If you're a startup or an engineer looking to develop a new digital product or feature, you will likely run into business processes or more accurately: business workflows. Software is the glue connecting business workflows together so it is useful to know where the glue is needed. Your goal is to either enter or create a business workflow so that it benefits the most number of people, including you, and has the most positive impact downstream.
Understanding how a business workflow runs is not sexy work, but it is the guts of any business and builds the foundational knowledge you need to understand where your digital product might fit it in. Think of it as mapping the contours of the land you are looking to explore, land, and with luck, expand into. Without knowing which end is up, it's hard to go anywhere.
When I interviewed Aurobinda Mohapatra, who then headed the accounts receivables department and spent an hour with him, I asked him a simple question:
Your professional life is a circle. It is triggered by a specific number of known events that kick off a cycle of routine functions that you need to do. This will likely happen on a rhythm like a day, week, month, quarter, or a year. Could you describe this to me as I sketch?
This is what it looked like when we were done an hour later:
The sketch looks crazy, because of how raw it is, but all it takes is a little narration to make sense.
This diagram shows the business workflow from the time a quotation is sent to a customer all the way to when billing is done. Start where the red dot is. The quotation requires that the Global Account owner approve it, after which the document is sent to legal (automatically) which does its due diligence, including checking with the MD, COO, and CFO's office. Once everything is okay, the quotation is handed over to the Finance department.
The Finance Department works with the account manager and the profit center to acquire the sales and customer purchase order for the quotation. Once that happens the actual booking is handed over to a shared service center with instructions and a ticket. The ticket is closed when the booking enters the system. From there the terms of payment and the customer's history trigger billing cycles which then loops the Accounts Receivables team in who are handed physical stacks of invoices to collect.
Yep, no kidding. They're actually given stacks of paper which they sort alphabetically and assign to individuals on the team. When I arrived it was sorting day.
The 1.5 yrs on the top right of the diagram was Aurobinda's observation that it took him a year and a half to figure out the process he described for me. All I was doing was asking, what happens next? Who else is involved? And it only took two paragraphs to give you an overview of this process.
You can also see places where software naturally bridge parts of the business. There is automation, ticketing, and booking, invoicing, and billing at different points of the business workflow. As you'd expect, the software workflows glue the different business workflows together.
Mapping a business workflow is not much more complicated than this. The reward for this was earning respect from Aurobinda that I understood his business ( it was the first time I studied it, by the way ) and his willingness to open up and show me deeper transactions and orders in his system, speak to me candidly on how they prioritized collection and the kind of services they would pause if the customer did not pay.
This depth was where I really understood the struggles of the collection specialist and where a new software workflow might make a difference. Based on that we decided to create an app that would make the life of the collections specialist a lot easier ( sketch by Sanjay Rajagopalan ). So while I did find a new opportunity to introduce a software workflow, it only surfaced once I understood the business workflow well enough to be able to relate with my customer in his language and have a heart-to-heart about the struggle he and his team faced in collections.
The point is, mapping a business workflow gives you the contours of the land so you can see where there is economic activity going on and where you can connect disconnected islands to another and improve the economic performance of the state(s) of business as a whole.
Ah, island life. On second thoughts maybe you should leave some islands disconnected.