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Collaboration Tasks Bring Structure to Chaos

by Alan Rickayzen | SAPinsider

April 1, 2005

by Alan Rickayzen, SAP AG SAPinsider - 2005 (Volume 6), April (Issue 2)
 

 

 

Alan Rickayzen,
SAP AG

Last year, one European company seriously considered switching off its email for internal communications — and not for security reasons. Instead, it had come to the conclusion that the flood of internal email was overloading its workers and undermining high-priority core tasks needed to keep the company competitive.

Enterprises worldwide, bogged down by overflowing inboxes, likewise dream of shutting off internal email to stop mail flooding and increase employee productivity. Just consider the effects of rampant internal email communication:

  • As issues escalate and quick email responses fly back and forth, the resulting mail storms often continue long after an issue is resolved.

  • With so many contributors adding their own two cents, there's a lack of clarity as to who is actually working on a task.

  • When new waves of email messages arrive in your inbox, past issues may scroll out of sight without being properly addressed.

Workflow does a great job of keeping tabs on processes that have been automated up front, but what about ad hoc processes that can often only be resolved with email? Since most email systems simply duplicate mail and offer no transparency outside your own personal inbox, how can all involved users stay up to date on the most recent status of these processes? There must be a way out of this mess!

There is. SAP NetWeaver '04 gives your users the chance to create collaboration tasks on the fly, so that several colleagues can work simultaneously and sequentially on one task, and everyone can see what everyone else is up to.

You'll find access to create collab-oration tasks from two points in the SAP Enterprise Portal:1 the Universal Worklist and the Collaboration Room. Any user (yes, it really is that simple) can create a collaboration task either sequentially, assigning users to the task so that they can either work together in a chain or pass the task from one user to another as they complete their work, or in parallel, so that users work on the task simultaneously. A combination of both techniques is just as easy to achieve.

Key Benefits of Collaboration Tasks

Collaboration tasks are most appropriate for knowledge workers — anyone who spends a lot of time in their email inbox reacting to incoming mail by searching for requested information or delegating actions to colleagues. The benefits of creating collaboration tasks — transparency, accountability, and timeliness — are tremendous. Let's look at each of these benefits in more detail:

Transparency: At any time, all users involved in the task will have a snapshot of its current status. They will see what has been done already, along with the comments of other colleagues working simultaneously on the task. It's a bit like following a forum discussion on the Web. This snapshot helps users avoid redundant effort and enables more constructive work.
Accountability: Any task that has been assigned to you will remain in your inbox until you complete it, or until it is no longer necessary due to external influences like the initiator retracting the task or reassigning it to someone else. Everyone else knows you are working on a task, and when you complete it, the task item disappears. The inbox is the same place you receive any work items generated by workflows, so the principle is the same: when your inbox is empty, you can leave work with a clear conscience. If you reject a collaboration task, such as when your workload is too high or when you do not have the necessary skills, then the task goes straight back to the colleague who generated it, and he or she can take immediate action.
Timeliness: Often tasks become redundant, like when the initiator retracts the task or a colleague co-assigned to the task completes it on their own without needing your help. In these cases, the tasks are automatically removed from everybody's inbox, so everyone can get on with other work, sparing redundant effort. If a deadline is drawing close, then you will be warned in advance so you can prioritize your tasks accordingly.

Before looking at the different types of tasks that you can create, it's worth considering in more detail where you can deploy them. Let's now look at how to create these tasks from the Universal Worklist or the Collaboration Room, which both can be accessed via SAP Enterprise Portal.

Creating a Collaboration Task from the Universal Worklist

Consider an example of a spontaneous event, such as a phone call from a prospective customer asking if a certain product can be configured in a specific way and delivered to a particular country before the big trade fair in June. If your company expects such inquiries on a frequent basis, then you probably already have software or a workflow in place to generate an answer for this customer. However, if you rarely receive this type of inquiry, then there will likely be no infrastructure available to instantly answer this query. Here's where you'd simply generate a new collaboration task from the Universal Worklist.2

Selecting the "New Task" button (see Figure 1) in the Universal Worklist brings up a wizard to guide you through the steps to create the task, whether it's a single-step task (assigned to one person) or a multi-step task (that many people will have their hands on).

