Collaboration: It’s All in the Workflow

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  • Published On: August 2013



collaboration.jpgCollaboration: working jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor (Merriam-Webster)

Today’s companies are aware that adopting, promoting, and reinforcing collaboration can have huge time, money, and efficiency benefits. But many organizations fall into the common trap of believing that the simple fact of having adopted collaboration applications will lead them to become a collaborative organization. Collaboration means working with others in an intellectual endeavour, and certainly a business process falls into this category.

Becoming a truly social and collaborative company means not only deploying these sorts of applications, but applying collaboration from the very start, as a principle, within the core process system of the organization, letting the work flow between areas—enabling communication and avoiding excessive control over business processes.

Overcontrol

It's my own design
It's my own remorse

—“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,”
Tears for Fears


The temptation to control and manipulate is big, and while top executives are realizing that collaboration needs to be encouraged and moved up in priority, the organizational structure and culture are not configured for it. Transitioning from a monolithic structure to a collaborative one generates friction because the mindset of many people within the organization tends toward gaining control over their environment.

One example of overcontrol involves business processes, especially workflows.

A workflow can be defined as a progression of steps (tasks, events, interactions) that comprise a work process involving two or more persons and creating or adding value to the organization’s activities.  It is implied that the process involves communication between the stakeholders because their tasks are interdependent, whether they occur sequentially or in parallel.

One of the main purposes of business process management (BPM) techniques and applications is to gain, maintain, and reinforce control. Often, instead of tasks flowing naturally between all players and encouraging communication, they become solidified within a workflow as a convoluted set of steps, complete with authorization stages, useless wait times, and no transparency or visibility between process partners—a killer of any collaboration effort.

This is not due to limitations of the BPM application; rather it is mostly a methodological error on the part of the BPM practitioners implementing the workflow. Management teams who like to exercise power and dominance may favor this kind of control, and an ill-designed workflow can serve this purpose perfectly, resulting in processes that lack communication and transparency.

Global collaboration can be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve because:

  • Decision power is centralized, and there is no delegation of responsibilities or decision-making. This can potentially create bottlenecks. Communication is concentrated at a single point, creating inefficiency and, paradoxically, a lack of control.
     
  • Lack of visibility and transparency in the process—one user or area doesn’t know what the other is doing. This lack of visibility produces lack of commitment and lack of interest in collaboration. Communication is limited as the subject is unknown; it may devolve into gossip.
     
  • Lack of flow. When stakeholders don’t know what previous and next steps a task is related to, it can be confusing to know what they need to do, and how and when do they need to do it. Communication is reduced to an expression of frustration and anger.
Collaboration in an environment of confusion rarely achieves any significant success. Stakeholders may not have enough information about a topic or may not be clear about their degree of engagement.     

Toward Collaboration

Despite some of the problems described above, workflows can foster a path toward collaboration and healthy communication. By reinforcing control, and monitoring and measuring performance—while avoiding centralization and unnecessary stoppages—managers can act less as controllers and more as supervisors to oversee the progression of the process, and promote engagement among workflow participants, ensuring they have the necessary information for making informed decisions. This might include:
  • Modeling both the workflow and the decision-making process accordingly, focusing on the key information points needed as well as the right stakeholders, and considering what communication is needed for them to perform and interact in an efficient manner.
  • Modeling the right risks and employing the right issue management strategies to enable those involved to commit and engage.
     
  • Decentralizing control when necessary to let stakeholders and users play their role.
  • Reinforcing the visualization of data and events to keep all players informed. 
Improving business process execution and operation can play a vital role in the way organizations can promote collaboration. Instead of being forced to use tools they do not see the use for, users are encouraged to naturally develop the need to adopt and use collaboration functionality.

Conclusion

Business processes and workflows can be designed in a way that encourages the use of simple features, from annotations to full-fledged document sharing and discussion forums, but they need to be implemented with a solid use case. Workflows are not meant to be checkpoint controls; they should be promoting communication, team work, and efficient execution.

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