An introduction to operations orchestration

Jan Hugenroth
November 3, 2022
18
minutes

Imagine an orchestra playing in an old European concert hall. The music drifts out the door, and the people on the street hear the musicians hit each note perfectly. The instruments harmonize together to create an artistic experience for everyone to hear. They’re naturally syncing to the pace of the conductor who they’ve been practicing with for months, and their familiarity with one another brings their bond forward as a unique element to the song. 

The audience members will go home and fall asleep to the echoes of the music and wonder what kept them from visiting an orchestra for so long. Your thoughts drift to the organization, planning, and preparation that the artists, instrumental sections, and conductor had to do to put on a beautiful performance. 

The next day at work, you’re looking at your organization and wonder how you can bring the experience of an orchestra to your teams to help inspire new processes for harmonious ways of working together. You make a simple diagram to compare the two:

After you’re done, you begin wondering to yourself who the conductor is. Maybe it’s the CEO? How about the COO, the VP of Operations or the Head of Operations? The actual answer is that it depends. Sometimes, organizations don’t have a conductor, which is fine for a few people (maybe a quartet or band), but when more people start coming together, that’s when orchestration becomes important. If this happens to an orchestra, it just means that they give a bad performance. For a business, the consequences are much more severe, and more often than not, the business fails.


1. What is operations orchestration?

Operations orchestration is when different operations within an organization grow to a size where they need to be orchestrated (or organized) by a specific person. In most cases, this role is taken by the COO, VP of Operations (or the Head of Operations), and their team of operations managers. 

But, what does an operations manager do? When organizations start growing manual processes like customer support, they begin to realize that to maintain an overview of their teams and the support they provide their customers, they’ll need to hire an operations manager to ensure that their support goals are reached efficiently and at a low cost. 

Operations managers take on an incredibly difficult and important role in business operations. They’re known for being a talented bunch of people who are super resourceful. Because of their demanding role, they typically act quickly and can think on their feet when multiple problems arise. Many work extra hours during the day and sometimes work weekends when the need arises to ensure business needs are met. 

The quality you might also ascribe to an operations manager is willpower and the ability to orchestrate entire and complex activities through sheer determination alone.


2. Why is orchestration important in operations?

To answer this question, let’s go back to what we introduced at the beginning with the orchestra. There are three basic parts: 

  1. Music
  2. Tone
  3. Connection

When these are aligned, the outcome is an exceptional performance and the audience is happy. If the musicians hadn’t practiced and the conductor hadn’t put each piece of music in order before the performance, you might expect that concert would resemble a school band rather than a professional orchestra. Depending on the level of excellence you want in your organization, the same concept also holds true. 

For your music to be flawless, connected, and have the same tone, you need to prepare in advance with your team.

2.1 What does this mean for operations?

Because operations is a broad term, let’s look at a specific example in a financial services organization and the different teams involved in their compliance processes for customer support. They’ll at least have a legal and customer support team to take care of basic requests. 

If you have a steady flow of new customers joining your bank, you’ll probably notice that the process required to onboard those new customers is the same each time. You might have them fill out their basic information before jumping on a call with a customer support representative who will check the customer’s passport and information before opening an account. The banking information, including the contract, is automatically generated and auto-filled with the customer information. The legal team would then be responsible for updating the contract and any newly required steps by government officials. There are similar processes set up for trading and subpoenas as well.

These are all steps in a single process required for day-to-day business operations. Each team involved, along with the customers, suppliers, and partners, will have to work together to ensure everything is done quickly. For this to happen, someone will need to orchestrate the work these people are doing.

2.2 Scaling business operations through orchestration

If you’re running a business or thinking about starting one, you probably already know that ideas for efficiency and increased communication are great. But if it doesn’t scale, then it’s not even worth looking at. Operations orchestration is a structured way of scaling your business operations most efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

If you’ve ever worked at a company where there were missed deadlines, miscommunications, misplaced information, or a total collapse after someone left or was out sick, you already know what can happen without operations orchestration. While people are human and often make mistakes, orchestration and careful planning can help prevent this from happening. 

By having someone like an operations manager dedicated to making sure processes are as efficient as possible, it means that moving work around through emails, spreadsheets, or other tools is prevented, miscommunications about who is responsible for what is reduced, and the outcome for customers who depend on these processes improves. 

With the right tools, an operations manager can gain a strategic overview of systems, and the work teams do in them. This allows operations managers to help make processes better for the teams and more efficient for the customers who depend on them. You can imagine that businesses who don’t make this a priority tend not to last very long. Pieces stop fitting together. Teams don’t work well with one another. Organizational silos solidify. And, in the end, the business ceases to exist. 

Those are the basics of operations orchestration.


3. What needs to be orchestrated?

Now that we’ve covered what operations orchestration exactly is, let’s take a closer look at what needs to be orchestrated within an organization by looking at a few examples.

