Closing Communication & Workflow Gaps with Technology

Closing Communication & Workflow Gaps with Technology

The original title I was going to give this post was:  “Better Communication or More Tools?  Pick One.”  I chose the other title because I think it’s less flippant and often when gaps in communication and workflow are addressed with technological solutions, like knowledge repositories, workflow and messaging systems, project management systems to name a few, I do believe everyone has good intentions and believes that the new tool will solve the problem.  But, all my cards on the table:  I’m skeptical about the promise that a tool will fix what are fundamentally human communication challenges.  Technological solutions are often seen as the single solution when communication and workflow problems are multi-faceted.   We all want that silver bullet.

We have seen in our experience, all too often, that organizations will make a large purchase of social collaboration tools, innovation tools, content management tools, document repositories, to name a few more, to solve issues related to people, processes and practice.

So imagine my surprise when this very situation came to roost on Akendi soil.

But first a word on people, processes and practice.

People, Processes and Practice:
If we see people process and practice as merely inputs into the technology, or the system, we can easily overlook the fact that people, process and practice are parts of the system themselves; and sometimes, the entire system.  People, process and practice can stand on their own.  Technologies like those I’ve named, without any inputs, do nothing.  Before we solve our challenges using a tool, we need to consider whether or not we have people with the right skill set; processes that map to how those people need to work and their context of use and practices that include a disciplined approach and keen understanding of the efficiencies and effectiveness to be found in using the right people and adhering to a sound process.

People often feel that if they buy the most expensive pots, their cooking will improve, but it’s the raw ingredients, the environment you cook in, the skill of the cook and the commitment to following the recipe that make the real difference.

Distributed Governance Model:
So back to the Akendi story.  For those unaware, Akendi has two lines of business: consulting in the UX and Service Design spaces and training and industry certification in UX methods and practices.  I’ve always positioned these 2 things for myself like this:  with our consulting business we can do your homework for you, (and you’ll get an A+), or with our training business, we can teach you how to do your own homework.  Early on in Akendi’s evolution, to manage our training program, we had a distributed model of governance:  trainers who were – and remain – SME’s, (subject matter experts), would take care of the curriculum and delivery for their course(s); someone in each of the geographical locations in which we teach would take care of logistics with respect to the venue, snacks, set-up, etc., someone else took care of registration and marketing the program and our visual designers would take care of the presentation of our materials, both digitally and in print, both for marketing purposes and materials for use in class.  Our processes were fairly loose; if something needed to change in our curriculum, the trainer would make the change, let the visual designers know about it by walking over to them or emailing them and new materials would be created and printed.

As Akendi’s training business grew though, this loose coordination of people and processes did not scale to meet demand.  Also our practices were not deeply entrenched; we didn’t really follow a recipe when it came time to do updates, find a new venue, print new books, deal with last minute registrations, etc. This meant that those who received changes from the SME’s often did so without much time to execute those changes; others had to stay behind to print and bind training books for last minute sign-ups, people delivering the training weren’t always made aware of changes made to the curriculum and so were caught off-guard during training sessions and dislikes of past venues weren’t always communicated to those reserving the venues well in advance of the next session, leaving them little time to find someplace more suitable.  This is to name a few of the challenges we began to run into more and more often as we grew.

So, we had the great good fortune of meeting an experienced training manager who was keen on joining the Akendi team to help grow our training business.  And so she did!  In my view, we had a skilled person, more than capable of implementing appropriate processes and a personality that would enable her to effectively encourage adherence to best practices.

Hybrid Model of Governance:
We had, or could now build, a hybrid model of governance for training.  The Manager would enable centralization and coordination of processes and practice; the people and some of the responsibilities as relates curriculum and delivery would remain distributed.  So, first item on the agenda for our new Manager was to learn as much as she could about the training and then understand the challenges and the opportunities.  Enter an experience mapping exercise.  This was executed brilliantly by one of our UX Architects and mapped the steps along the journey of Akendi’s training program all the way from training is a great idea to completion of a 2-week session of 9 days of training, 2 exams all marked, certifications sent in the mail.  It also surfaced, and captured for all to see, the many opportunities for improvement along many of the steps in that journey.  So far so good.

While no one involved in the training program as more than a trainer was surprised at the issues that were surfaced, the fact alone of their capture in black and white was compelling:  something needed to be done.  Seeing all the issues on a single map also enabled us to identify the root cause; communication styles and workflows that saw us through when we, and the training program, were much smaller weren’t working now and certainly wouldn’t take us into a grander future.  So, since workflow and awareness of the status of many little details and a single place to track training related work was needed, a low-fidelity prototype of a workflow solution was created to enable a smoother, more systematic flow of all the details that need to be communicated to those involved in creating a top-drawer training program.  At the same time, however, the Manager was implementing processes and practices around how often our training committees would meet, creating agendas to keep us on track, and following up with minutes and action items to keep us moving forward.  She was instituting process and practice!  She was also, now, the single point of contact for all things training-related.  In my view, and knowing our working styles at Akendi, we needed to proceed with solutioning carefully.  Instituting a new digital workflow tool won’t solve the absence of process or practice; not to mention compliance to use it effectively by people.

Isolating Variables and Measuring Results:
Also, implementing 2 new “systems”, if I may call our Manager that in this context, would not allow us to really understand how much of our training challenges could be solved more simply – not easily, mind you, because changing people’s behavior is not easy – but more simply.  Because at the end of the day, many of our training issues relate to communication.  Person A not telling Person B that they need their training deck changed with enough time for Person B to do it;  many trainers not knowing who to go to for help with a training question; no single point of contact to know where things stand with respect to training materials, dates, venues…not to mention outcomes and opportunities.   I’ve also been around long enough to know that compliance with using knowledge repositories, workflow and messaging systems, project management systems, CMS’s, even intranets, email and shared drives, appropriately is a challenge if those technological solutions impose a workflow on users that doesn’t suit their working style.

The end of the story is still being written.  We have implemented a much less robust workflow tracking system, but one that’s fit for purpose I’d say, and we continue to enjoy the human push, by our Training Manager, to adhere to the processes and practices that we all know, will bring us to that grander future with our training business.  We need to give these 2 new systems time to become part of our new way of working.  And to those who would say that we should’ve developed a more robust tool, I’d go back to my cooking analogy:  absolutely a high end oven may help bake a better birthday cake, but if the baker gets the call to make a cake with no time to spare, doesn’t know how to combine the ingredients effectively or turns the oven on a bit too high, it doesn’t matter how good the oven is. The cake still won’t be ready to eat for the party.

Cindy Beggs, MLS, is Partner and Vice President at Akendi, a firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design. To learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.Akendi.com.

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