What is Operations?

Luke Walker
January 19, 2023

The operations of an organization include everything an organization does to serve its customers. These operations capture all regular activities across a business and bring to life an organization's strategy in its day-to-day tasks, processes, and workflows.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into what operations is, and why it’s important to take a closer look at the role of processes and workflows as key elements of any organization’s operations. 

1. Defining the term operations

We mentioned above that the operations of an organization include everything an organization does to serve its customers (both external and internal) and often look different depending on the industry.

When most people think of the term operations, they might think about their operations team or the people who are directly interfacing with external customers on a daily basis or handling products. This is only a portion of the definition of operations, and it’s important to remember that each team member plays a role in an organization’s operations.

The term “operations” is also used colloquially as a singular word since it stands for the operations team.

Did you know that most workflow management tools aren’t optimized for operations teams? Next Matter can help

2. What are business operations?

It’s important to note that many separate operations from business operations to show the difference between customer-facing operations and internal operations like those in the legal or HR teams. However, business operations can be seen as another way of explaining how an organization runs its operations compared to an NGO, educational institution, or government.

In practice, business operations and operations are identical terms and should be treated as two different ways to express the same thing. 

Mapping operations workflows in progress

2.1 Operations vs. operational

According to Nigel Slack, a professor of operations management at Warwick University and one of the leading scholars on operations management, operations are the resources and processes that create products and services, while operational accounts for the day-to-day, detailed, and localized practices

Let’s break this down just a bit to understand what he means. 

Operations are the standard business processes that happen to make sure a business is running smoothly. These can be listed and improved on to gain efficiency and reduce cost. These can also form naturally into silos, which force business leaders to restructure processes to improve communication and efficiency. 

Operational is different from operations because it accounts for the day-to-day activities within a business that are not documented or planned. For example, if there is a war in a nearby country, and supplies are so hard to get that an organization has to shut down the factory while waiting, it would be considered operational since it was neither planned nor wanted. 

A more common example might be when someone is sick but plays an important role in an organization’s operations. Maybe they order new products each Monday, but are out with a cold and have to depend on someone else to place the order. The new person might not be comfortable with the task and ends up ordering too much or too little. 

While you can plan an organization’s operations and limit the number of operational variabilities that can happen, it’s impossible to stop them from happening entirely. So, ordering the right amount of product is something that can be planned for, while a war, on the other hand, cannot. 

Limit your operational variables by mapping repetitive workflows in advance. See an example.

3. Why is operations management important?

Operations make up an organization, so if a business isn’t actively working on defining and improving these operations, it’s risking letting them evolve into ever-more complex processes. 

This happens naturally and is unavoidable when operations are allowed to form and evolve without oversight. Each time someone is hired and added to the team, these processes grow as responsibilities are defined, and processes around work are finalized. Each mature organization faces the realization that its processes are too complex and will end up developing new solutions that may or may not solve the problem. 

Maybe they’ll decide to create a structure similar to Amazon, where they only have small teams or implement a flat hierarchy. Regardless of the solution they find, they’ll need to start putting resources into operations management to implement and maintain these decisions. 

Operations management takes care of orchestrating the operations of a business. This includes running, analyzing, and changing them. Operations managers work across all business areas, and their work encompasses all business activities that serve customers. 

Operations management reviewing operational performance and optimizing processes

4. The difficulty of creating and maintaining productive processes and workflows

Companies with less than 100 people often won’t agree that creating and maintaining productive workflows is difficult, but this will change when they begin to scale to 150 people and more. And, if you don’t have productive processes at an early stage but scale regardless, it might be nearly impossible to fix these inefficient processes after they’re embedded into your organization.

Even if operations theory sounds easy, managing large groups of people and their tasks is quite difficult. Just mapping the repetitive operations in a business can take months for larger organizations, while smaller ones might only take a week or two.

So, how does a CEO or COO regain an overview of business processes? 

It depends a lot on the industry, but the general idea is that certain workflows need to be repeated to produce consistent and reliable outputs. To best manage operations, a business leader needs to identify these workflows, map them, and then improve on them to reduce the cost and time needed for outputs. 

5. Defining the term process

You might have seen the term process before and wondered what it involved.

A process is a series of steps that transform an input into an output used for internal or external customers. 

So, what’s the difference then between a process and a workflow?

Maybe you’ve heard the term workflow floating around before and are now wondering what the difference between a workflow and a process is. The truth is that they’re different words for the same thing and often are used interchangeably. 

However, we live in a complex world, so many businesses have created their own definitions for these terms without looking at common usages in an industry context before publishing them, which has ended up with many different companies having many different definitions of the term workflow

Our definitions for operations, process, and workflow come from current research in operations. You can learn more about these definitions on a few of our favorite research portals that often offer open-source articles: 

Operations Research

Production and Operations Management

Journal of Operations Management

Manufacturing and Service Operations Management

If you’re new to operations management, you can always look at Nigel Slack’s research on current trends in the field, where he describes former research and things to keep your eye out for in the future. 

6. Digitizing processes and workflows

Creating digital workflows can help to clearly map an organization’s operations while allowing for them to be changed and adjusted quickly without needing extensive coordination between departments and teams.

But, what if these individual processes and responsibilities could be combined into one process that automatically pushes outputs as inputs for new processes? 

That’s what Next Matter does. Our software is completely customizable and can be used to map, implement, and adjust processes within an organization. For operations managers, this is the first software created specifically for them.

A digital sales to fulfillment process captured end-to end for a big box retailer

For an operations manager in a retail business looking at implementing online sales as a new channel in their store network as part of a multi-channel strategy, they can record the process they intend the team to go through and automate steps like an email order confirmation for customers, records in Google Sheets, document generation, and more. And this can be applied to any complex process you can imagine, from product returns to B2B onboarding.

Automatic outputs increase the efficiency of business operations without additional team coordination or migrating to new tools since Next Matter integrates with both internal tools and third-party software

7. Building multiple workflows

What happens when you use Next Matter at scale for business operations automation? Let’s look at an example to see how it can be done. 

Let’s take a small bakery franchise that only bakes the goods ordered online for that day and delivers them to nearby customers. Customers can go online and select the baked goods they want and the date they’d like them to be delivered. This is then added to Google Sheets and sent to the baker, who can see a list of what they need to bake for the day. 

The delivery person comes each day to pick up the baked goods that are packaged per order and to deliver the packages to the people who ordered them. 

This entire process can be automated through Next Matter. The baker would get a notification for each order for that day, and without needing to communicate with the person delivering the products, Next Matter can also generate a list of where each package needs to be delivered. 

If the online bakery wants to expand, they only need to add another team to Next Matter to have its processes automated and structured as well. This makes scaling operations in new locations effortless.

8. Getting started with Next Matter

If you’re looking to get a better overview of your workflows and operations for your business, you can start with Next Matter. We’re a software company that has created a no-code tool (or low-code for the engineers on your team) where you can map and execute operations processes. 

This includes tool integrations for those who rely on Google, Microsoft, Intercom, Asana, Sendgrid, and many others. We have integration step templates for things we know people use often, but we also have a solutions engineering team who can help you set up any integrations you need. 

If you’d like to see one of your business’s operations automated, send us a quick email with the process details, and we’ll book a call to show you how it works on Next Matter. 

About the author
Luke Walker is the Product Marketing Manager at Next Matter. He is a longtime process hacker, and writes about marketing, business digitization, leadership, and work-life balance. When he's not at work, you can find him listening to records or climbing rocks.

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