Orchestration is currently a very hands-on job. Operations managers orchestrate different teams to handle different customers or deal with different partners to solve different problems in different systems. And all of this has to happen manually. People get notifications on their phones through email or messenger apps, and data is handed over in paper documents, spreadsheets, and email chains. Operations managers tackle the brunt of the work by coordinating a mass game of operational telephone within an organization to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. 

For example, if you take a food delivery service, the customer will only see the website. They order food and pay for it online to have it delivered within the next hour. Pretty simple, right? Well, sometimes, everything that happens in the background is performed manually by operations team members. So, if the business were new, a team member would get a notification that a customer had submitted an order to a restaurant. That person would call the restaurant and manually place the order or tell the delivery driver to go to the restaurant and order it for the customer.

That process, until automated, happens manually. For businesses who want to scale quickly, this means heavy organizational overhead as they hire more and more people to cover up the missing automation that they hope to catch up on later. 

Regardless of the industry (financial services, food delivery, insurance, etc.), this is a common occurrence and is called a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). 


4. When is the right time to implement operations orchestration software?

Orchestration is a problem that comes up in all industries of all sizes, but if a company has less than about 100 team members, a team of operations managers can still handle most of the orchestration work as long as there are no peak loads built into the business model (such as high weekend order volumes, seasonality, or Black Friday and Christmas shopping for retail and e-commerce businesses). 

Otherwise, they should ask themselves a few questions before hiring an operations manager to take on the orchestration task for them. 

While not an exhaustive list, an organization can ask itself the following:

  1. Do we have processes that are repeated on a daily basis?
  2. Do we know if these processes always involve the same customers, teams, partners, or systems?
  3. Can we create a general map of the steps it takes to accomplish these processes?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should probably consider hiring someone to take over orchestration. We’ve personally worked with companies as small as 3 people, and the only requirement is that orchestration is taken seriously and optimized when needed. If you create and orchestrate a process and never optimize it or change it when necessary, you’ll most likely get stuck in outdated and inefficient processes. 

If you’re currently 50 people and thinking about scaling to 150 in several different locations around the globe, it will be much easier to orchestrate now before complexity begins to build. This means inefficient processes becoming embedded in your business operations that are impossible to break without disrupting current company structures.

4.1 Preparing to scale your organization's operations

Before you launch your operations team into hyper-growth mode (or just normal growth mode, depending on your business model), you’ll need to prepare your operational processes to scale without being forced to hire more people for manual patches. You can think of this as “operational debt.”

We stole the term from technical debt, which Atlassian (the company that made the popular software development tool called Jira for task planning) describes as a constant “whack a mole” where software developers release new versions of their software (think website, an update on your computer, or an app on your phone). Still, each time they release something new, bugs come up. The technical debt grows if they continue releasing new things without returning to fix the bugs. 

The same concept applies to our food delivery service example from before. If they haven’t yet automated how orders are delivered to restaurants, the team that submits orders will continue to grow as more and more customers start placing orders on a website. Each person needs to be placed into a system where they bridge the gap between customer orders, delivery drivers, and restaurants. If a company waits too long to fix this operational debt, it’ll need to create new teams to take it on when expanding to new countries (which makes the problem even more difficult to solve).

Investing early in operations orchestration means creating a more efficient process to automate orders. If you had an operations manager who noticed early when the company was still small that the orders placed online could be sent to the nearest delivery drivers per notification and accepted via an app, the problem would have been solved. 


5. What does successful organizational orchestration look like?

If we assume that a business is a set of different people who work in different teams performing different roles within different systems, you can imagine that successful orchestration is like putting together a puzzle. The only problem is the pieces are actually more like building blocks, and you can build any shape you want. 

With an organization, it can get even more complicated as pieces need to be placed together to bridge different cultures, time zones, languages, and countries. Imagine a big multinational corporation, and now think about their product (a physical one). What needs to happen for that product to be shipped to customers? For it to be produced or purchased from a warehouse? For that warehouse to purchase supplies to make the product? For those supplies to be produced, collected, or harvested? 

Digitally this is much the same as people at different parts of a process use their time, skills, and knowledge as inputs to generate an output that is then used or sold by a company. 

A virtual version or network is created (similar to how digital twins resemble physical objects in digital manufacturing models). You can imagine having customers on one side and partners/suppliers on the other. The goal is to take this virtual version and find a way to connect the dots in the most efficient way possible. 

Let’s connect the dots by categorizing the key operations components of every organization across three different categories.

5.1 People and teams orchestration

People and teams are generally already organized based on job titles and descriptions (although these tend to be loose guidelines in practice). You can view an organization from an organizational chart. This is a standard practice for almost all businesses unless they’re a start-up with a flat hierarchy. 

