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Workflow Speeds Work Cycles

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Workflow is the process by which people collaborate to develop assets within a content-management system. It applies to situations in which multiple people collaborate on a job, wait-time is a significant proportion of the total job time, and patterns of interaction are repeated frequently. Workflow improves productivity by minimizing the wait-time between successive steps, and it automates the business logic of an organization. This article by Russell Nakano shows how to codify a pattern of interaction into a workflow job specification.
This article is excerpted from Russell Nakano’s book Web Content Management: A Collaborative Approach, published by Addison Wesley.
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Workflow Speeds Work Cycles

Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much.


Using Workflow

Achieving a successful web site launch with the revamped look and feel requires precise teamwork. There can be no hand-off delays, Dana thinks to herself. As web producer for the Olympics memorabilia auction site, Dana worked hard to hammer out a consensus for the look and feel for the entrance page. Competing agendas between the sponsors have delayed approval for two weeks. But now with the go-ahead firmly in hand, timing is critical. The launch of the sub-web site must coincide with television coverage of the opening ceremonies.

Luckily, the intense negotiations with the sponsors yield an electronic mock-up of the agreed-upon entrance page. Dana copies it into her workarea and initiates a new workflow job. After filling the required fields in the job form, she attaches the mock-up. She recalls the bad old days, not long ago, when her mock-up consisted of a marked-up scrap of paper. The electronic mock-up will lead to fewer errors and less chance for confusion.

Dana feels anticipation as she starts the job because a carefully orchestrated chain of processes kicks in automatically. First, each web developer has an electronic to-do list, into which Dana’s job immediately goes. Second, a preprogrammed script generates a notification to each web developer announcing the arrival of the job. Dana hopes that either Marielle or William will be able to accept the to-do item, but she hadn’t seen either of them this morning in their cubicles or in their usual hangouts.

In the old days, Dana sent emails, made phone calls, left voice-mail messages, and attached sticky notes on chairs in an effort to find someone who could handle a rush job. The company has grown so rapidly that merely finding a relocated person has become became a chore. Here she is an experienced, highly paid web producer. Unfortunately, unproductive busy work consumes nearly all of Dana’s time.

The new workflow-based scheme sports a custom notification subsystem that allows each developer to choose his preferred means of notification. Marielle stays with traditional email, while William chooses to use an alpha pager because he spends so much time away from his desk.

William is working from home when he receives his pager notification. Because he had prior discussions with Dana about some of the design options, he is familiar with the choice that has been made. He connects to the workflow system to check his to-do list. He volunteers to accept Dana’s assignment. By doing so, the workflow system removes the job from the to-do lists of the other developers.

William finds the work enjoyable. He finds it easier to concentrate while working at home, especially on jobs like Dana’s memorabilia entrance page, because his mind finds a way to enter the ultra-productive state that performance psychologists like to call "the flow." It feels to William like a few minutes, but when he emerges with the completed page, a full hour has passed. It is a productive hour, however, because he has completely redesigned the entrance page to follow the design direction laid out by the mock-up. He likes the result.

The next step in the predefined workflow specifies that another designer reviews his work. Dana’s instructions in the job suggest two reviewers. William selects those two and adds a recently hired designer, Makenzie. William and Makenzie had collaborated on some recent projects. William appreciates Makenzie’s pragmatic design sense.

William sends the job to the next step. That being done, William’s attention shifts to his next job.

Behind the scenes, a scripted set of instructions stuffs the to-do list of the prospective reviewers and notifies them by their preferred means. Two of the reviewers are in all-day meetings, but the third, Makenzie, is at her desk. Upon receiving the notification, Makenzie pulls up the workflow user interface and clicks over to William’s work. William has done a good job of implementing the look and feel, Makenzie thinks. She can see where William made some tricky color choices to accommodate the sponsors’ logos without compromising the integrity of the page. She reviews Dana’s design directives and studies William’s comments. She approves wholeheartedly and expresses her enthusiasm in the job comments. Makenzie’s approval pushes the job to the next step. The phone rings. Makenzie’s focus shifts to the interruption.

Meanwhile, Dana sees Makenzie’s approval confirmation email after she returns from her morning staff meeting. It is barely eleven o’clock. The morning’s activities exceed Dana’s expectations for teamwork and efficiency. The ability to initiate a notification sequence, coupled with the ability to customize each developer’s notification mechanism means minimal wait-time between steps. No more than a few minutes transpire between Dana starting the job, the development staff being notified, and the time when William volunteers to accept the job. Makenzie’s review takes only a few minutes, but the true time saving arises from eliminating unnecessary waits for hand-offs between people.

The workflow keeps the process orderly throughout. Its preconfigured business logic enforces the requirement for William’s work to be reviewed by another designer before Dana is able to move the content into production. The notification subsystem speeds the hand-offs between collaborators.

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