Idea Management: Social Workstreams vs. Workflow

I’ve been working with a customer recently that is implementing CorasWorks Idea Management (Cim) for enterprise Best Practices management.  This is a very expansive business process.  Recently, we discussed the design with executives and we got to talking about how the new business process differed from workflow and what the impact on “the way we work” was going to be.  The short answer is that this end-to-end process, like most with Cim, is a “Social Workstream” vs. a workflow.  The impact is big.  In this article, I’ll discuss the differences and the impact.

First of all, when I get to talking with people about implementing Cim for an end-to-end business process the topic of workflow often comes up.  People have a mental model of  workflow that has been burned in over many years.  In addition, since we are on SharePoint they are used to the model of workflow for processing documents and forms.  It is a good place to start to explain the new model of Social Workstreams.


While workflow approaches and implementations differ greatly, at a very, very basic level there are typically two attributes to a workflow:

1) The Thing: You are typically processing a single Thing.  This Thing is a document, a form, or a transaction.  It stays the same across the process.

2) Sequence: It is a sequential process that goes from person to person based upon decisions by people and/or business rules of the system. 




Workstreams are bigger animals. A workstream, such as most Cim business processes, has two key attributes:

1) Activities: A workstream is composed of a number of distinctly different activities.  Each has its own people, roles, skills, information, and tools.  Each works independently, but, is integrated into a process that defines the workstream.  The integration is loosely-coupled.

2) Gates: The work progresses forward from one activity to another through Gates.  A person or a group of people control when and if the items move forward.  Decisions are often board style vs. individuals and sequential.

The diagram below represents a typical workstream for Cim.  The main stages are represented by 1, 2, and 3.  At the highest level 1 is Ideation, 2 is Management, and 3 is Execution. There are gates between them. The swirling eddies, A, B, C, and D represent activities, usually Social Eddies, that will be discussed below.



The Workstream to Build a House

A good analogy I use for a workstream is the building of a house.  Upfront a team lays out the design and files the plan to get permits to continue.  There is a crew that levels the ground and digs the hole for the basement.  There is a crew that pours the concrete and lays the foundation.  Then, the framers.  Then, the roofers.  Then, the wall guys, followed by carpenters, electricians, plumbing, etc.  Largely, they follow a sequence, but, you can also have different activities going on at the same time.  Decisions are made at various stages (the Gates), often with the help of experts that have to sign off based upon standards (such as getting the local certification for the electricity).


Social Eddies of an Idea Management Workstream

A business process taking an idea through to a business outcome maps to a workstream.  There are various gates along the way such as 1) the initial idea contribution and ideation by the general community (A above), 2) screening the idea to bring it into a formal review process with a group of initial reviewers to rate an idea with relative questions/criteria and or vote on it (B above) , 3) moving the innovation into a formal planning exercise where there is objective data and analysis (C above), 4) approving the innovation and pushing it into a project management team, and 5) the team that develops the innovation or implements it (D above).


Before each Gate in your process there is usually a group of people that participate in an activity (A, B, C, D above).  It is a collaborative process that may involve 100’s of people or a handful.  We refer to each of these collaborative activities as Social Eddies.  In the diagram above, the spinning circles represent these Social Eddies.  (Note: Eddies are an interesting phenomena of fluid dynamics that get created when water or air flows around an obstacle like a boulder in a stream.   It creates a vacuum with often a backflow that goes against the current or creates a circular current.)


Example of Enterprise Best Practices

So, lets look at the Social Workstream for enterprise best practices.

- The idea is contributed (Gate 1).  The general community begins to review it, rate it, comment, and augment it.  Social eddie A has begun.  Popular opinion rules.

- At a point a person or persons screen the idea and decide to bring it into the formal review process.  This is the second gate.  Now, a group of specific reviewers will do an initial review on the proposed best practice using a review form with consistent evaluation criteria (social eddie B).

- At a point a person or group has a meeting and decides based upon the reviews AND based upon the popular rating (eddie A which by the way is still spinning) to move it forward into the Planning stage.

- In the Planning stage (eddie C above) a small group do a deep dive to evaluate the best practice, collect evidence, quantify it, and, present results.

- Based upon this, the Best Practice “board” will then decide on the best practice – fourth gate.  It then may kick off one or more implementation projects, or the drafting of a formal best practice “instructions” document to then drive multiple implementation efforts.  These are represented by the social eddie D.

An important aspect of the CorasWorks solution is that along the way people downstream in the process are able to look upstream.  Thus, a person that is drafting the best practice can look upstream to see a) the formal best practice approved, b) the initial and formal reviews, and c) the original idea and the ideation around it.  An interesting aspect is that since a process like this may span say 90 days, when the person is writing the best practice instruction there may well be many more comments or other information contributed to the original idea or by the various review teams.  Those social eddies may continue to spin depending on the interest level.


Impact of Social Workstreams on the Way we Work

Implementing systems with social workstreams impacts the way we work in a number of ways:

-Loosely-coupled work – Workstreams integrate different work activities to produce outcome – these activities can live on their own and be integrated in a number of different workstreams

- Workstream activity happening in “social eddies” – broader participation, visible, social, continuous feedback (even after gate decision), interactive

- People engage in their Social Eddies – people start to see their “eddie” where they will spend most of their effort

- Potentially expedited cycle times – you don’t have to wait for an item in a workflow to get to you before you can see that it may be coming down the road and begin to participate or decide to expedite it

- Board Decision Style – gated decisions often happen in a board-style, based upon both broad input and precise input

- Disciplined rhythm – Can set disciplined rhythm of decision making (bi-weekly “board” meeting) – not dependent on people or system in sequential process

- Your vote may count less – people are used to having specific power to approve or reject.  In social workstreams, there are often “forcing functions”, such as very high popularity combined with visibility, that lessen an individuals ability to say no or yes.

- Increased effectiveness via the “wisdom of crowds” – hopefully leading to “righter” decisions

- Importance of standard criteria – to make this work, you need to start to establish standard evaluation criteria that is consistently applied and enforced, say through the review forms and board decision criteria

- Greater visibility – the design of social workstreams, such as in Cim, is to provide much greater visibility to the end-to-end process, including status updates to initial contributors as their idea moves through the workstream


The Upshot

A nice, structured workflow is straight forward.  It seems simpler.  In many ways it is.  There are many tools to create a workflow.  But, the value is largely simple efficiency.

An end-to-end process for idea and innovation management can be an extraordinarily powerful driver of business success.  It drives organizational effectiveness.  But, it could get messy.  This is where the tool comes in.  The role of CorasWorks Idea Management on SharePoint is be the enabler to bring you the power of tapping into your social eddies, but to do so in a more efficient and effective social workstream.  It does the loosely-coupling for you.  It gives you your control points and process automation.  It uses workflow in specific places to be efficient.  It provides the upstream and downstream visibility.  It is flexible enough to accommodate the different workstreams and social eddies to support different business scenarios (new products, process improvement, best practices, change requests, etc.).

It will take some time (years) for social workstreams to get comfortably understood and make their way into Visio stencils.  But, trust me, they will.  Why? Because in the future (during the 2010’s), organizations simply will not be able to compete without effectively tapping into the full power of their workforce.


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