Most teams are organized in a top-down structure with the C-levels above, management below, and the teams they manage under them. While the chart looks clean and the people have neat job descriptions and roles, many people might be doing things outside that clean organizational chart. 

Let’s take the example of submitting an insurance claim. If a customer submits a claim for something they consider to be a standard procedure, and there is operational debt, it means that information and work can be pushed around from different tools to different people and can even get lost entirely. 

And, as most of us will learn at some point in our lives, this is a common occurrence in the insurance industry. 

In fact, 62% of an organization’s time is lost doing work about work. This would be the amount a company could save in time, efficiency, and employee satisfaction if it had invested in operations orchestration at an earlier phase. Through clear instructions, context, and expectations, people can focus on the work they do best.

5.2 Tools and systems orchestration

It doesn’t end by empowering and orchestrating teams. The second half of the problem are tools and systems. If you’ll come back to our orchestra example quickly, you’ll see that the tools used and systems inside of businesses represent the different sections of an orchestra and the instruments used to make music. Orchestration would be pointless without them. 

The difference between an organization and an orchestra is that there are a lot more tools than there are instruments. In a annual statistic by Vendr, they found that a typical organization between 100 and 200 people uses an average of 250 tools. That’s more than one tool per person. This statistic doesn’t include any tools your organization has made itself – just subscriptions. For smaller companies, this percentage might be even higher. You might only have 5 people, but your operations team member uses Gmail, Slack, Intercom, Notion, and Sendgrid alone (so this doesn’t include the tools that your engineer or marketing manager are using).

Naturally, as a business leader, you want to make sure that you can scale your business efficiently, which means that you’ll need to invest time into scaling your team’s tools as well. Different tools will require the teams who use them to take different steps within a process. Maybe data needs to be transferred from one tool to another in order to make sure other teams have access to it. Doing this correctly will impact the outcome of your business and your team’s communication.

You can start to think about tool-based orchestration by asking yourself: What does this person do with that tool? Why does someone need that tool? And, how does that tool help the organization as a whole?

The graphic above will give you an idea of the tools we're already integrating with Next Matter, which includes automated messages, employee onboarding, task management, and calendar links, among many others. You can see a list of popular integrations. 

5.3 Customer and supplier orchestration

After your teams create inputs for each process, you’ll reach an output at the end (a product or service), which is where customer and supplier orchestration comes in. You’ll begin to see how the puzzle pieces are fitting together as customers begin to interact with your business. 

You can consider the finished puzzle as part of an ecosystem. This ecosystem might be as complex as creating and maintaining websites for different companies or as simple as working with local farmers to deliver perishable goods before they expire. Each business will operate within an ecosystem of customers and suppliers to develop and sell its products and services.

External orchestration helps to serve customers and suppliers moving within this ecosystem. Some organizations have a more difficult time with this as their ecosystems are connected to multiple customer groups or potentially split across different countries with different suppliers.

If you have a truly good end-to-end operations orchestration plan in place, you will naturally operate beyond organizational boundaries and begin integrating customers and suppliers into a natural part of your operations along the value and supply chains. External orchestration might be notifying a partner a week before the expected delivery date to make sure the food is delivered on time to your restaurant for a big event. Another example in the financial services industry is reminding a customer that you need additional information to process their bank dispute.


6. What does operations orchestration look like in practice?

Operations orchestration can look vastly different depending on the industry. To best illustrate this, let’s look at an example of a FinTech scale-up that just got a funding round and wants to scale. We can make the basic assumption that they have a good product that customers are interested in as well as a strategy in place. This is a good time to invest in operations orchestration to make sure that operational debt is avoided. 

If we use the big neobanks as an example, they didn't invest in operations orchestration during this phase of their growth journey. To be fair, the tools to maximize efficiency in this area have only just started being developed, just like how we got the tools to maximize efficiency in software engineering 10 to 20 years ago. Before these tools, they needed to hire additional people to take over manual processes and orchestrate their operations across people, teams, systems, customers, and suppliers. 

This left them with nice front-facing customer portals and a lot of operational debt in the background. There are teams that scaled with their services and now perform complex routines to make sure things run smoothly. This includes unblocking accounts, sending new cards to customers, charge disputes and more. At Next Matter, we’ve created a customizable, no-code software solution to help you maintain a dynamic operations orchestration plan and automate your operations processes.

Whether you’re the conductor for an orchestra making sure that every instrument gets their spotlight or an operations manager looking for a tool to help your team keep in perfect tune and harmony, we’d like to leave you with this challenge: let us know which operations processes you need orchestrated, and we'll demo the automation for you.

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About the author
Jan is the founder and CEO of Next Matter. Combining his passion for business and technology, he is excited about bringing the benefits of digitization to businesses and enterprises around the world.

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