It’s time to wrap up our long-running series about moving information. We’ve managed to take the sting out of Locating and Versioning documents within your enterprise through clever application of web tools. This is the final part of the series, where we talk about how to fix the tracking problem.
Our basic premise is that the most obvious place to find something is where you left it. Since you created the item on your PC, that’s where it should live. Your coworkers know you drafted the document, created the slideshow, or assembled the spreadsheet, so they’ll expect to find it somewhere on your PC, too. It matches the paradigm we use every day in the physical world.
Jimmy the photographer was working on the layout for page three. Lois wanted to have a look at it, so she dropped by his desk. What about the front page? Clark was working on the cover story. Oh, there it is, still in Kent’s typewriter. Where’s that Clark gone now? He’s never around when you need him…
The tracking problem is driven by three needs. The first need is to locate the current version of an item. We’ve largely mitigated that problem by applying version control to the information at the point where it was created and giving the information a unique address on your organization’s network so that your coworkers can find it.
Since you generally know what sorts of things your coworkers do, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what business information they’ll have on their machines. For cases where you might not know the right person, you can navigate links in the social network to find the right stuff. And in the worst case scenario, you can always run an off-the-shelf search engine over all of the documents. Since we’ve done the hard work of making them addressable and versionable, creating a full text index of their contents is no problem.
The second tracking need is to monitor the status of a work in progress. Based on what we’ve seen during our time as management and technology consultants, this is the item that generates the most email traffic in a typical enterprise. This is the reason why most knowledge workers spend a significant chunk of their time asking for or filling out status reports. I like to call it “Management by Magic 8-Ball“.
Manager: “Is it done yet?”
Employee: “Ask again later.”
Manager: “When will it be done?”
Employee: “Cannot predict now.”
Manager: “Will we meet the deadline?”
Employee: “My sources say no.”
Manager: “Will a week’s extension be enough to finish?”
Employee: “Signs point to yes.”
Manager: “OK. I’ll see what I can do.”
Not the most efficient use of time and resources, is it? The exchange above is another symptom of the way enterprise software works today. Each knowledge worker is a black box as far as most office productivity tools are concerned. According to this school of thought, a manager assigns a task, the employee disappears into a cubicle for a while, and some time later the employee emerges with the task complete. In the abstract, it seems like a decent way to organize things. How the employee gets the job done should be irrelevant, so long as the job gets done, right?
In practice, it’s a disaster. What happens inside that cubicle is vital to the operation of an innovative, collaborative business. Coworkers need to know that information, as do managers. And in today’s fast-paced business world, they need to know in real-time. Hence the endless requests for status updates in email, or the tried-but-true “Management by Walking Around.”
Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone involved if the there were more visibility into what happens inside that cubicle? An architect can see the progress being made on a construction site without having to deluge the foreman with requests for status updates. What we need is a way to publish updates as they happen. Let’s call it workstreaming for now, since I can’t think of a better term.
Knowledge workers interact with their computers to get most things done. In theory, that means the computer should be able to notify managers or coworkers when work product is updated. Rather than reading endless status reports, a manager could subscribe to his employee’s RSS feeds. A coworker can monitor a document of interest on her friend’s computer. Most importantly, these things can be done silently, without interrupting the knowledge worker’s train of thought. They can concentrate more on getting their tasks done and less on responding to requests for information.
Then there’s the third tracking need: Auditing. Sometimes it’s important to know how information flowed through an organization. One example is process improvement; You might want to figure out how to improve response time for calls received by your customer support line. Another example is for an audit or an investigation; You might need to prove that sensitive financial data was protected during the sales and order fulfillment process. Most solutions to this problem advocate centralized management schemes, intensive processes, and strict governance. There’s a large market for discovery and compliance tools to address this need, because the problem is complex and expensive.
It’s also — thankfully — rare. Fortunately, only a few industries and government labor under the sort of onerous rules that make compliance tools worthwhile. For the rest of us, it’s overkill. Unfortunately, it’s the compliance-laden parts of knowledge work that have so far driven the development of new tools and technologies. ERM, EDM, ECM, BPM… the mere fact that these tools sell themselves by acronym should be a tip-off that they were designed to appeal to industry analysts and can only be deployed by a small army of specialists.
Yes, auditing and compliance are tough problems. A web-centric approach to enterprise software might have little to offer organizations that have risk management as a key strategic objective, beyond increased transparency. But most businesses would rather boost productivity and improve the bottom line.
The Enterprise 2.0 vibe is about improving collaboration by bringing simple, successful, scalable tools from the Web 2.0 generation of consumer technologies into the workplace. Enterprise 2.0 tools are about making a knowledge worker’s daily tasks easier and more fun. And making things fun and easy spurs creativity, cooperation, and innovation — the only durable sources of competitive advantage.