Is it time to replace your system workflows with social business tools?
‘Subway’ by George Tooker, 1950
When pundits assemble the unwashed to preach the Gospel of Social Business, they often warn against the antisocial forces within the enterprise. They’ll talk about diffident executives, hostile middle managers, unaligned business case, the folly of tool evangelism and weak community strategy. These are all valid roadblocks. We’ve certainly heard about them enough.
Yet there are more basic challenges to enterprise collaboration These are the ‘data processing’ assumptions still coursing in the brains of business people. They cling to the old ways. Some examples:
- Yes, they see the value of social business networking, but they still want a web site.
- “Wikis? Well, sure, but how to fit one in the division portal?”
- “We must account for exception processing; can we fit this in a Lotus Connections screen?”
- “Communities? Yes, they seem to be better than our department Notes database, but can we move our project approval system to SharePoint?”
- “Can I get my e-mails auto-posted to a blog somewhere?”
- “How do I replicate these things so I can get them on my hard drive?”
Workflow systems are the migraines of social business deployment. Organizations want automated workflows because they enforce a chain-of-command. If a company succumbed to Six Sigma, it may have hundreds of stillborn, FMEA-spawned, automated swimlanes.
The enterprise still wants workflows because they promise the illusion of control.
Networked collaboration is the business antipode of workflow-based systems. Individuals make their own decisions in collaboration tools. Information pathways aren’t designed; they appear in an organic fashion, from the need of humans to connect and share. A social network pulses with information in an efficient way; it’s an amalgam of publication and alerts. But the most important distinction between a designed, enforced workflow and a social business network is trust. A workflow doesn’t have it; a social network requires it. If trust is essential for good collaboration, then we can say a workflow is collaboration-free.
Reasons why workflows don’t flow or work:
- They are fragile. Anything new (people, responsibilities, organization changes) shatters a workflow. They can’t adapt when the organization must change. They never last.
- Workflows support the status quo. They are hierarchical.
- Workflows require training. This means they are not intuitive.
- They are expensive. In addition to the software costs, there are the additional costs of training.
- Workflows are antisocial. People aren’t supposed to engage each other. An automated workflow is really forwarded annotation.
- Directional flow is the opposite of collaboration. Work flow is a one-way, recursive information shunt.
- Workflows lengthen tasks. People don’t know when to respond. Workflows add inefficiencies.
- Workflows require design. They annihilate fluid interaction.
- Workflows are optimized for the organization, not the individuals in it. Humans will always seek to optimize for themselves and sub-optimize the workflow. They do this all the time.
- A workflow design is by its nature a compromise between the stresses of time and task. They dumb-down the personality of the individual, turning them into automatons, treating them like process equipment in a manufacturing line or items to be measured.
- Workflows’ highest end-game is compliance. Staying in the lines is not the path towards growth or creativity.
Workflows impede collaboration. It’s time for the enterprise to rethink the value of automated workflow systems. There are places for automated workflows, especially when the enterprise has lazy, sneaky employees it can’t trust. But if it is blessed with hard-working, informed and smart people, perhaps it is time for the enterprise to throw those old workflows away.
Think about it. Are there inefficient workflows in your enterprise? Could they be done another way?