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Managing Complexity Through Workflow Automation

Complexity can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps us accomplish great things. On the other hand, required workflows can be complex and prone to error. The challenges facing broadcasters have always been in balancing more complexity in delivering creative product against the staffing and infrastructure needed to get the job done. Just because technology can do something great does not always mean it can do so easily.

People are good at taking on and completing complex tasks. They add process, people and technology. They check, double check, and the job ultimately gets completed. In many cases, these same folks go to further effort by documenting the workflow and create a training manual for new people. All of this effort and overhead has associated costs. That is often where workflows are compromised, the product is redefined or creativity is restrained. Yet, technology in the form of workflow automation is a solution to this problem. Workflow automation gives the broadcaster a way to codify the steps required to produce something while relieving the user from performing repetitive or difficult tasks.

Making mistakes—repeatedly

Repeated tasks are often where mistakes are made. Either someone performs a task just a little different, or in the process of repetition, something is overlooked and mistakes result. Automation solves that problem by triggering a sequence of pre-defined tasks in the same way, based on the same criteria every time.

Errors can also be introduced in complex tasks where settings have to be chosen, perhaps metadata or other criteria. That data must be entered in a consistent way. Such processes need to be followed meticulously to get the optimum result. In some cases, with metadata for example, the operator might not even know that they have been doing “it” wrong until much later. Perhaps the broadcaster later tries to retrieve some archived asset only to discover that something just wasn’t done right way back when. Perhaps files were named incorrectly, source material was not preserved or projects were not maintained as projects. Maybe one operator was entering the date incorrectly. Such errors can be easily caught at the point of entry. Production stops, mistake corrected, content moves forward.

Leverage automation

The solution to such seemingly small errors can often be found in workflow automation. We define workflow automation as the ability to trigger and complete actions based on state, status, metadata, user action, location or other critical criteria. If every broadcaster or production house used the same workflow and wanted the same result, it would be simple for manufacturers to build systems that solved those requirements. The fact is that each production or broadcast site wants to define their own path to success. 

Workflow automation encompasses a wide variety of task solutions. A solution can be a simple as verifying the syntax of manually entered metadata to enabling entire staffs to create, share and collaborate on projects.

Workflow automation encompasses a wide variety of task solutions. A solution can be a simple as verifying the syntax of manually entered metadata to enabling entire staffs to create, share and collaborate on projects.

These companies want to set their own business rules and models for the challenges they face. Multi-format deliverables, archiving and re-use, delivery to multiple platforms, distributed workflow and more are all contributing factors. A proper workflow solution requires a system with tremendous flexibility.

A customer’s current workflow may be at the core of how they are differentiating themselves and defining their competitive advantages. Systems that were designed 10 or so years ago were good at taking what were at the time difficult tasks, like sharing high resolution video and getting to air on time, and making them reliable. Today, those tasks can be accomplished with off-the-shelf hardware and products from multiple vendors. A better solution will tie together a facility’s business goals with the elimination of multiple individual and tedious tasks, all of which reduces the complexity of the workflow.

Consider the options

Any solution needs to provide interfaces and API’s that talk to all of the third-party products being used while also tightly managing the assets throughout the production process. In addition, users need a way to define the required production steps and what event or signal should trigger those steps. Simultaneously, the workflow system should record key information that may be needed later. Finally, operators need the ability to refine, make changes, upgrade and update the workflow requirements because how people work and what they need to do will change. 

This Primestream FORK screen shot illustrates the workflow manager software toolset, which enables the creation of automated workflows for broadcast news, sports, production and post-production through easy-to-understand icons and tools.

This Primestream FORK screen shot illustrates the workflow manager software toolset, which enables the creation of automated workflows for broadcast news, sports, production and post-production through easy-to-understand icons and tools.

Some vendors are starting to provide the flexibility to configure their own products within the constraints of their ecosystem. Even so, they often make it difficult for users to build in-house solutions with true freedom of choice. Other products may provide the tools to integrate third-party components, but not much else. Such solutions are just the glue and can lack the ability to deliver truly rich integration.

Our experience has shown that the best solution is a hybrid where the vendor has the components that customer needs; the scripting/automation tools to define the workflow and the ability to leverage third-party components anywhere along the way. In this way the customer can leverage much of the vendor’s solution, but still use third-party solutions when they offer unique benefits, or represent sunk cost because they are already installed in-house. This type of approach usually requires fewer components while resulting in rich integration and a lower cost.

David Schleifer, COO, Primestream

David Schleifer, COO, Primestream

The ultimate goal is to increase reliability and release creativity. While content creators need to be able to manage technical facilities and requirements, their primary goals center on the creative process of producing deliverables. This is where workflow automation excels. It can push the often-complex production technology into the background, allowing great products to be created in a cost effective and repeatable process.

Comments:

Why don’t you use BPMN to define your workflows? Using the industry accepted notation would make actually “building” the workflows much simpler. On the other hand BPMN is platform independent thus allowing for an apples to apples comparison between competing products.

August 3rd 2017 @ 16:21 by Christopher walker
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