Figure 1
The Universal Worklist Allows You to Build a New Task at the Touch of a Button

Single-Step Tasks

As a result of the customer call mentioned earlier, let's say you need to assign a colleague with knowledge of the country in which the trade fair is being held to determine which product color would be most attractive to local visitors. In this simple, one-step task, an initial screen (see Figure 2) is shown, where you can describe the task and select who is to perform it. That's it.

Figure 2
Creating a Single-Step Task from the Universal Worklist

Of course there are plenty of additional features you'll find yourself using as you become more familiar with the wizard interface. For example, you can:

  • Set a deadline that will cause reminders to be sent (via email), and highlight the task in the user's inbox an appropriate length of time (customizable) before the deadline is reached.

  • Add observers (such as stakeholders or managers) to the task who can track the progress without being actively involved. This is similar to adding observers to workflow processes — you are basically subscribing them to the process so that they are kept up to date and you no longer have to answer requests for status updates.

  • Give observers the chance to confirm the outcome of the process or to request a follow-up.

  • Enable observers to, at any time, add attachments to the task to help the colleagues who are executing tasks. The attachment can be a URL to relevant information or desktop documents such as a spreadsheet or text.

  • Let observers track tasks in the tracking view of their Worklist and receive notifications whenever progress is made, according to your specifications. You can indicate that you never want to receive notifications, only want them when the task is completed, or want them whenever one of the subactivities is completed.

As you can see, it is very simple to start a single-step collaboration task from the Worklist, and it gives you and your team far more long-term control than trying to deal with the task through ad hoc phone calls or emails.

Multi-Step Tasks: Parallel or Sequential Processes

As a result of the customer call, perhaps you need to assign a local sales representative the task of determining the best color scheme to use, get a local marketing expert to select which brochures to print, and have a member of your translation team estimate the effort involved in translating the product brochure. Or maybe you'd like all of these users to work on these tasks simultaneously.

In this case, the wizard can also help you string these multiple tasks together in parallel or in sequence, which is far simpler than you might think. If you prefer to have your colleagues working on the task separately but in parallel, then you select the "Separate task for each assignee" option.

Sequential tasks are just as simple. After creating your main task description, you select the option "Add Step" and a second task is added to follow the initial task. Repeat this until all your tasks are in place (see Figure 3), then terminate the sequence and launch the first of the string of tasks. When creating the task in sequence, you can even assign several users to the task; the first person to select the task from their inbox automatically becomes the processor. This makes the item redundant for the other users, so it automatically disappears from their inboxes.

Figure 3
Creating a Multi-Step Collaboration Task from the Universal Worklist

Creating a Task from Embedded Workflows

You can also create an "Ad-Hoc Request" from the Universal Worklist, an option displayed in the embedded workflows running in the mySAP Business Suite (see Figure 4). Often the task is in an embedded workflow because it requires support from colleagues, such as collecting more information or getting consent at a senior level. These tasks can be decomposed into smaller collaboration tasks by selecting the work item and creating a new collaboration task from the work item detail display, also shown in Figure 4. To make this simpler, the text from the original work item is copied directly into the collaboration task.

Figure 4
Creating an Ad Hoc Request from the Universal Worklist

This means that, for example, in cases where approve/reject decisions must be added as a step in the workflow, the process is transparent to the user. The user interface is identical, whether the decision is part of an ad hoc process or an embedded workflow.

Creating a Task from the Collaboration Room

Just as you can create a collaboration task from the Universal Worklist, you can do the same in the Collaboration Room (from the SAP NetWeaver '04 release) simply by selecting the "New Task" button.

