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Macro, Meso, Micro: 
Workflow

Matt Barney
Motorola

The industrial revolution automated physical tasks, and the information revolution automated mundane and repetitive analytical tasks. In the 1970s and 1980s, expert systems began to be developed to guide human decisions tasks. Today, a new class of systems is starting to automate work processes and managerial decision-making tasks related to processes controls that I call midlevel organizational tasks.

Rivers of Work?

Processes are the main locus of organizational work. Work steps occur in a sequence from strategy decisions to sales, product or service development, delivery, and billing. Each process step contains subprocess elements that are typically managed by functional areasstrategy by senior leaders or the Strategy Department, markets by Marketing, customer inquiries by Sales, development by R&D and Manufacturing, and billing by Finance.

Traditionally, processes are mapped or drawn on pieces of paper and in software programs such as Visio. After Hammer and Champys (1993) book, Reengineering the Corporation, many organizations began to map processes in order to remove steps that didnt add value. Today, while organizations continue to develop process-maps, new processes are often unused because they are not integrated into the organization to manage performance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is more evident in white-collar processes than in manufacturing where hard numbers are used more frequently to manage the business process.

In the late 1990s, Workflow evolved to support the need to explicitly manage and sequence work processes. Workflow is a class of software designed to serve as a platform for work tasks within processes. For both manufacturing and white-collar work tasks, it can automate the delivery of work between workers and departments, and unobtrusively track the progress of work through the organization. The industry standards setting body, the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC), defines Workflow as the automation of a business process, in whole or part, during which documents, information or tasks are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules (Allen, 2002, p.1).

Software Agent as Manager

Workflow software offloads a significant amount of overhead managerial work by automatically managing and tracking the performance of people and machinery. It uses systematic decision rules set by managers to determine the allocation of work to different employees. Using the set-up features of the software, the manager sets decision rules, and programs called agents enable execution of the rules. For example, a software agent might be used to match credit history information to a loan application that is suspended awaiting the arrival of that information. Agents can also automatically distribute work based on capacity. They can compare variables such as priority, amount of new work, and amount of existing work to reprioritize all tasks. They can also consider job proficiency, or predicted performance based on past behaviors and KSAOs required to perform the task, to make sure the highest priority and most complex tasks get assigned to the best-performing employees.

In the last 5 years, Workflow software has been used in the midlevel organizational processes, but it has the potential to connect management tools at the macro level, such as the Balanced Scorecard, with micro-level data such as employee performance. Workflow software is the type that Dell has famously used to eliminate the need for inventory. Dells Workflow systems are so advanced and expansive that the moment a customer purchases a computer on the Dell Web site, Dells system initiates orders with all their suppliers automatically. Dells model gives us a glimpse of the future reach of Workflow systems spanning vertical and horizontal industries, giving a new scope and scale to the macro issues I-O psychologists typically consider.

Criterion Power

Workflow software has come a long way from its hype in the mid-1990s to the present. Today, Workflows arent just limited to particular processes or subprocesses, but they can span the entire organization. Flow is considered horizontal when it spans persons and departments and vertical when its managing tasks within the scope of an individuals jobs. Because the software gives access to previously difficult-to-study phenomena, it gives the I-O psychologist a unique opportunity to study and influence performance. The software packages automatically track employee task performance and the time that the behaviors occurred.

These innovations have the potential to make our science and practice significantly more powerful by giving us easy access to the behavioral processes over time and in the context of an organizational system. These are traditionally the purview of techniques from sister disciplines, such as industrial engineering, that have developed sophisticated tools and techniques (both in terms of research methods/statistics and practice) to study the performance of systems. As Workflow technologies become more prevalent in organizations, they will afford us new opportunities to use these advanced tools (e.g. stochastic modeling) so we can account for more variability in our criteria and deliver better interventions.

At the same time, theyre not a panacea. For example, organizational citizenship behaviors cannot be tracked by todays Workflow systems. Similarly, some types of strategic decisions cannot be tracked such as the decision to pursue a new product line. Also, some Workflow software prevents employees from choosing their work tasks.

Unforeseen Impact on Employees

Workflow software represents a class of tools that will impact both the ability of I-O psychologists to get new and better data about people at work and to study workflow as a new organizational phenomena. Our models of work stress and self-efficacy suggest that there may be deleterious consequences for organizations that give no freedom to employees in choosing work. Does Workflow software create the organizational climate in the organization of Big Brother on steroids? What are the implications of detailed, perpetual measures of employee job performance on feelings of workplace privacy? I believe its inevitable for these technologies to be used increasingly, and I-O psychologists are the best equipped to answer these questions.

Conclusion

Workflow, like all technology has highlights and lowlights. Its a wonderful tool to systematize and overtly manage formerly hidden processes. It should improve the ability of organizations to quickly adapt in response to customer and market changes. Work and worker-attribute data are managed seamlessly in the same system, enabling easy roll-up of data across organization levels from individual employee to organizational-level goals. It allows for automated data tracking of performance, errors, resource utilization, forecasts, and alarm conditions. It can result in the need for less training when it allocates tasks both within (little need for task-sequence training) and between people (no need for scope understanding). With Workflow, work cant be lost in a drawer, e-mail system, accidentally deleted, or procrastinated. It gives the I-O psychologist unique access to data on behavioral processes over time and in the context of the organizations results. On the other hand, it has the potential to be an organizational 1984 (Wells, 1990), if not managed based on our science.

Please keep e-mailing your comments and suggestions. You can reach me at matt.barney@motorola.com.

References

     Allen, R. (2002). Workflow: An introduction. The Workflow Management Coalition, http://www.wfmc.org/standards/docs/Workflow_An_Introduction.pdf.
    Hammer, M., & Champy, J. (1993). Reengineering the corporation: A manifesto for business revolution. New York: HarperCollins.
    Wells, O. (1990). 1984. New American Library Classics.

 

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