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Collaborative Workflow: The New Kid on Campus

Moving beyond collaborative software to implement tools that enhance process and increase productivity
University Business, June 2012

Students, staff, faculty, and alumni are frequently in need of support for special projects, curriculum collaboration, and technology. Helpdesk solutions for IT administrators have been widely adopted among larger institutions to streamline IT support. But, with tight budgets, there’s a need for a streamlined, collaborative workflow that allows staff, support specialists, department heads, administrators, and professors alike to be more productive, in a shorter period of time and with less staff. New technology that combines the features of workflow collaboration and social software should touch all facets within an institution to get the job done.

Collaborative workflow is expected to provide synergetic efficiency gains to all members of a group. The removal of communication barriers between team members, whether they’re in the same department, in several departments, or across multiple campuses, would allow more efficient work on joint assignments. Barriers such as information silos and organizational boundaries would be minimized.

Ideally, collaborative workflow is to service management what “Cirque du Soleil” is to movement: a collection of parallel, sequential tasks that communicate and coordinate with seamless precision to achieve a desired outcome. The main difference between pure-play collaboration software and collaborative workflow is that the latter is both goal-oriented and structured. Collaboration is then carried out in a project framework with specific objectives in mind.

IT Insurrection

Prior to the 1980s, IT functions were performed at the data center—often a faceless, monolithic division housing fields of mainframes, humming softly in locked rooms. The insulated, air-conditioned splendor of the computer room was an unfortunate metaphor for the data center, all too often an unresponsive ivory tower of corporate information gatekeepers. 

The introduction of the IBM PC in the early 1980s was the “French Revolution” of computing—ushering in a power shift from the data center to the knowledge workers. This change ultimately led to the democratization of computing, but in the short run led to a period of utter chaos.

The new model lacked standards, was fraught with trial and error, and required an ever-increasing level of support. It came not only from the “computer department,” but soon included fellow team members helping each other. Peer support and “user” groups began to form, and although not explicitly shown in financial statements, led to an alarming drop in worker productivity.

By the early 1990s, studies published by well-respected consulting groups stated that organizations were spending a shocking amount of money on peer and informal technical support—about three times the amount spent on hardware (and that’s when a typical IBM PC cost approximately $5,000!). Many managers felt the PC revolution had gotten out of control.

Against this backdrop (and especially when campuses started implementing local area networks), the modern helpdesk was born. The data center had lost its monopoly, but the resulting power vacuum needed to be filled. For many, a resolution was found in standardizing and automating processes. Universities, faced with budget constraints, formed their own user organizations and folded technology into their own professional development programs.

The early helpdesks incorporated fairly simple workflows: problems were reported, dispatched, routed to a tech, resolved, and closed. As decentralized computing matured, customized workflow solutions such as change management, configuration management, and problem management enabled IT to focus on the bottom line—resolving problems and rolling out new applications faster, more reliably, and with greater ease. Workflow applications brought to the modern enterprise what Henry Ford’s assembly line did for manufacturing: efficiency, uniformity of outcomes, and increased throughput.

Social Software

When new technologies get introduced to the market, they go through a gestation period. Even before widespread adoption of the internet, social computing had gained a foothold with CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online. Social communications and collaboration have evolved around popular developments such as email, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and Wikipedia, all of which have been around long enough to be embraced by an entire generation now old enough to be in higher ed decision-making roles.
For this reason, administrators recognize the value of collaborative features of social software, and wish to harness them within their existing infrastructure for project management and communication between students, faculty, and administrators.

Social software tools may be distracting to users, as they are not structured or goal oriented. Without stated goals, commitments, timelines, and performance measurements, social media tools do not align with the productivity goals of workflow components and their benefits are merely anecdotal.

Cross Collaboration

Collaboration is more essential than ever. As budgets shrink, objectives and projects must be completed in a timely, succinct manner. With collaborative workflow, all parties granted access—cross-department or internally—have the ability to collaborate and manage projects through document sharing, email, or instant messaging. Students working with professors, faculty working together, and IT support at the campus level can benefit from today’s new workflow tools.

All members of a campus have become service providers for one another. To maintain a competitive edge, institutions need to implement a cost-effective solution that streamlines services. With every professor, administrator, and in many schools, student, having a computer at their fingertips, and all of these devices tied to wireless networks within an infrastructure that spans the entire campus, opportunities exist for collaboration tools to be implemented to enhance departmental projects across the network.

To be effective for institutions, a collaborative workflow solution should include:

  • Goal-oriented project/task infrastructure
  • A secure infrastructure that enables faculty/administrators/staff and students to collaborate, while retaining confidentiality
  • Role-based access control (RBAC) to tasks, documents, and calendar items
  • Communication tools for increased teamwork within the project/task infrastructure
  • Document management to enable multiple users to coordinate tasks and workflows
  • Social software tracking and usage from within project parameters

Collaborative workflow will enhance processes by integrating collaboration tools within an institution. It will increase productivity and efficiency by reducing information silos and the typical friction points of time, space, and organizational structure.