Monday, 10 March 2014

Personal Workflow

How much government is ideal?  How much should be organized by the community?  Each country answers that differently.  In some countries a lot is organized by the community.  In other countries, more freedom is left to the citizens and less aspects are managed centrally.  I’ld say that Business Process Management (BPM) doesn't have any such balance yet.  At the moment, BPM is limited to top-down initiatives.  This would be similar to only having government initiatives and no freedom or initiatives from citizens.  

Corporate executives start by analyzing how work gets done in an organization.  This analysis is often challenging as people doing the work optimize their piece of the puzzle.  To get a complete understanding how people actually collaborate is not that easy.  It’s even hard for employees that get interviewed to explain all their knowledge that goes into tackling a given task.  Therefore, the procedures that result of such BPM initiatives are often incomplete.  That uncertainty creates risk for the people driving a BPM initiative.  They have the power to change things, but they don't have all the detailed knowledge that goes in to the tasks.  And this approach doesn't scale very well as there is usually just a single top down BPM improvement initiative at a time.

Still these centrally lead initiatives can lead to the biggest gains in efficiencies as top down initiatives can create the necessary momentum and executive buy-in to change things.  And the efficiency improvements are multiplied by the number of times these procedures have to be accomplished.  Imagine you can bring down the average time spent on handling a damage claim in an insurance company from 3 hours to 2h30.  For an insurance company dealing with thousands of damage claims per day, these savings add up. 

In countries with less government, self-interest is an important driver and motivation to take initiatives.  That’s an angle totally missing at the moment in BPM and a very interesting one if you start thinking about it.  

What if employees could start automating their own repetitive and tedious work patterns without having to think globally.  As an example, think of Jack's tasks like this: For every invoice email that he gets from Supplier XYZ, he extracts the attachment and uploads it to Google Drive, then passes a link to the document on to Jane in procurement.  What if Jack can build a workflow by himself for his own repetitive work.  He can start improve his own work without requiring any change to be discussed between colleagues.  Since people keep working as they work before, it's really easy and fast to start automating these process snippets. That really reduces the risk and makes it a much faster approach.  All the fine details of how work is done, what's important and what not doesn't have to be talked through.  Instead, employees can just build workflow snippets directly themselves.  

Personal workflow adds an interesting approach next to top down BPM initiatives.  Picking the low hanging fruits like that is easy and scalable.  Imagine all employees creating their own workflows.  This doesn't require meetings and decisions that take months.  Instead it takes 5 minutes to get going.  And all employees can start doing it simultaneous.  Just like societies require a good mix of centrally controlled government and self-interest initiatives, I think that both personal workflow should complement top down BPM initiatives to harvesting those low hanging fruits.


  1. Hi Tom,
    very interesting viewpoint indeed. I'm 100% with you.
    I actually presented my vision on personal processes some time ago too:

    And we are now building a concept for a new product, specifically targeting personal and social processes for everyday activity, starting from the bottom (and pretty much without any governance at all):
    Any comment is welcome!

  2. Cool post! I'd say this touches on the idea of Computer Science's place in a liberal education. And by that, I don't mean "learning to code" as much as I mean "the study of task automation."

    Any number of software development tools and frameworks (continuous integration and testing suites, to name two) were born of people doing precisely what you're describing: "Hey, I'm doing this task a lot, how can I automate it?" The key ingredient was that the people doing the automation had the knowledge and tools at hand to hack together their own automated solution. Even development and management methodologies like Agile are arguably attempts to automate certain kinds of decision-making and workflow.

    What I think you're proposing is automation for the masses. Technically, we do have tools for that. At the very lowest end, lots of consumer products have some very basic task automation built in, like Outlook's out-of-office replies. There are more elaborate tools built to automate multiple tasks, like Microsoft Office Macros or even this desktop macro-recorder (which I've never used):

    Still, all those tools are substantially limited in what they can do and interact with because they're aimed at a particular product or suite of products. That seems to me to be a practical necessity. Any more abstract, and you're essentially dealing with a scripting language.

    My question would be, for what you're postulating, do existing high-level tools such as Unix shell scripts or dynamic languages like Python suffice for what you're describing? If so, then this is simply an education problem: every worker needs a semester of hacking around with bash and Python/Ruby/Groovy/. If not... what would you propose instead?

    1. hello,
      you may want to look into the iOS Automator It's quite basic, but it's not limited to a domain or a specific product (well, it's obviously limited to iOS, but its span is basically the features of an operating system) and more or less covers your requirements.

  3. Hi Jonnybot,

    You highlight a very interesting aspect of workflow: The more applied to a particular domain, the easier you can make the workflow language (or graphical workflow designer). Effektif's domain is business operations like working with documents, emails and enterprise services & systems. Non technical people will be able to build workflows with those simple-to-configure triggers and actions. But on top, Effektif will also be extensible by developers for those cases where it's needed. That means that you're not limited to the functionality that comes out of the box.