What “Work” Actually Means - and Why It Matters for Process Management

Tassilo Karunarathna
August 6, 2020

From factories and shop floors, to field service, office blocks, design studios, and co-working spaces, digitization is changing the way we work. That’s equally true for the people involved in planning and designing exactly how work is executed – effectively, business process management.

In order to appreciate the full impact of digitization on work, it’s helpful to consider the actual meaning of work itself, how we define “work” in modern business, and how work has evolved to fit into a fully-digitized framework today.

What is work?

Types of Work

People do all kinds of work, every day, as part of their jobs and in their daily lives. We typically think about work as tasks needing to be done. Along this line of thought, there are three, general types of tasks that we can distinguish between:

  • Work that is a one-time errand
  • Work that is part of a one-time project
  • Work that is part of of a recurring process

Now if we look at examples from our daily lives, this distinction is very obvious:

Buying a gift for a birthday party is a one-off task

Getting new car insurance is a one-off project with a few work tasks associated with it (e.g. researching offers, negotiating with a broker, and signing the contract)

Loading a batch of colored wash into the machine is one step of a recurring process for doing laundry.

What is a process?

A process is a blueprint that consists of a set of work tasks arranged in a sequence to reach a defined objective. Typically, within a process, there are associated persons, teams, or machines that can perform these tasks.

If we take the simple example of the laundry process, we know that the objective is to get clean textiles ready for use. The sequence of activities is typically something like:

collect → sort → load → wash → dry → fold → distribute

The individual tasks in the process can be taken over by people, machines, or service providers, depending on the setup.

A process instance is an actual, real-life manifestation of a defined, recurring process. If Michael does a load of colored wash on February 7th, then this represents one instance of his laundry process.

Why is this difference important for companies? A process instance can only be executed, managed, and delivered, while the process itself can be studied and optimized in order to improve (e.g. become more efficient).

Identifying a process is not always easy. With our laundry example, the process is so simple, that we typically perceive it to be an errand - just another item on the to-do list waiting to be started, in progress, or marked off as “done”. But if we put ourselves in the shoes of a kid doing laundry for the first time, each process step needs an explanation and some practice to learn.

Similarly, in business, training and experience often lead to processes being perceived as errands over time - the apprentice checks the manual and the checklist quite frequently, while the experienced master can perform the process without giving it much further thought.

In the corporate world, it is often very difficult to identify a process, owing to a higher degree of complexity in terms of people, functions, suppliers, customers, systems, and locations involved. Parts of the process, performing entities, and stakeholders are subject to frequent change.

On top of that, individuals performing certain parts of the process, often only see the task at hand, and lack “total” perspective of the entire process. This perspective is required to understand and map out a process end-to-end (note: business process mapping is done today predominantly using flow chart templates and tools – the gold standard for visualizing processes, however, minimally effective in the actual management or execution of processes).

What is the standard approach to managing and executing work today?

In order to do work, we need to 1) capture what needs to be done, and 2) execute it.

Humans have grown reasonably proficient at capturing errands and projects with to-do lists and project management systems. There is a whole body of literature and media (trainings, workshops, videos, blog posts, etc.) devoted to the capture, execution, and optimization of this type of work.

Do most of us still struggle with it? Absolutely. But this is due to the human condition - not because we don’t know how to capture, execute, or optimize errands and projects.

It gets more complicated when it comes to processes, because as outlined, they typically involve collaboration between numerous functions, locations, organizations, and networks of people. In a typical company, there are thousands of process instances that need to be managed every day, and there is a lot of change that happens along the way.

Considering that this type of work is so common, however, there is a surprising deficit of suitable tools designed to manage processes and their instances conveniently. Looking closer, it becomes clear why that is the case.

It is extremely difficult to capture processes accurately since most of the time they are unique to each company, their people, systems, customers, and suppliers. In most cases, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution that could be imposed on business processes around the world.

The challenge of capturing a process

It would certainly be possible to develop a new, customized tool from scratch - one that fits exactly to the specific way a given company works.

However, this approach comes with a substantial, one-time cost to create the solution, and an extended opportunity cost, as internal engineering capacity is limited and usually needed for other layers of the business. It also introduces an ongoing maintenance cost, as processes constantly evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, and those changes would need to be re-engineered in the solution.

New stakeholders and systems are also introduced, which need to be captured and connected to the solution again. Maintaining such a customized solution would require ongoing focus, engineering work, and external consultants to understand and execute the changes. Most companies fail outright to fully digitize their most core business processes.

The working “status quo”

So what does this general lack of appropriate tooling lead to? In most scenarios, a combination of task managers, status meetings, emails, spreadsheets, and calendars stand in as a makeshift solution to stay organized and deliver work.

Though considered “the standard” by many, this approach is massively time-consuming to maintain, difficult to prepare, hard to track, leads to varying outcomes, and doesn’t scale without introducing more and more layers of management. Bottom line: lots of resources are spent just to organize work, with the work itself still needing to be done.

Large enterprises try to alleviate the problem with semi-customized workflow software, provided by external suppliers. Again: Costly and time-consuming to establish and expensive to maintain.

Today, teams working in the status quo system conclude that it has become increasingly more difficult to work together. It still remains unclear who needs to do what and when, keeping track of tasks and statuses is hard, and - with rapid digitization across industries - systems and processes change all the time.

Without clear alignment, defined process management strategies, and adequate tooling, teams face unmanageable workloads, which no amount of hours in the office will fix.

There are countless tools available to help you manage tasks and projects, but to capture and execute a process within the framework of a singular tool is much more challenging. Check out our process management templates to help you get a head start on digitizing your core processes.


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About the author
Tassilo Karunarathna is a lifelong optimization enthusiast. GTD, Kon.Mari, you name it. He has lived that passion during his previous career as a management consultant when doing digital transformations for both corporates and pure players. Say hi if you spot him biking through Vienna with his family of 5.