Workflow Cost vs Pain

Today I talked with Lisa Gutermuth about workflow and software. We explored what avenues are available for finding the right software for your workflow. It is a common pastime and I suggested a simple taxonomy of solutions. It comes down to three simple categories:

  1. Just use anything –  a low cost, high pain strategy
  2. Find something useful – medium pain, medium cost
  3. Build a custom solution – high cost, low pain

Just use anything – this is where many organisations start. Essentially they grab ‘whatever is out there’ and cobble together a process to ‘make it work’. It might be that everyone has a word processor, for example, so they simply use spreadsheets and email them around. Or they may grab some wikis, use Google docs and sheets, rely on etherpad when needed (etc) and use these tools. This approach actually gets orgs quite far. The problem comes when your volume increases, or your operations diversify, or your staff increases etc. Over time, these types of tools can cause a lot of organisational pain and the inefficiencies created can force you to think about moving up the stack in the solutions taxonomy.

Find something useful – looking around your sector, seeing what others use and bringing these tools into your organisation, is often the next step. There are some good things and some bad things with this approach. Firstly, unless there is a startlingly obvious solution out there, you can spend a long time looking for the right tool. This can actually be harder than you think since software categories do not have a stable taxonomy. You can’t go anywhere, look up a table and understand what kind of software you need. So searching for the right software may take a long time.  Secondly, ‘off the shelf’ solutions will (most likely) only approximate your needs. That might be enough to get going. Bring these tools on board and start work. You might then, over time, need to hack it a little which might be cheap or it might be (if it is proprietary of if you get a bad vendor/developer), very very expensive. Or you could ‘Just grab anything’ and augment the tool with ‘whatever is out here’.

Sooner or later though, you are probably spending increasing amounts of money on the solution, and it doesn’t quite meet your needs so it is causing some amount of pain. So, while above options suggested this is a medium cost, medium pain approach, it can also turn out to be a high cost, high pain choice. I believe this is the position for many publishers today using expensive proprietary solutions that do not meet their needs.

The high pain – high cost effect takes place when the org ‘grows around’ the sore point (dysfunctional software). It is like the hiker learning to limp to cope with the pain of a stone in their shoe. Orgs will employ all sorts of tools to make up for the deficiencies and even employ staff to cope with the broken workflow. Best not to learn to limp as it can have long lasting organisational effects that are hard to dig out.

Build a custom solution –  the (seemingly) deluxe approach is to build the tool you need. This can be expensive if you take on all the costs yourself. The advantage is that you get what you need and if you do it well you build tools that help you improve your workflow into the future. Savings come in efficiencies and possibly, savings on staffing costs.

As you probably know, I am CoFounder of the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation. Our approach to the above is to design open source custom solutions for organisations but in such a way that they are easy to tweak and customise for similar orgs. Hence we are aiming to get the sectors we work with into the custom solution space and capture that elusive last category – low pain, low cost.

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