Managing 'Human Processes'

Lora Bentley

Lora Bentley spoke with Jacob Ukelson, chief technology officer for ActionBase, which is breaking ground when it comes to human process management.


Bentley: What has ActionBase set out to accomplish?
Ukelson: ActionBase is a company that's been around for awhile. We have over 100 customers worldwide. What ActionBase is set up to do is help people manage ad hoc, unstructured processes. Sometimes people call them tacit interactions. They're the kinds of stuff that aren't managed through a structured system. We are seeing that ActionBase extends those systems and is actually complementary to them.


So if there is some process within an organization that's managed via a standardized system, that's great and that's the way to do it for those kinds of processes, but what we've found, especially in a knowledge-oriented environment, is that there are a lot of more ad hoc, unstructured processes that take place in an organization that are needed in order to get the job done. And the things we tend to use for those are documents and e-mails. Documents in which meetings are documented or that are created for other things, or e-mails that go around in which people have their tasks and items and that drive the processes forward.


These processes tend to be more fluid. People do the things they need to get done and attach their attachments, they send it to other people who have attachments documenting what their part was, they send it to other people, and so on. Attachments tend to get lost, it's really hard to follow up, you don't know who has done what or where things stand, and it becomes difficult to manage, especially if you have a lot of these processes. But what we see, especially in the case of audits or reviews, is that a lot of them are managed that way - in e-mail, with documents and lots of e-mails going back and forth. People are trying to make sure things are done on time and that whoever owns the process gets everything in the end.


Bentley: How does the technology work?
Ukelson: What ActionBase does is offer an add-on to e-mail and document systems. So for example if you use Outlook, we have ActionMail. It looks like a standard e-mail, and what you can do with that is send it to other people within the organization, and it becomes part of a process that is monitored and tracked. It has due dates associated with it and actions that need to be performed, and the documentation can be shared among all the different recipients. In some sense, what you're creating here is a collaborative e-mail where the manager and the participants can see the process as it's evolving. I can see what the status is, I can see who's done their work, who hasn't done their work, what has been attached, what's been modified. And instead of having 10, 20, 30 different line items in my inbox dealing with this particular process, I have one item tracking that process. It's a single line item in my Outlook inbox, and I'll see it change over time as the work gets done. For example, if someone adds an attachment or does some work, it will become bold. If someone is over their due date it will turn red, etc. And I will have complete visibility of the whole process.


Another part of our technology is something called ActionDocs, and what you can do is create a living document. For example, I'll use an audit kind of idea. If you have findings and you start recording those findings in a document, and then people need to do things with regard to those different findings, you can have a document where you line up what needs to be done, you put in the due dates, you tag the recipients, and once you publish this document, it generates an ActionMail for each of the different things that need to be done and kicks of the process. Then people can go do the work and date it, with the attachments that need to be attached, and this will all be reflected in the original document. And I as the manager will be able to open up that original document and see where things stand for each finding, what's been done, the attachments that have been made. I can see exactly where this audit process stands.


Bentley: How does the technology aid in compliance efforts, then, other than audits?
Ukelson: The idea is, in many cases these regulatory processes are relatively fluid, relatively unstructured processes that change over time. Many times, I can have these findings, and I can send it off to my coworker, and she can do some of the work, but then she needs some of her people to do some of the work, too. She can send it off to a group who then might ask for help from another group, and theses e-mails can become a long-running process in the organization, and there's no real way to understand where the process stands at any given time.


For board of directors governance, the board meets, the board makes decisions, the decisions become a set of findings that need to be followed up on, with documentation, by the next board meeting. The findings are published, they generate the necessary action mails, and then for the next meeting, instead of having to run after each person who needed to do things to find out where they are in the process, the secretary can just open the document and see at a glance what got done, what didn't get done, and what needs further action. So instead of wasting time on old business, the board can move on to new business relatively quickly.

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