[flustered and confused
] “Uh…I think so. I think it went out last week. Let me check on that real quick for you.” [nervously searches on computer and rifles through papers; victoriously pulls out hardcopy schedule for Acme setup guide
] “Oh! Here it is!” Manager:
[looking suspiciously at schedule and exclaiming in exasperation] “This is the schedule for the Setup Guide. I need information on the User’s Guide!” Publication Planner:
[really flustered and frustrated
] “I’m so sorry!” [nervously rifles through papers again] “I know that information is in here somewhere, but for some reason I don’t seem to be able to put my finger on it just now. I know … let me call the localization project manager. I’m sure he’ll know the status. [calls the LPM
] “Sam says he can get that information to me this afternoon. I’ll call you as soon as I hear back from him.” Manager:
[checks his watch
] “Well, I really need the information right away. I need to figure out when we can go to production.” Publication Planner:
[even more flustered and frantic
] “Well, I’ll just call the writer. I’m sure they will know.” [frantically calls the writer] Manager:
[shakes his head in frustration and mumbles to himself
] “There has GOT to be a better way to help us track our projects.”
Do you feel the manager’s pain just by reading this dialogue? Do you feel a similar frustration when trying to track your projects?
Scenes like this one happen over and over again in technical communication groups, both small and large. The production of an organization’s documentation moves along, but in a chaotic, disorganized way that makes it difficult for managers to track the status of projects. Situations like this one happen in organizations all the time.
But that isn’t the only pain felt within technical communication groups. They find much inefficiency in the processes of creating, translating, and producing the documentation as well:
- Production is inefficient and time-consuming.
- There are too many undocumented communications.
- They still route their work in a manual way.
- There is no notification to staff members when tasks are due to be completed.
- They have no security on their content.
- There is no mechanism to track projects.
- Goals and deadlines are not broadcast to the staff members.
How can an organization overcome these process defects and improve their effectiveness? The answer may be right at your fingertips. If you already use a content management system (CMS), make the most of its capabilities and take advantage of its automated workflow feature to organize your processes. The CMS is like the car that drives your content strategy; its automated workflow feature is like the GPS within the car that keeps you going in the right direction at the right time.
To successfully implement an automated workflow in your organization, follow these five steps: Strategize, Plan, Coach, Implement, and Refine (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Steps to Implement an Automated Workflow
The decision to implement an automated workflow strategy is really a no-brainer if you already own a CMS. An automated workflow feature that is built into your CMS will work in tandem with your existing content management process without changing the way you do business.
Extending the use of your CMS by using its automated workflow feature can prove to be a profitable decision. Workflow can minimize your administrative errors, organize and condense your processes, improve your communications, and give you the ability to track the status of your projects at a glance.
A CMS’s automated workflow can give you more control over the editorial, production, translation, and publishing processes. It ensures that your staff works in a consistent way. Projects stay on schedule because staff members are notified when their tasks are due. Using automation, cycle times are shorter, and managers can easily track the status of projects. But, workflow is only as good as the design that is put into it. For example, if you plan a workflow design that is disorganized, then the CMS will implement that disorganized workflow process. Remember, the CMS can only implement what is put into it—garbage in, garbage out! So, it’s important to put time and effort into planning a goodworkflow design that meets your needs before implementing it in the CMS’s workflow.
To plan a good workflow design, write down all the tasks that are involved in your process. Then, consolidate them into broad categories and narrow them down to the basic steps needed to complete the process. Use these steps as your initial workflow design.
Beware: Don’t get too granular with your workflow steps. At Lexmark, we learned this lesson the hard way. We originally implemented a 61-step workflow process to “Write a Topic” (See Figure 2). This workflow only included the writing phase; it did not include translation, production, or publishing! This detailed workflow had four sub-workflows, loop-backs, and steps in which some staffers were assigned multiple tasks in a row. After implementing this complicated workflow design, we realized it was too detailed, taking staffers longer to manipulate the workflow than it did to complete the task. After rethinking this design, we now use a 5-step workflow process to “Write a Topic” (See Figure 3)—a huge improvement over the 61-step design! Lesson learned: Stick to the basics!
Figure 2: 61-step Workflow Process
Figure 3: Revised 5-step Workflow Process
Evaluate the tasks in your process: Are there any redundant or mechanical tasks? If so, consider automating them in the CMS. For example, when a user “Approves Content,” the CMS can automatically launch the process to publish a PDF of the approved content. Automation saves users hours of time doing repetitive tasks, and it reduces the risk of errors. At Lexmark, we found that we could automate our translation process and saw the cycle time drop from 8 weeks to 8 days!
