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Evaluating Workflows

The entire reason for setting up a computer system is to serve users. As people use a system, they develop a workflow. Workflows are either imposed or they grow organically. In either case, when you assess an existing system, you must examine and document current workflows. The tools discussed in this chapter will help you accomplish the technical aspects of this evaluation, such as determining storage requirements and CPU bottlenecks.

Evaluating a workflow from end-to-end and taking a high-level look involves nontechnical aspects as well. To fully evaluate a workflow, you should follow these steps:

  1. Examine
  2. Interview
  3. Observe
  4. Document
  5. Optimize

Examining the Workflow

Examine the workflow to determine what resources are being used and how information flows. Note the following:

  • Teams in place: What common users and groups use this process?
  • Shares and files: What files are used and where are they stored?
  • Software: What software—off-the-shelf or in-house—is involved?
  • Hardware: How does hardware impact this process?
  • Information flow: How does information flow from one point to another? What routes does it take and where does it stop?

Interviewing Users

Directly speak with people involved in the workflow. You can split users into two groups, consumers and providers.

When interviewing consumers of data, question them to determine the following:

  • Requirements: What are the real requirements of the workflow? How does a user’s job impact requirements?
  • Expectations: In what form is the data expected?

When interviewing providers, question them to determine the following:

  • Their understanding: How well do they understand the needs of the consumers?
  • Limitations: What may impede the flow?
  • Collaboration: How does the team work together and pass data between members?

Observing the Workflow

Once you have examined the workflow and interviewed users, you should step back and observe. Follow the process through. Does it match what you’ve been told? Document what is actually happening.

This intermediary documentation helps you to piece together the workflow on your own:

  • What information is needed?
  • Where does the information come from and how is it used?
  • What tools are used in creating the information?
  • What steps have to be taken to complete the process?

Documenting the Workflow

When it’s time to formally document a workflow, note its key aspects:

  • Application dependencies
  • Data formats
  • Access control
  • Team collaboration
  • Processing and automation
  • Storage requirements
  • Timing

Optimizing the Workflow

Most workflows, when adequately examined, can be improved in some respect. By taking a high-level view of the entire workflow, you can identify bottlenecks and areas for improvement. It’s important when choosing to optimize a workflow that you alter only one area at a time. This allows you to measure the results of that single improvement, and it allows easier rollback if the alteration does not have the desired effect. Finally, it minimizes disruption to user productivity.

This is not to say that every workflow needs changing. Sometimes the workflow is just fine, but upgraded hardware, for example, might improve the workflow by speeding up certain processes.

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