Many of us who have worked in marketing technology or marketing operations understand the benefits that automated workflows can bring to our marketing efforts. Terms like effectiveness, efficiency, speed, and compliance, often come to mind.
But many organizations still leverage the age-old methods of utilizing a project manager to track project progress. In these environments, words like collaborate, flexible, nimble and, most recently, “agile” are worn like a suit of armor, and these marketers often believe that automated workflow take away their ability to be agile.
But, why can’t workflow be automated and still allow for nimble and agile marketing operations? Why can’t marketing depend on those same skilled project managers to focus their talents strategically to optimize their team’s productivity versus tactically to move projects forward?
With the right marketing technology, it can and for many leading companies it has! But enterprises must first standardize all the different types of workflows they use before they can automate them.
Everyone’s got a secret workflow
First, there are the “secret” workflows. We all know them and deal with them. They are the one-offs, the “hey, make sure you send this to Joan because she likes to see these before they get released.”
These secret workflows tend to cause great disruption in actual “work” flow because only one or two people know about them, they create stress and friction when they are overlooked, and often cause missed deadlines because those ad-hoc requirements take unaccounted for time.
Understood workflows eventually cause issues
Then there are the “unwritten but understood” workflows. These are understood because everybody knows the steps, we do these projects all the time, and they are passed down through the organization like that favorite office chair–honored and reveled.
These work great, until they don’t, like when that new person in the organization questions the practice or doesn’t know they exist, or until we must rush every project through to completion because they never get started on time.
At that point, the long hours start to kick in, and meetings to discuss why deadlines were missed loom large in people’s windshields. These types of workflows seem like the ultimate in flexibility, but they actually cause organizations to work harder not smarter. They require more staff to get more work done (increasing cost to the business) and frequently result in teams managing all projects as rush projects, constantly working to just make the next deadline.
Documented workflows can be complicated
Finally, there are “documented” workflows. These step-by-step tomes are inevitably managed by scores of project or traffic managers and tend to be tracked in spreadsheets that stretch all the way into column BB and the poor souls who must plot each project’s course in these celestial maps have a Ph.D. in company best practices.
These traffic managers know every step, every resource, every project, and we all make jokes like, “I sure hope they aren’t planning on taking vacation this year” or worse. These workflows work great when you’re managing a handful of projects or when dependent factors don’t create disruption or when deadlines never change.
But as the number of channels by which we must reach our customers continues to rise and increase our organizations’ overall marketing complexity, workloads have quickly outpaced the ability to manage the business of marketing in this way. Project managers run the very real risk of skipping steps, forgetting steps, compressing certain groups of people all the time (causing that group great stress) and missing deadlines, costing our businesses dearly (and in the worst cases irreparably).
The benefits of automated workflows
But then there are the automated workflows. These are employed by organizations that want to be more consistent with how work gets accomplished, get more work completed on time with less chaos, provide transparency to parts of the organization that are desperate to know “what’s going on in marketing,” and, in compliance-based business, they are a requirement for validation and audits.
But the knock on automated workflows is they take the human element out of project management, they make organizations inflexible, or they lack agility to make adjustments as departments deal with realities in the office.
The truth is, smartly built, automated workflows still depend on skilled project managers to make critical decisions during exceptional situations. They also provide flexibility and agility to manage the realities of marketing. Automated workflow does help organizations get more of the right work done, on time, on budget, and with less stress.
How do automated workflows accomplish all of this?
First, they take the best of all the above workflow types and formalize them. Those “documented” workflows are the easiest to knock down first. With the right system, you can take all those known steps and put them into automated routines that allow the system to advance projects based on rules like “move to the next step only when the last step is complete” or “move to the next step by this date.” These rules and routines take a massive amount of stress out of the organization and off project managers.
Automated workflows can also provide powerful visualizations to help project managers understand, at a glance, where they have exceptional situations. They also allow the organization to surface the “understood” workflows and provide the ability to merge those with documented workflows to handle virtually any situation. Finally, they take those secret workflows and provide project managers the ability to add those requirements in, ad-hoc, only when they must (or, even better, formalize those processes, triggered only when required to accomplish specific types of projects).
Automated workflow allow project managers to make changes on the fly (adding in new users, adding new steps, altering the course for complex or unique activities), as well as validate these procedures so they can’t change (to meet the requirements of compliance when required).
But automated workflows still track a project’s dependencies, ensure calendars stay up to date and that all users along the path know exactly what is required and when, so there aren’t surprises and deadlines are always met.
Finally, automated workflows optimized with intelligence, such as the ability to look for specific actions (or inactions), information or tags can then automatically reroute work, kick off actions in third party systems, or initiate new sub-courses of action. They also can offer more insight about what specific workflow tasks are working, and what aren’t.
Because of these capabilities, intelligent, automated workflows offer organizations opportunities to provide significant value to their enterprises, including the ability to tackle the growing needs of omnichannel customers.