When planning the workflow design and the basic steps involved, it is also critical to consider the workgroups you want in the process. Workgroups might include writers, translators, illustrators, and publication planners. Workflow tasks can be assigned to workgroups rather than to individual users. This limits the choices to the appropriate staff members when assigning the next task. Security can be assigned to workgroups to limit their access to specific content or tasks. Workgroups also save administrative time in coordinating users when they change roles. Future maintenance also becomes easier because workgroups eliminate the need for repetitive updates to multiple users.
Using automated workflow will change the way staff members work. Change resistance can undermine your new strategy with poor quality or a loss of productivity. It’s up to you to make staffers understand what’s coming, why it’s important, and how it will affect them.
People may be concerned about the lack of ownership of “their” content. Some people may think automated workflow might mean job elimination. Others may worry about the lack of personal interaction with colleagues.
By addressing their concerns up front and gathering the staffers’ input and ideas, the fear of change can be calmed. Each person has a different perspective on the situation, so it is helpful to hear concerns from all sides and include the good ideas in the implementation plan.
Prior to the implementation, make it clear how workflow will benefit users and focus on the positives. It will be easier for your users to prioritize tasks and track due dates, and it will decrease their communications time.
Take the time to coach the team. It will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
You’ve created a great workflow design, planned the details, and prepared the staff for the change. Now, it’s time to implement your automated workflow strategy!
Workflow touches many different people inside the organization, for instance, legal, marketing, and engineering. There are also groups outside the organization that may be part of the process, such as translators or freelance writers. Coordinate the implementation with these groups for a smooth transition from your manual process to the automated strategy.
Put your workflow to the test before you go live throughout the entire organization by piloting a representative project. Pick the key players from each group to participate in the pilot. Choose a project that encompasses most of the scenarios your staff will encounter on a daily basis. If your project is too simple, it won’t thoroughly test your new process. After the pilot, ask users for feedback (What went wrong? What’s missing? What went well? and so on) and tweak the process.
Now that your pilot testers have experience using the workflow, delegate them to train the rest of the staff. The training should be thorough and include “what if” scenarios, for instance, what if the person assigned to the next task is on vacation for two weeks?
Once the users have had hands-on experience, get their feedback on the workflow strategy. You can use this information to refine the process.
As your requirements change over time, your workflow strategy may need some fine-tuning. Therefore, workflow should be flexible without disruption to production. You may want to add, delete, or automate some of the steps in your workflow design. Or, there may be workgroups to add, change, or delete in the workflow.
When refining your workflow strategy, make use of the workflow comments to give special instructions to other users. Workflow comments can improve your communications and document exceptions to the process.
If you’re using a CMS and not using its built-in workflow feature, you may want to consider it. After all, you’ve already got the tool, so why not get the benefits from using it? Reduce your cycle times. Organize your processes. Improve your communications with other staff members. Eliminate administrative errors. Get your projects’ statuses at a glance. And, most importantly, eliminate some of your daily pain and frustration! It may take a little effort to implement it, but you will find it will be well worth it in the long run.
Suzanne Mescan is Vasont Systems’ Vice President of Marketing, with responsibility for the Company’s overall marketing and public relations efforts. For more than 25 years, she has worked in all aspects of the information management and publishing industry, including content management, editorial, art and design, project management, prepress production, printing and binding. In 1989, she established Progressive Publishing Alternatives to help publishers with project management, editorial, and design work, which she managed for 12 years. Suzanne has authored numerous articles about content management for industry publications and has delivered presentations for the CM Strategies/DITA North America, AIIM and DocTrain conferences; Philadelphia XML Users Group; Vasont Users’ Group; and in numerous industry webinars. She was also a contributing author for the book, Virtual Collaborative Writing in the Workplace: Computer-Mediated Communication Technologies and Processes by Beth L. Hewett and Charlotte Robidoux (Eds.). Suzanne earned a BS in Marketing from The Pennsylvania State University.
Karen Hollomon is a Systems Analyst in the Information Development Department at Lexmark International. She has over 15 years of experience in the technical writing/publishing industry, and was heavily involved in the implementation of Lexmark’s Content Management System seven years ago. At that time, she was a Senior Technical Writer and led the effort to normalize content and populate the database. She then served as an Information Architect, where she designed structures and defined elements needed for various information products. She currently serves as a Vasont Administrator. In this capacity, she creates and maintains the various collections and workflows.
Karen, a past recipient of the STC Excellence Award for Online Communication, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of Kentucky.