves into the rapid-fire process of final execution, a lot more activity is happening within that project. Tasks are occuring faster and faster - so if that's the case, wouldn't it be logical that this particular project is one that should be easier for someone to access because more people are touching it? Wouldn't it make sense that this project should be automatically bubble up to the top of the leader board?

I recommend using the Facebook template idea, where every project has the same shell format; and then you use a Twitter-like activity stream that manages the communication regarding each individual assignment that is aggregated in a Tweetdeck matrix so that all the activities are easy to access based on level of activity on the leader board. The information is actually available in a variety of matrix views - all clients, one client, teams (creative or copy), individuals within the team; everyone will have their most pertinent information available to them depending on what view they access.