Automating People

iPhoneRecently, I was discussing process automation with a few friends – yes that is the kind of life that I have, at least during the NFL off-season. One subject that came up during the discussion is the problem that is caused by automation that goes into a holding pattern. When processes were manual and routing and storage were analog, something was physically on a pile on someone’s desk, an obvious constant reminder of the work that needed to be done. Once we suck the content into SharePoint and wrap the process up in a few workflows, the constant reminder is replaced by a single email – do you know how easy it is to ignore an email? Of course, the just-in-time nature of workflows means that while person A is ignoring the task, persons B through G don’t even know the task exists.

Since I am frequently cast in the role of person A, I might be a good example. One of my tasks is to approve expenses added to a cloud-based expense tracking system. This system notifies me of every charge I make, every charge I have to approve and every subsequent status change during the lifespan of an expense. This system has proven beyond doubt that the only thing easier to ignore than one email, is 100 emails on the same subject. Not only do I ignore the emails I receive, I’ve gone so far as to create a rule in Outlook to ignore the emails automatically on my behalf. Based on this unscientific study, I’ll conclude that having SharePoint send more notifications isn’t the answer. OK, what about a dashboard?

Despite not liking the buzzword, we are rapidly becoming fans of building meaningful dashboards around SharePoint managed content. It doesn’t take very long for list items or documents to pile up and turn a list or library into an unreadable mess. Since we have a few of these pages up and running, we have decided to add a personalized Data View Webpart to one of the pages that will show “Stuff you need to do”, but I’m not sure that’s going to help much. I say that because the rule that I created in Outlook wasn’t designed to ignore notifications, it was actually designed to help me pay attention to them. Based on the subject line, the rule puts the notifications into one of two folders for follow-up. The problem with that rule/folder combination is that it is a Pull operation – I have to go to the folder. Dashboards or status pages are also Pull operations, so those tasks will only get done if I go looking for them. Pull operations are forgotten, push operations are ignored – what’s a process to do?

As I think about this, I realize that there are only two types of reminders that I always respond to: calendar alerts and direct requests from people that I like. I recall Marc Anderson saying at the recent AIIM NE event, that he is more likely to respond to humorous notifications. I would agree with that, but there’s no guarantee. If I know that I need to stop for donuts on the way to work, I create a calendar item, set an alert time so that my phone beeps while I am driving; it works, I stop every time. When the nice woman from accounting calls or sends me an email reminding me that I have (n) expense reports to approve, I login and take care of them.


On the other hand, I told my wife that I was planning to stop at the ATM earlier this week; she wrote my planned withdrawal in the checkbook, but I forgot to stop. I also forgot to tell her that I forgot to stop, putting our checkbook out of balance – my bad.

I think a combination of push and pull solutions might help. Something like an alert that says “You have to do something” where the link takes you to a DVWP that includes actionable items. I.E. if you need to review a document, the link will open the document for you. If you need to approve a process step, the Approval button is right there. Maybe calling a person’s attention to an item coupled with an easy-to-use option to act on the item, will be enough to even get busy people to respond. We are even looking into VPN on Demand, so we could send these notifications as directly actionable items to an iPhone. If I add a bit of humor, maybe I can even increase the success ratio.

3 thoughts on “Automating People

  1. Dan:As always, thanks for the mention. Each time, I'm flattered that I have my own keyword.I've always found that it's best to have the reminder emails link to a "dashboard" rather than the individual task. If there's a "happy medium" that seems to be it.By pointing to all outstanding tasks (at least of that type, e.g., expense approvals), the user can take the opportunity to "sweep out" the pile of outstanding work. They may have ignored six previous requests for some action, but this time they see all seven things they need to do and can take care of it.Otherwise, the pile of work is never seen as a whole, and they may only take care of that one outstanding unit of work and not even realize that the other six exist, due to great Outlook rule-based filtering, or even because the reminders have started to go into the Junk folder (which seems to happen to me regularly).M.

  2. I think you might be right Marc. Task lists that just highlight the task are pretty useless. We try to get people to the object they need to deal with. I think once we have the personalized DVWP working, it might be better to point some people to that. Then, as you say, if they missed or ignored a task, we can present ewverything to them. I think the DVWP is in a beta state, so we might know fairly soon.Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. As for the mentions – credit where credit is due.D

  3. Today's PhotoI wonder if the notification displayed here would qualify for that bit of humor Marc was talking about. I have to admit, sometimes I feel like adding messages like that to our applications. It’s not really a picture, it’s a screen shot of the iPhone Simulator but it sends the message.

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