Why your business now runs on workflows

We have borrowed 'orchestration' from the software dev department and called it ‘workflow’.
21 January 2019

Software devs deep in ‘orchestration’. Source: Shutterstock

Work used to just happen. People would go to an office, make a cup of tea or coffee… think about going to a meeting, clear their ‘in-tray’ (remember those?) and start to plan a strategy for what kind of sandwich would fit best into today’s lunch hour.

Unstructured and orchestrated workplace days have, along with in-trays and high-carb sandwiches, become a thing of the past for most of us.

The age of orchestration

Somewhere around the end of the last millennium, we started a new religion called ‘orchestration’… and this would ultimately shape workflow management for all of us.

Orchestration cut teeth in hardcore software application development and database administration circles before it evolved to become part of the new-age methodology for managing business.

Software developers needed (they still do) to be able to compile new chunks of code functionality and test those functions before ultimately performing builds (often at night when users weren’t online) to be able to roll out upgrades. This process was perfect for orchestration i.e. things needed to happen in a defined order and in an essentially very tightly managed way.

From software to business

We have now borrowed the notion of orchestration from the software developer department and applied it to business— except now, we call it ‘workflow’.

Orchestration sounds too regimented for human beings, but it’s perfect for mathematically-minded coders who love all things clinical, exacting and ordered.

Calling orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activities workflows is a way for organizations to start to graft operational outlines that departments, teams, and individuals will follow on a weekly or daily basis.

Companies can now describe workflows to define the systematic organization of resources (humans, engineering materials or machines… and soon AI brains too) into orchestrated processes that can be used to manage an ideal sequence of operations designed to achieve any given business objective.

Now for all of this new age discussion, the term workflow has been traced back to a British railway engineering journal from 1921. But the contemporary application of the term still stands; the technology industry is extremely focused on actions to apply ‘automation’ in all its forms through data intelligence as well as machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Abstraction advantage

The advantage of workflows over and above plain old simple work is that they allow us to abstract a representation of what a work process might look like. This, in theory at least, allows us to ‘play it out’ and examine where it might be weak, where it needs to be measured most closely and where additional management input might be required.

Workflows can form part of the total operational plan for a business… and they can have smaller component parts (sometimes called nested workflows) inside of them.

Every workflow defines a business process and each step has certain ‘performers’ and actions associated with it — so, then, a nested workflow occurs when you have a workflow that has a small subset of steps and is then connected to another workflow.

Deeper inside workflow theory we come into areas including so-called ‘job-slicing’, which again owes a debt to IT systems before the concept is used to apply to human workers.

With server level job-slicing, IT administrators take a single large job designed for thousands of machines and split it into several smaller jobs for distribution across a computing cluster environment. The parallel to human workers from that point should not be too hard to work out.

Real-world workflow examples

To finish up with some examples, a workflow to write this story might run as follows.

  • Clear desk (and email) of unwanted distractions.
  • Collate required background research.
  • Write story.
  • Spellcheck story, tune grammar and optimize for SEO.
  • Source images and relevant links.
  • Schedule story in weekly publishing programme.
  • Publish.

You can quickly see how a workflow for making a sandwich would start with recipe planning, a trip to the supermarket or deli, a side trip to the bakery for some organic sourdough… and then onward into the steps to be executed in the kitchen.

The same procedural planning steps exist for any aspect of business and, now that software runs the world and we are using data automation at so many levels of business, this type of operational planning will surely become more prevalent.

Did you need a workflow to get through reading this? We sincerely hope not, but we can’t promise that that level of information-driven life isn’t on the way.