By Ashley Smith, CMO, GitLab, Inc.
Wo rkflow management is one of those phrases that gets thrown around in organizational settings, but we often tend to overlook the nuts and bolts of what it really means. On one hand, it’s the process of managing all the other processes: how do you get from A to Z, over and over again? How do you ensure that the results delivered at Z are consistently solid? And how to do get everyone to adhere to that process? Once you have an answer, you have one element of workflow established. Obviously workflow management gets complicated fast, because it takes about a hundred of those elements to make up the big picture of your organization’s output. Those elements are often interlaced with other departments, other organizations—how do you manage workflow in those scenarios?
"As You Prepare To Adopt A New Tool, What You Should Really Be Doing Is Looking For A Set Of Tools Or Something Highly Customizable"
I’m not a CIO, I’m a CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) for Gitlab, which is a repository manager, ie. an open-source software company. In other words, all of our jobs live and die by the way we manage information flow across the organization, and in our relationships with other organizations. As marketing manager I have various groups of people interacting under my supervision, as well as interacting with other parts of the company, so much of my job is spent trying to manage that process in a way that’s native to us and suits our work culture, but also works when we apply to external coordination, which can get tricky.
Enter workflow management software.
Measuring Process, Measuring Opportunities
At the moment, the Workflow Management software space is defined largely by measurement: not just obvious measurements around major events or overall revenue, but also smaller measurements, of indicators like “was there completion of this task? If so, how many contributed to its completion? How quickly was it completed?” And so on. The more specific these measurements are, the more insight I can gain about how my team is doing and where we can improve. For example, if I have a good grasp on flow—who’s contributing to a particular task or a particular type of task—I understand where resources are going, and who’s valuable in what way. This is really making direct links between the fine-scale moments of our workday and big-picture items like revenue.
As tools get better at measuring, I think we’re going to start using workflow tools to measure other things as well. For example, Google Analytics or Marketo—these are great analytics tools, and they can tell a real story about what’s happening beneath the surface of your business. You can track a sale from a Facebook ad to a Marketo integration through to an account on Salesforce and carry that forward to a larger sales opportunity—this is invaluable. That’s one key trend that seems to be coming forward at the moment, this ability to measure opportunities through process.
Bridging the Gaps
Interestingly, tools are getting better at bridging the gap between the “technical” and “non-technical” roles in particularly web- or software-focused organizations. Roles in marketing and sales, for example, are now obliged to use tools that in effect teach more technical processes in relatively intuitive ways. The culture divide between these marketers or salespeople and programmers is not really an issue if the tools are working; a knowledge gap in certain technical terminologies, for example, becomes surmountable when you have good visualizations. This makes it possible for the two cultures to collaborate more effectively—because everyone understands the processes involved.
But as fantastic as these tools can be, one of the challenges is to maintain an awareness of what your team really needs: what problems do you actually need to solve, and what kinds of tools will your team actually want to use? In my experience, no process management solution is ever one-size-fits-all. As you prepare to adopt a new tool, what you should really be doing is looking for a set of tools, or something highly customizable. While just quickly settling on an out-of-the-box solution might be tempting—it appears to save time in the short run— you might end up sacrificing efficiency or even causing unrest in your organization, if it seems like you don’t understand what they actually do. Or if you adopt processes because the tool says so, not because that process is important to your daily workflow.
Choosing the Right Solution
When you do decide to choose a workflow management solution, these are my two pieces of advice:
• Customize. Think about your solution like a drag-and-drop marketplace. Hand-pick what you want and need. Don’t settle for whatever some other company says works—your company is unique. When Gitlab was getting off the ground as a startup, we initially cobbled together a combination of Google Docs, Gmail, Slack, Gitlab Issue Tracker, Asana at one point, Blue Jeans for face-to-face communication—in other words, we completely tailored a solution to fit our needs. You might achieve that with just two or three things, but it’s worth the effort of test-driving a few options, and getting feedback from your team before you make a big investment of resources. The good news is that there are a lot of things hitting the marketplace right now that you can test-drive first.
• Everything’s a draft. If you want to future-proof your organization, encourage a company culture that doesn’t settle for something just because it pretty much works. Often people start using a tool and then say, “Oh, this seems to suit our needs, we don’t need to look anymore.” In fact, it may not be the best thing out there; it might be far from it. Our company ethos is based on that draft mentality: nothing is ever done. Even when a decision has been made, it’s still open for discussion, critical appraisal, improvement, or overhauling even. As leaders we have to remain open to that, and encourage it. Otherwise our companies are going to age, fast.
New workflow management options are arriving seemingly every month. This represents a major opportunity for company leaders to increase efficiency and revenue (great for the bottom line) but also to increase everyone’s understanding of what’s happening within a company: how things get done, or don’t; how various job functions work together. That can be a great boon for company culture as well.