How can workflow help development programmes?


Before I talk about how workflow can help you, let me first clarify what I mean by workflow.  Since the definition on Wikipedia is kind of complex, here is my own attempt at a definition:

Workflow is a set of rules in a software application that define who must do what, when and how to achieve an objective.

To colleagues with an M&E background this may sound similar to an M&E plan.  This also sets out objectives for a project or programme.  It often describes the activities that will be carried out to achieve those objectives, how they will be measured, when and by who.

As we'll see below workflow is a good way of ensuring that an M&E plan is followed correctly on larger projects and programmes.

How workflow is used?

Workflow is widely used in the private sector to help manage activities in an efficient and effective way.  For example, your bank almost certainly has a workflow that it follows when you open a new account with them.

Insurance companies have workflows to manage how they process insurance claims or review applications for a new insurance policy.  In each case these clearly set out what the sequence of steps is in the workflow, what must or may happen at each step and who is responsible.  These workflows guide different staff across the organisation through tasks they need to do to complete your request.

Workflow is also increasingly used by individuals.  In this case it typically takes a much simpler form of automating common tasks.  For example, tools like IFFIT make it easy for individuals to automate tasks like:

When and how can workflow help development programmes?

Sounds good, but how can this help me with my work?

Like any technology, we should consider carefully if and when it can bring clear benefits to our work.  In my view the contexts where workflow is useful are limited.  However, the benefits it can bring in the right context are significant.

Here's when I think it's useful:

Workflow can bring important benefits once your programme begins to standardise rules that define who must do what, when and how to achieve an objective.

This is particularly true when you're implementing a programme that is attempting to scale an approach that has been demonstrated to work.  Workflow enables you to encapsulate the logic and rules for your programme in a management information system.

This can in turn bring the following benefits:

Tracking the implementation status of projects or sites in a large programme 

Imagine that your organisation or programme is implementing the same type of activity in many different places.  This could be across different countries or within one country.

Once you've defined a standardised workflow that follows the steps in your activity, you can use this to track which site or project has reached which step in the implementation process.  If you also define target dates for key steps you can then see if any sites are falling behind the schedule you've set out.

Often workflow will also let you define escalation triggers.  These assess if a site has missed a critical milestone and then alert a manager so that they are aware and can take action.

Track which data has been entered

Workflow also helps you approach data collection in a different way.  Instead of creating one long survey that staff complete at the end, you can now create several smaller forms.  Workflow can request (or require) that are completed at the time in which the activity generating that data is happening.

This makes more sense to programme staff and helps avoid common data quality issues associated with staff entering data that has already been aggregated or related to activities that happened weeks ago.

Now you know that any project or site that has passed this step will definately have completed data collection forms up to that point. 

Clarify roles and responsibilities

Workflow is designed to encapsulate the rules about who should do what and when.  This is particularly useful if you need to include sign-off steps to review and approve data or if you have an activity where multiple different people (or teams) are involved at different steps.  

As you begin to document your activity or process in a more standardised way you can then use workflow to help apply this by:

  • Providing guidance to people on what they need to do at each step
  • Define what conditions must be met before a step can be completed (eg completing a specific form)
  • Defining which user or role can take an action
  • Specifying which step(s) the user can advance the workflow to next once the required actions are completed

Integrate with other applications and databases

Workflow can also link to other applications and databases.  How this happen depends on the options available on both sides.  A common way is to use an application programming interface (API).  This would for example let the workflow make a call to the API of another database to check if the person you are registering is already in your central participant database.

Assuming they are not - and you complete the registration process - the workflow could then use the same API to update your participant database with the details of the new person registered.

This allows you to create one workflow focused on your process that taps into other databases and applications as it needs to.  This is a very powerful way of integrating with other software you are using.

Automate tasks

Workflow is also great at automating common tasks.  This can be a big time saver if used well.  Take the following examples:

  • Send out reminder emails or SMS
  • Create and email a report
  • Save a file to Dropbox or Google Drive
  • Escalate a task based on pre-defined criteria

Time-based triggers can be particularly useful.  You could use this to trigger an action after a specific time has passed (eg a month) or when a specific data is reached.  This is really helpful if you need to take a follow-up action after a specific period of time.  

How can I learn more?

Do you think workflow would help in your work?  Take a look at the workflow features that BetterData offers to learn more about what is possible.  You may also find our guide Creating a Process Manual for Your Development Programme useful.   This explains how to document your programme activities as a process, which in turn provides the information you need to configure a workflow to manage this process.

Click on picture below to download guide.