Work moves fast these days. Not only has technology sped up how we work, but it’s enabled people to oversee approximately twice as much work (projects, people, issues and events) vs. only a few years ago. But not all work is created equal – there are different kinds of activities, and as such, different tools to meet various needs. With the incredible clutter of technology solutions available to make us more efficient, it’s important to understand what kind of work you’re doing before you load up on tools.
Structured work relates to a series of repeatable activities that yield a desired result. Often referred to as ‘work flow’ or ‘business process management’, this kind of work is often sequentially ordered, with definitive tasks associated with each stage of work. Think about approving an invoice for payment, asking for time off and/or setting up a new client project. While there may be some individual exceptions to any specific work element, all work elements follow through the same process for the most part. People are trained on the process and the work stages, and are set free to ‘repeat’. Originality, creativity and independent thinking are not often valued within Structured work processes.
Unstructured work is what most office workers are used to. Goals (end deliverables) are defined, timelines and resources are allocated and the rest is up to the team to figure out how to achieve the objective. The work is often too unique to outline a step-by-step sequence to the work. Team members collaborate to figure out the best approach, how to overcome obstacles and even determine if they are on track. Think about merging companies together, integrating software solutions, creating new product offerings or building an apartment complex. Yes experience, best practices and even templates will provide good structure to help achieve the objective (not every aspect of Unstructured work is without some structure!), but generally these projects are more about real-time solutioning, creative problem solving and collaborative thinking than they are about following a step-by-step process.
Why this ‘work-type’ distinction is important is because many organizations are just now embracing modern office technologies such as Document Management, Collaboration, Workflow and Business Intelligence. As they pony-up to the solutions bar, unfortunately a number of companies aren’t clear on the type of work they’re wishing to advance, and so they buy (or subscribe) to the wrong solution set. For those looking for some help, here are a few guidelines to drive your search for the right tools.
The solutions that best support Structured work are heavy in workflow (moving documents and data around), systems integration (connecting data and content systems) and reporting. Companies buy these solutions (called Transactional Content Management systems) when they can articulate their workflow processes (in a flow chart) and when their line of business systems require connectivity with other content (usually documents). The business drivers behind Structured work solutions are cost savings (driving a few cents or dollars out of a process that is repeated thousands of times), compliance (following a pre-determined path with audit trails tracking actions) and/or closed-loop issue handling (ex. every customer request is responded to within 24 hours). What Structured work software solutions aren’t good at, is exception handling, team collaboration, idea generation and project way-finding.
The solutions that best support Unstructured work are heavy in collaboration and communication tools. From Intranet home pages through to Project Site web pages and Extranet solutions, Unstructured work solutions enable people to ask questions and have conversations, to co-author and version documents, to track tasks and issues as well as visually see budget, timeline and deliverable statuses. The business drivers leading to the purchase of Unstructured work solutions are more difficult to put a calculator to, but most business leaders understand that enabling their knowledge workers with access to accurate information and the ability to discuss their ideas with other colleagues is critical to achieving many business objectives. Money is saved when re-work/errors are minimized. Money is made when existing knowledge and materials are re-used/leveraged. Quality, compliance, safety and high performance result when experts are able to work collaboratively with other experts along the value chain. While most Unstructured work solutions also have workflow, systems integration and reporting tools, they are more focused on creating environments for people to work digitally within rather than building fit-for-purpose invoice approval tools (for example).
It's important to know that the traditional Document Management industry focuses heavily on Structured work solution sales. This is understandable given the ‘tangible ROI-bias’ most company leaders fall prey to when purchasing software. It’s easier to justify a cost savings of $3.50/invoice with a Transactional Content Management solution (structured workflow) than it is to articulate the value of connecting your company’s best thinkers, aligning their work and ensuring they aren’t re-creating existing materials. But use caution here – don’t forget the core nature of your business often isn’t approving invoices efficiently…it’s building things, delivering services, managing events and providing other operational solutions. Hundreds of millions of dollars are earned through the operational aspects of your business, not the administrative back end.
Get your people aligned. Get your people communicating and sharing ideas. Get your people working together in real time. While both Structured and Unstructured work solutions will help, don’t forget that collaboration solutions supporting the Unstructured work aspects of your business are likely the difference makers you’re seeking in today’s modern office.