What are Information Worker Solutions? (or: Waiting for the signature from the fourth floor)

This article is summary of a discussion at IWS workshop I gave to my customers recently. It has all started with the thesis that the term “Information Worker Solutions” is actually not defined at all. I did give a longer explanation – obviously I couldn’t make a brief definition. Since there was some positive feedback, with a very interesting discussion afterwards, I thought it might be worthy of a blog article.

Not long ago, I have heard of a good way how to explain the “Information Worker Solutions” term to someone. It starts with the question if you have ever been in a company, or rather some governmental body, where a (partly) polite clerk has told you that your request had not been processed yet, because they are waiting for the signature from the fourth floor. If there is a positive answer to this question, and I am quite sure that we all have been in this situation more than once, you can be sure that this institution has no solution implemented for it’s information workers.

Of course, the term “fourth floor” in this case means the highest executive level, where decisions are made, and of course that the paper did not go alone to that fourth floor. Someone had to bring it there. And before that, to analyze it, and to decide which office at the fourth floor your request belongs to. If your request was not submitted in the written form, someone has had to type it as well. All the people mentioned in this cycle are considered information workers, and each software solution meant to systemize and optimize this work is called “Information Worker Solution” (IWS).

So, who all is considered to be an Information worker? A longer description can be found in great Mark Bower’s article here, but, to make a long story short, it’s all those people inside an organization who are entering the data, processing it, drawing relevant information from the data, and making decisions based on that information. We do see that the range of people considered to be information workers is really broad – from the top management, to the personnel in the data entry centers. They are the bloodstream of each organization, actually – without them there just isn’t any organization at all. Based on this broad range of the information workers, we just see that the processes which define their interaction have to be somehow defined.

In the most simple case – it has to be defined who is writing a document, based on which information, who all is collaborating on that document, who is creating the final version of the document, who approves the document, what happens if the document is not approved, and what is the deadline for whole this process. Let’s take a simple example of writing an offer. We need an information that a call for tenders has been made. Responsible person (CEO?) decides that the company is going to take a part in the call, what means that an offer has to be written, and she delegates this task to some department inside the company.

The people who are responsible for writing the offer first have to collect all the necessary information – which coworkers can fulfill requests defined by the call for offers, does the company have enough people and technical resources to fulfill the requests, is there a collision with other projects? After all those questions have been answered, they have to actually write the offer. It’s a group work – someone is writing the technical parts, others are writing the management parts, and someone else is writing the financial aspects of the offer. After this has been done, responsible person has to check the offer. If it is not good enough, it will go back to improvement. Or, maybe the whole offer will be dismissed at this point. If it is good enough, the offer goes to the company who made call for tenders.

In this really simple, and to all companies well-known process, we see multiple interactions between people and departments inside the company. For writing the offer, we needed the information from the HR, finances, management and engineering departments. More people were collaborating on writing the offer, and at least one person had to approve the offer. We needed to have defined processes for this, as well – how do we get to know that there is a call for tenders at the first place? How do we collect information from different departments, when and how the different parts of the offer are written, and how necessary information is circulating between all the people involved in the process? Most of the companies know this process by heart, based on the decades of experience. And all these processes are well defined. Or…?

It is hard to believe that the software industry has been ignoring the optimization and automation of the organizational processes until recently. OK, we did replace typing machines with Microsoft Word. Bringing the request to the fourth floor is now being done by email – but, actually, no qualitative change has taken place there. The whole process is still being done “manually”, with no automation, and especially with no optimization. Even in this really simple example of writing an offer we see the obvious interaction between people and systems. People who are writing the offer need to have information at least from ERP, HR, LOB and Project Management systems. Yes, we do speak of “systems” now, rather than “departments”.

Furthermore, text of the offer is exchanged dozens of times per email between the colleagues, where everyone writes it’s own part, and where we almost always lose the control at who has the latest version of the offer, and is it really the latest version. And, even the boss – she often clicks on “Reply”, instead on “Reply to all” Outlook button, and that way informs only one participant (usually the wrong one) that the offer should be immediately improved.

Optimized process? I wouldn’t say so.

Luckily, in the last ten or so years the situation is dramatically improved, and there are some good software solutions for optimizing and automatizing the organizational processes. As the full market leader in this segment we have Microsoft with it’s SharePoint and Microsoft Office solutions. Others are trying to follow (Google, Oracle, IBM, SAP), but with limited success until now – their IWS software is still with the teething troubles. The open source community has not yet offered any alternative solution, too. So, it’s Microsoft. SharePoint, in it’s fourth iteration (Microsoft SharePoint 2010), has evolved into what it has always been planned for: people and systems collaboration tool, information and knowledge management tool. The tool which is placed in the heart of the software topology, connected with almost all other subsystems.

And I have heard it more than once from the customers: we came to depend fully on SharePoint in all organizational aspects. We could survive a few days without our ERP or LOB software, but if SharePoint stops working, our internal organization stops working as well.