Have You Been Invited to the Spring Formal?

Structured Workflows to the Rescue?

I read a study recently about business process trends that said manufacturing companies are increasing the number of structured workflows (in comparison to ad hoc) to streamline operations.  Hum?  So that must mean that business process management being implemented at enterprise levels is swinging the pendulum from informal to formal processes.  I suppose that means enterprise solutions are in and simpler, client-based solutions are out.   I don’t believe it.   Here’s why.

The Great Debate:   Perspective on Structured vs. Unstructured Solutions

First, let’s talk about surveys.  I strongly suspect that if you speak with most IT executives and business leaders charged with streamlining operations, many would point to managed workflow systems.  That is their job!  Ask those people about trends, and guess what the answers will be.  Now, I’m not here to trash structured solutions… Goodness knows I’ve implemented my share, and better ones are needed virtually everywhere.  I am a huge proponent of them, in fact.  But, I’ve learned the hard way that they don’t always have the desired effect.  

Some teammates at Adobe, Jim Merry and Mark James and I were recently challenged to explain how LiveCycle (for this article read that “structured”) and Acrobat (“unstructured”) support manufacturing companies.  We chose the product development lifecycle to make our points.  First it was Mark who pointed out that the major difference between them is the structured/replicated procedures question.   Then we talked about what really happens… structured systems often drive more ad-hoc collaboration.  Why?  Well, before marching through the complications that inevitably accompany formal, systems based workflows, most people actually “run the play” manually to determine if necessary approvals will be granted, and so forth.  So formal drives informal.

Next we talked about the need for less formal systems early in the product development lifecycle.  Let’s consider change management for example.  Those systems are critical when products are in or nearing production.  The overhead they would drive early in the product development process, where the goal is to find issues early – collaborate early and often would be impossible with formal systems. 

Here is a chart we came up with to explain the idea:

So that is our opinion.  Now, where are you?  Too formal?  Too ad hoc?  Don’t know?  Well, as the chart says, you need a balance.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.  There is much more to talk about here, but I’ll end this discussion here.  Next time perhaps  we can explore how to blend formal process flows with informal ones.