Workflow Integral: Broadening & Deepening Your Approach To The Way You Do Business

I want to share a brief quip based on a recent meeting with one of my clients. I think it may resonate with people who are charged with managing business operations, product lines, services and teams of people. Anyone, that is, who might be interested in improving their workflow IQ or that of their organization.

“2000 What?!”

My team had recently wrapped up a high-level study for a large public health system and one of our recommendations (a foregone conclusion) was that they would need to invest in a contemporary transaction system. Of course, one of the steps involved in deciding what kind of application to invest in is to define requirements. Requirements–functional and technical–are a product of mapping current workflows and then extending those into business processes that can be analyzed in terms of the rules that govern activities and decisions made in-process in order to develop future state or “desired” business processes. There’s much more to it that that but you get the idea. The next steps involve collecting or harvesting requirements for an application from the schemmatics or drawings you have rendered.

When we discussed these next steps, the CIO proudly declared: “We’ve already done that.” “Oh,” I said. “When?” He went on to share that “3 years ago,” his department and unit heads mapped out their workflow. “That would have been in 2005?” I asked. “No, 2004.” He replied. Further, rather than develop requirements based upon their own mapping exercises, they “borrowed” requirements from another coalition of similar agencies. “When were those requirements written?” I asked. “2003.” He replied.


You can guess (one guess only) how successful this approach to writing requirements will be. I suspect that’s why they’re 2 years behind in making this change. But the real problem in this illustration is in the eyes of the department and unit managers sitting around the room. One chirped, “I’m afraid the requirements won’t reflect what my people do everyday.” Good thinking. Another chimed in, “My people are clinicians and it isn’t in their nature to work in two systems and not be able to take notes when they’re with a client. This change risks not reflecting who we are.” Again, brilliant observation. These managers understood something seldom appreciated by technology people (especialy those who are under-resourced and several years behind the times) – people use these tools.

People are Complex Systems

We’re integral by nature so our tools need to accommodate the variety of factors that motivate our behaviors. This is more true now than it ever has been. That’s because we want our tools to encompass more and more of what we like or need to do. The iPhone is a great example. So is Google. They integrate otherwise disparate activities into a common application and single interface. That’s the point of Business Process Management. That’s the point of standardizing code and re-using data. That’s the point of understanding what all your customers want to experience.

What’s Integral?

I give Ken Wilber full credit for my understanding of what it means for something to be integral. I give myself full credit for all that I don’t understand.

  • “Integral” takes into consideration my sense of self on an internalized, individual basis. This is really my self-sense. My sense of “I”. One finds motives, emotions, intelligence, passions, beliefs, sense of purpose and mission.
  • An integral view also takes into consideration what is exterior to me in terms of discrete phenomena like all of the “it” that I am or you are. This really refers to the human body and how it is compounded from atoms and molecules all the way up to this brain sitting in this head atop this body. In work, we are surrounded by other “it”s, all external to us and all of them are organized in terms of how they are compounded or assembled. The body is what moves in relation to other bodies (and tools like desk-tops and printers and machines) to produce…a process!
  • The integral view considers the internal sense “we” share. This is the collective cultural dimension of work (and life as a human being). It considers our values, our mores, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves as a “tribe” would. In this modern age, our story trends toward pluralism and appreciating others’ perspectives (sort of). This view lets me figure out where and how I fit in with others in my group and how our group relates to other groups.
  • Lastly, an integral view considers the external social system or organization of people (the “its”) as seen from the outside and their environment all of which is less visible but still serves as infrastructure. This would include industry, trade groups, corporations, governance, nation-states, governments and all of the social apparatus they produce (like laws and schools). This, for example, explains why it takes weeks for a purchase to be approved “because of all of the red tape”.

Wilber goes on to explain that each of these four “quadrants” include lines of emerging intelligence and developmental stages. That is, they can be rather stunted or more evolved. The more evolved they are, the more they are said to be “trans-personal” and include but transcend their less evolved natures at lower levels of organization and development. Ok. Enough philosophy. Especially done this way. Trust me, if you wan to learn more, there’s plenty to read. Don’t take my word for it. This has been a rather brutal summary treatment of very exciting material.

The point is…

Using the example above, if you want to help a team of people through change, transformation and evolution from: less organized to more organized; from low quality to high quality; from paper to database; from less efficient to more efficient; from fragments to integral; then you are strongly encouraged to look back to those four bullets above and consider how the change will impact the individual (“I”), the group (“We”), the individual actor’s body (“It”) and the social system they belong to (“Its”). From that standpoint, you can account for an integral change and avoid barriers, resistance, and potential failure.

  • Will people accept it?
  • Will people feel as though they were regarded?
  • Were their beliefs and sense of purpose be upheld?
  • Will the social system support it (and fund it)?
  • What are the rules, mandates, laws, and budgets?
  • How are partners and suppliers going to react?
  • How will the body move through this change?
  • What will the new process exert on the body?
  • What is important to these people?

And for cryin’ out loud, don’t wait 3 years to apply some other agency’s requirements to your 4 year old workflows! Ask more questions, go for more depth, more span, and act quickly before the recession gets any worse.


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