Creating a Flawless Collaborative Taskflow



Need or Problem

I have a long set of tasks that need to be accomplished based on requests for alternate media that I receive from students with disabilities. Depending on the type of media needed, the student’s abilities, the availability of formats, the cooperation of specific publishers and the technical devices available to that student, some or all of the tasks need to be accomplished for each textbook requested. These tasks involve research, communication, editing and distribution. They are accomplished by two student workers and me. Coordinating these tasks is monumental as we receive approximately 100 of these requests per semester.

Before I arrived at UCCS, the requests were made by a coordinator filling out a form for each book requested from a student. Then, the coordinator made phone calls and/or emails to determine whether or not she could obtain the book from a publisher or repository. If the book was available, she ordered it. If not, she sent the request to CU Boulder’s Alternate Media Specialist and paid to have it created. If the book had been ordered and arrived in an unusable format, she sent it out to Boulder for re-formatting. This was a slow process and did not result in the student having an accessible text in a timely manner. It took an inordinate amount of time for the coordinator and as the student body grew, the coordinator had little time for her other tasks.

When I took over the task, I created an online request form for students to fill out on our website. When a student submitted a form, I received an email with details of books requested and I transferred them to an Excel spreadsheet. I added columns in the spreadsheet to represent all the arduous tasks that needed to be accomplished so we (my student workers and I) could determine what had been done and what still needed to be done. This was a better method but not perfect. There were times when more than one of us needed to be in the spreadsheet at once and the spreadsheet would get out of sync. I would have to carefully review and merge 2 spreadsheets which was tedious and could result in errors.

If something is missed, a student may not get their learning materials in time which is not only a significant problem for the student but can put UCCS out of compliance with the law (ADA) and in jeopardy of a complaint filed with the Office of Civil Rights. An error free process is essential.

Currently, I am trying to streamline the process from an Excel spreadsheet to using Trello boards. I can already see potential problems and I want to be able to design a flawless system. I would like to learn how to design a complex collaborate process that needs an extremely high accuracy rate. Am I on the right track in my design thinking or am I missing something?

Search Method

I will be using the Auraria Library for my search in order to get more familiar with library research. I’m not sure what keywords to even use initially. I’m going to use the general search rather than differentiating between books, journal articles and magazines.

I used the keywords: collaborative process methodology, designing complex tasks,

I tried several other keywords and spent hours looking through lists of books and articles that were not helpful. Finally, I found the keywords that would work: Workflow! The way I found the correct keywords was going back to my tried and true Google Images. I typed in complex tasks. The many words in diagrams brought me to the right word.


This diagram is what gave me the right word.

I used the keywords: collaborative process methodology. This search brought up distantly related articles which still gave me clues. For example, an article An Introduction to the Collaborative Methodology and Its Potential Use for the Management of Heart Failure in The Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing mentioned that leadership is key in creating a collaborative process. My leadership in the process is sporadic at best since I have other work to attend to aside from the alternate media conversion process.

One of my barriers to research is that there are so many abstract theoretical terms used that I get lost and start questioning my own knowledge of the English language. For example, this article sounded promising: Collaborative process design: A dynamic capabilities view of mitigating the barriers to working together. In its purpose, it states “to leverage the tenets of socio-technical theory to examine how collaborative process design may lead to improved collaborative performance.” I have no idea what socio-technical theory is so I stopped short of going down another rabbit hole.

Finally using workflow and designing workflow I found Designing like a Pro: The automated composition of workflow activities. It is part of a series of the Journal series: Computers in Industry. The article contained a discussion on the Product Data Model (PDM) to show relations and flow of tasks in a process. There is a running example of this process in the reading alongside an explanation of the methodology.

To simplify, this method can be best described in a diagram where circles represent tasks or “operations” and arrows between the circles represent the flow from one task to another. It reminded me of the old flowcharts used in my early computer programmer days where we had shapes representing printers, databases, decision trees, monitor displays, etc. and arrows running between them showing the flow of data.

Once again, this wasn’t getting me anywhere because I didn’t need to look at the flow of data, but the design of human tasks. But it did give me the idea that it might be a good idea flowchart our work before designing the Trello Board.

I added the filters to my search of Business, Last 12 months, and trade publications, magazine articles and newspaper articles. I didn’t really want to read academic journals outlining theories and methodologies. I would rather about read real-life workflows that function for getting business done.

I still didn’t get to the root of my issues. I found a lot of articles on project management which involved having different people be responsible for different parts of a project in the article Back on Track: We asked the project management community: How do you get a project back on schedule? Most problems stemmed from a lack of communication especially on the part of management. Having people commit to their portion of the project and then studying and possibly adding resources to areas where bottlenecks occur were the solutions offered. It was exactly what I was looking for in my situation where my limited part-time team do whatever task is assigned to them depending on where in the flow we have reached. This article did make me think about tracking workflow to see if there are any stoppages. I thought about whether the handoff from one person to another was efficient or a time-waster.

I finally looked at Trello.com itself. I have already engaged the web designers to script a connector from our online form to a Trello card. After skimming some of the design suggestions in the Trello Guide, I realized that the project doesn’t have to be contained in one single Trello Board but that it can be handled by a few separate boards which can, together, contain all the details of our tasks and the other attributes that we need to organize in our workflow.

Resources

Aa, H. V., Reijers, H. A., & Vanderfeesten, I. (2016). Designing like a Pro: The automated composition of workflow activities. Computers in Industry, 75, 162-177. doi:10.1016/j.compind.2015.04.005

Newton, P. J., Davidson, P. M., Halcomb, E. J., Denniss, A. R., & Westgarth, F. (2006). An Introduction to the Collaborative Methodology and Its Potential Use for the Management of Heart Failure. The Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 21(3), 161-168. doi:10.1097/00005082-200605000-00002

Remolina, Fernando, Baker, Elizabeth (2018). Back on Track: We asked the project management community: How do you get a project back on schedule?. PM Network, 32(1), 20-21.

Swanson, D., Jin, Y. H., Fawcett, A. M., & Fawcett, S. E. (2017).

Collaborative process design. The International Journal of Logistics Management, 28(2), 571-599. doi:10.1108/ijlm-02-2016-0044

Trello.com. (2018). Getting Started with Trello. [online] Available at: https://trello.com/guide [Accessed 28 Aug. 2018].

Takeaways

Although the preliminary research scan revealed material that was not that specific to my project, much of what I read broadened my thinking and allowed me to conclude that I was generally on the right track.

After doing the practice searches assigned I gained confidence around library research. Unfortunately, I found the actual task to be even more daunting than I expected. I never did find exactly what I was looking for in spite of the amount of time I put in. I’ve concluded that I will ask for assistance from our Subject Librarians on my next research endeavor.


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