Dispatch, workflow, collaboration: Control and empowerment when mobilizing business processes


Ms. Neagu is a noted expert on data applications and XML technologies. Adriana was co-inventor of Microsoft Office InfoPath, and co-holds 4 InfoPath patents.

Some thoughts about structured workflows, unstructured collaboration, and the possibilities in between.

Dispatch as a simple workflow

Simple Workflow Diagram
Simple structured workflow

A dispatch scenario is a good example of a simple workflow in which a sequence of tasks take place in a specified order. For example:

  • Task 1: Dispatcher submits a form with the address and instructions for a job to be done
  • Task 2: Mobile worker completes the work and submits a report
  • Task 3: Office worker opens the form to print it, convert it to PDF, or do something else with it.

We know this kind of simple workflow is in great demand, especially in areas such as field services and inspections. It’s a straightforward translation of an existing paper process onto mobile devices. Compared to the paper it’s replacing, this workflow is faster, more efficient and less error-prone.

Workflows always grow more complex

The thing about simple workflows is that they tend to grow more complex during implementation. In the real world, there are always exceptions to the rules. What if the mobile worker doesn’t have the time or the right equipment to do the job, and it needs to be reassigned to someone else instead? What if while doing the job the worker discovers there is another job that needs to be done by someone else at the same site? What if the form the worker submits is missing some important data and it needs to be returned to him in the field?

In the course of designing the form, it is common for a number of such exceptions to be anticipated, and for the workflow to grow more arrows. Pretty soon the simple workflow becomes a complex workflow with conditional branching and alternative routing of the work.Then there are the unanticipated exceptions that arise in the field after the forms have been deployed. This is why deployments need to be iterative, typically starting with simpler workflows and growing more complex to accommodate situations that arise.

Complex workflows, iteratively improved, can be a good solution for mobile business processes. But there are also some alternatives for companies willing to release a little more control to the people working in the field.

Unstructured collaboration frameworks

Inherent in the idea of a ‘workflow’ is the notion that the whole process is automated and controlled by rules. The next step in the process is always determined by the workflow rule.

Contrast this with a purely collaborative framework, such as email, where anyone can send anything to anyone else. In this case, the work does flow, but the path it takes is determined entirely by the participants. The designer does not need to account for all the exceptions, because there are no rules or set tasks, just roles and communications.

The underlying assumption of a collaborative process like this is that the person in the field is the one who knows best what needs to happen next. The job of the designer is, in a sense, to stay out of the way of the end user and enable as many opportunities and channels for collaboration as possible.

The problem with an unstructured collaborative framework like this is the risk of chaos. With no built-in rules at all, the work might flow endlessly in circles or stop flowing altogether.

A semi-structured collaboration framework

Collaboration need not be totally chaotic. It’s possible to devise a framework, for example, in which one person or role has a unique status that exerts control over the flow of the work.

In this case Role A, the manager/dispatcher has full flexibility to assign tasks to others as needed, while the other roles experience the more structured workflow of receiving and completing assignments.

Collaboration within a workflow

Another possibility is that some parts of a workflow are highly structured while other parts are very flexible. Here’s a workflow with highly structured beginning and end segments, but with an unstructured collaborative space in the middle.

As a concrete example of this kind of collaboration-within-workflow scheme, consider the demo we’re working on to show off our new stuff. Our fictional field service company does plumbing, drywall, and painting, and those different workers need to be able to pass jobs off to one another as needed. But all that must not begin until the job has been approved, and when the work is done the customer must be invoiced.

Control and Empowerment

Workflow is about tight control and precise specification of tasks to be accomplished in certain orders and time frames according to rules and conditions. Collaboration is about enabling teams to work together flexibly in order to accomplish tasks, even in unforeseen circumstances.

Where’s the happy medium?

The sweet spot will not be the same for every company or situation. It will vary depending on factors such as the level of expertise of the end users and the tilt of the organizational culture — whether the company leans more toward control and hierarchy or toward trust and empowerment.

The important thing to remember is that there are good alternatives to consider besides workflows strictly controlled by rules, and these alternatives can lead to a more empowering user experience.