However, even though the two methods use the same underlying software, the tasks themselves are displayed quite differently. In the Collaboration Room, any room member can see all the tasks that both you and your colleagues need to perform (see Figure 5), as well as the progress of those tasks, irrespective of which room member has been assigned to the task.

Figure 5
Viewing Tasks in a Collaboration Room

Types of Collaboration Tasks

Regardless of where you create a collaboration task, here's a look at the different types of tasks that you can create:

1. Standard
You'll frequently find yourself using the standard task, which is a generic task (like the one shown back in Figure 2) allowing you to create your own description of what needs to be done. Once you have launched the task, your recipients will work on it, adding comments as they go and eventually confirming that they have completed the task. With standard tasks, you can comfortably leave your task assignees in peace and follow their progress online. This is most useful when you'd like a colleague to complete a task for you, and confirm that he or she has succeeded.

2. Request for Feedback
The predefined "Request for Feedback" task (see Figure 6) allows you to collect expert opinions from your colleagues. As with other task types, you can allow your colleagues to decline to participate if they are already overloaded (and you will be informed immediately, so that no time is lost waiting). In this case you can also ask for the feedback to be anonymous so that you can poll opinions without having the experts influence each other.

Figure 6
Request for Feedback

This task, as well as the "Request for Nomination" (discussed below), is different from the standard task because the complete processing logic — for example, how many opinions you need to receive before you can consider the task closed — is embedded right in the task.

Note!
  When collaboration tasks have been assigned to you, they will appear in your Universal Worklist (shown back in Figure 4) along with your workflow and other tasks, but you won't see your colleagues' tasks. That way, you can prioritize your own work, without the clutter of seeing everyone else's.

3. Request for Nomination
The "Request for Nomination" task is tailored for collectively selecting someone for a job or task. You send out a request to colleagues (see Figure 7) that asks for their suggestions, and they go about the process of agreeing on who the final candidate will be.

Figure 7
Request for Nomination

This type of task comes equipped with some useful options so you can specify that nominees are notified of their nomination, or you can keep the whole thing secret until a consensus is reached on who will be responsible for the task.

Note!
  As of SAP NetWeaver '04, standard tasks, requests for feedback, and requests for nomination are the three types of collaboration tasks available. You can expect to see additional task types in future SAP NetWeaver releases.

Conclusion

Collaboration tasks give colleagues a better platform on which to work together, performing tasks without the chaos and limitations of email or telephone. Both participants and observers can follow what is going on in real time, and avoid working on tasks that are obsolete because someone else has done the job already.

The best thing about these collaboration tasks is that no development is necessary. All your users can create tasks directly from their Universal Worklist or Collaboration Room without prior training and in such an intuitive way that they will see their productivity increase right from the word go. And as individuals personally see the benefits of taking advantage of this feature, the company as a whole will benefit as ad hoc processes become transparent and controlled. Who knows? The time and energy currently lost in flurries of email could soon be a thing of the past.

To find more about creating and working with collaboration tasks, and to see an SAP Tutor demonstration of what collaboration tasks look like in more detail, please visit http://service.sap.com/bpms.


1 Creating collaboration tasks is available through SAP Enterprise Portal 6.0, which is part of SAP NetWeaver '04.

2 For more information on using the Universal Worklist, see my article "Implement a Central Inbox for One-Stop Access to Work Items from Any Business Process" in the October-December 2003 issue of SAP Insider (www.SAPinsider.com).


Alan Rickayzen has been with SAP since 1992 and in data processing since 1988. Since 1995, he has been performing development work as well as process technology consulting for various major US customers and, as a result, has amassed a good deal of technical knowledge in collaborative process technology. Alan Rickayzen is co-author of the book Practical Workflow for SAP, available at http://store.sapinsider.wispubs.com, and may be contacted at alan.rickayzen@sap.com. alan.rickayzen@sap.com.

 

 

, and may be contacted at alan.rickayzen@sap.com.

 

, and may be contacted at

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