It’s Time to Document Your Workflows

Written by Dan Callahan

I am a Senior Technical Advisor to CGNET. Formerly, I managed our Cybersecurity and Cloud Services businesses, and provided consulting to many clients over the years. I wear a lot of hats. Professionally, I'm a builder of businesses. Outside of work, I'm a hobby farmer, chef, skier, dog walker, jokester, woodworker, structuralist, husband and father.

May 21, 2020

Three things happened this week that got me thinking about the need to document your workflows.

  • I’ve been working with a customer to implement Dynamics 365 for Human Resources. It’s impressive in its capabilities. But it’s clear that there’s a lot of homework required to properly run it. For instance, you need to understand what your HR policies are before you set them up. What does your leave policy define? How many days? Applies to whom? Are there exceptions? What is the process to request a leave? Approve a leave request? If you try to set up your leave policy before you have documented your workflows, you’re going to quickly get stuck.
  • I was talking with a customer that is considering a new grants management system.  During our conversation the customer told me that they already have a working group documenting their workflows.  I praised them for this, noting that I’ve seen too many organizations try to implement some form of automation without having first documented their workflows.  The result, as you might expect typically fits within the “garbage in, garbage out” dictum.
  • I was on a call with a group of IT consultants, talking about how the COVID 19 pandemic has changed our work.  One consultant, who does a lot of work with SharePoint, noted that they are getting a lot of requests to create fully digital workflows.  He said that these requests have come about because people didn’t fully understand where their workflows depended on an inter-office envelope.  With everyone working from home, these workflows have broken down or at least become much more complicated, relying on overnight delivery of documents.

Why Now is the Time to Document Your Workflows

I have recently been advising customers not to implement large technology changes while everyone is working outside the office.  People are under enough stress as it is without introducing more stress by changing the tools they use or the way those tools work.  But as I thought about it further, I realized that this might be the ideal time to revisit and document your workflows.

Why document your workflows now?  I’ve told the story before about how Hernán Cortés, upon landing in Mexico from Spain, ordered that his ships be sunk.  The message to his troops was simple: the only way we get home is by doing what we set out to do first.  And so it is with creating fully digital workflows. With everyone working out of the office, it’s difficult or impossible to execute a workflow that includes an exchange of documents. Some foundations saw this when they realized that they didn’t have a way of disbursing grant funds, except via paper checks.

You Can’t Automate What You Don’t Understand

You might wonder why it’s important to document your workflows.  The reason is simple: you can’t automate what you don’t understand.  You may think you understand the workflows that regularly occur.  But, as the SharePoint consultant pointed out, organizations have found out that they didn’t understand their workflows as well as they thought they did.

There’s a saying that if you want to truly understand something you must teach it to someone else.  Workflows are like that.  If you must document your workflow you will have to confront the steps in the workflow that you didn’t really understand.  I call these the “then a miracle happens” steps.  Documenting your workflows will help you understand these weak spots.  You’ll then have an opportunity to more fully define these steps.  Once you document your workflows you will be in a good position to test the workflows out.

Now You Can Code

Once you have documented your workflows and reality tested them, you can begin the automation process.  You can examine each step and determine what data is required, what activity needs to be performed, by whom.  You can also understand what steps need to be accomplished before this step and what steps can now be accomplished once this step is complete.

We are witnessing a democratization of application development.  There’s increasing emphasis on enabling users to write their own applications in a low code/no code fashion.  But some platform applications, especially those that manipulate databases, will continue to be a challenge.  Makers of CRM, grants management, finance and ERP applications have made it increasingly easy for users to customize or extend those applications. Often, however, users find that the customizations aren’t giving them the results they expected. The code executes, just not in the way users expected. Why? Because users don’t understand the data model behind the application.

If you document your workflows, you’re much more likely to understand your data model. As a result, you’re much more likely to be successful when you digitize that workflow.

No doubt you’re already aware of what workflows are working smoothly as everyone works from home, and what workflows are not doing so well. Take this pandemic as your opportunity to document your workflows, especially the troublesome ones, so you can successfully adapt them to a 100% remote work environment. If you can solve for this use case, you’ll be able to tackle the in-the-office use case much more easily.


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