Today's workforce has a growing number of tools at their disposal to communicate, collaborate and get work done. But there is a concurrent increase in workflow complexity, which, left unmanaged, results in time lost and inefficiencies. It's time to bridge the gap between the two.

For easily repeatable tasks, the process has often been defined and implemented in the systems you are using, such as an ERP system. In knowledge-intense and highly dynamic and collaborative work environments, processes are often barely repeatable (check out Thingamy for more on the concept of barely repeatable processes).

This means that knowledge workers who participate in a task have to design or redesign the process each time it is executed. Much more is required from those who participate in a barely repeatable process than an easily repeatable. Instead of simply following instructions created by a process engineer, you have to be a process engineer yourself and design the process on the fly as you execute it.

Efficient Practices Lead to Results

In such a work environment, it is very important to have efficient practices -- ways to perform common individual tasks -- that allow you to execute the job in an efficient way. You also need to have those practices in common with the other people who will be involved, otherwise you will have to revert to “whatever works” practices, using the most convenient but not necessarily most suitable tools and methods to collaborate, such as email and ad hoc physical meetings.

Here’s my key point: how efficiently tasks and processes are executed is very much dependent on the practices and tools used. For example, there can be extreme differences in efficiency between a scenario where you co-author content by emailing documents back and forth and a scenario where you can co-author the content directly using a tool like Google Docs or the co-authoring capabilities of SharePoint 2010 in Word.

First Identify the Problem

When I talk to people they often recognize the symptoms of bad practices, but they often lack the insight and awareness of what causes the symptoms and why, which of course makes it harder to treat and cure the “disease." Many of the underlying problems can be fixed by developing better practices using new tools. 

You hear people complaining about too many emails and information overload and when they hear about new tools or new ways of working, they often react negatively, saying they can’t handle more tools or information. What you really need to do is to help them get an understanding of why their situation looks like it does and that it is related to how they currently work with information and communicate and collaborate with each other.

It all starts with asking questions:

  • How do you overcome geographical and time differences, i.e. how do you handle a task that involves several people but all people cannot be physically present at the same time to execute the task?
  • How do you overcome organizational barriers, .i.e. how do you involve external parties in the execution of a task or process? How do you exchange information with external parties in secure and efficient ways?
  • How and where is information created, stored, organized, shared and accessed for each task?
  • How and where is information created for one task made available for other tasks performed later by the same or other people?
  • How and where are tasks that are inter-dependent coordinated? How do you get notified about the need to execute a certain task, and how do you signal current status to the people you collaborate with -- that it has been executed, delayed, interrupted or stopped?
  • How and where is information shared in an efficient way to stakeholders that need, or could need, the information?
  • How are generic, frequently performed tasks carried out, .e.g.
    • Find information
    • Find a person
    • Co-create information
    • Update information
    • Review information
    • Collect feedback

The Solution Often Already Exists

When questions such as the ones above have been asked and answered, we need to ask ourselves how existing -- and new -- technologies can be leveraged to work smarter and be used to develop better practices, in particular for tasks that require collaboration and interaction between several people from different organizations, locations and time zones. 

The inefficiencies in current work practices often reveal themselves in situations when you need to collaborate with other people, especially when people are in other locations, time zones and organizations. Show how these circumstances limit the degree of participation and the amount of people that can be involved in solving the problem, developing an idea or working on a project. Highlight the  information, expertise and/or resources that are excluded when you have to split projects and teams into smaller pieces and limit participation to a few people simply because you cannot manage the collaboration. These projects end in lost time and poorer results. 

We do have a great opportunity to use new technologies to develop not just new and more efficient knowledge worker practices, but also to scale participation while improving effectiveness and efficiency at the same time. It’s an opportunity too good to be missed.

Editor's Note: To read more by Oscar Berg:

-- The Digital Workplace: Social Integration Through Activity Streams