Focus on purpose and workflows rather than the shiny object

Stated Belief: the why and the workflow are fundamental when selecting a technological tool to manage information flow.

As a creator and manipulator of data, you have no shortage of options when it comes to selecting a tool to aid you in managing that data. Full-fledged and beta products abound. You can also kludge an existing tool into meeting your stated needs. You also have a choice about how much money and time you are willing to invest in the initial implementation of a certain product. The place to start, however, is an honest discussion about what goal you are trying to accomplish with the tool and the workflow and practices involved in the data creation and manipulation.

The belief that the ideal tool selection is driven by answering the goal and workflow/work practice issues is not new. Yet it bears repeating and revisiting when undertaking a new project, collaboration, or generation of some type of output. Another way to say this is that the chosen tool is fit for purpose.

Step one is a clear articulation of the goals and purposes of the activity, collaboration, or output. Additionally, identify the key stakeholders and nuance the goals depending on the perspective of various stakeholders. Part B of this step could include a simple measure of success. That is, how will the group know when the goal was achieved? What are the indicators of success?

Second, I advocate for a transparent exposition of values among all stakeholders, partners, and participants. Make explicit the implicit assumptions around interpersonal relationships, expectations on investing in the goal, data ownership, etc. These values, when combined with the shared goals, provide a foundation for clearer communication. When left out of the conversation, the present but unmentioned values can hinder honest expression.

Third, take the time to assess the current work practices among the team members who will use the tool, even if they work together already. If a new mixture of personnel will be configured, it is vital to articulate existing work practices and the nature of access to various informational resources. How people access and manipulate information is a significant factor future group interactions. The output from this activity may be quite simple or detailed. Options include a step-by-step list of activities, a narrative description, a detailed flow chart, or even a graphic representation accompanied by text descriptions. It is in the process of explicitly defining work practices and habits that the group might identify missing steps or inefficiencies. Part B of this step is to create an ideal, future workflow. The desired workflow will change depending on what the group learns in the following steps.

Now it is possible to address the practical and technical needs as well as desires for a tool as step four. The group will also want to articulate the technological boundaries such as hardware, software, access, and ability to install/configure a given tool. Be as specific as possible with the limits as well as the specifics of the technical requirements. The group will want to invest time generating a long wish list of requirements. Then, after the group sees the long list, enter into a friendly debate on the merits of each requirement in order to produce a ranked, prioritized list of requirements.

Now, in step five, it is time to explore the shiny objects. That is, from the list of requirements and the desired workflow, create a short list of tool options that meet the minimum requirements and fit into the workflow. Examine each potential product, its features, its limitations, installation, configuration, maintenance, time investment, and financial investment. Based on perceived utility of each tool, rank or at least group the tools in order of likely success in meeting the stated goals of the project and how closely they satisfy requirements.

Step six is the test drive. Explore, in as much detail and trial as possible, the features and how the functions match up with the project goals and anticipated workflow. Attempt to break the tool and at the same time look for potential improvements to workflow based on features present in the tool.

Tool selection is then an iterative process of reviewing findings from test drives, rethinking workflow, then testing tools again. After the group has explored and compared options, then it is time for another friendly debate about the final tool selection. Of course, the whole point of writing up these steps is to arrive at the tool selection step and encourage a process where selection is step seven instead of step one.