Talk to your colleagues and business partners about how they get work done, or ideally, observe the tools and steps they follow on a critical business process. You’ll likely see a common pattern when observing how operations, finance, HR, marketing, and other departments perform important business functions and make decisions.
The department likely has a core system to manage its operation, such as an ERP, HRMS, or CRM. But look a little closer, and you’ll often find a small group of employees managing key operational aspects of the department’s daily workflows with steps performed in SaaS tools, spreadsheets, and emails. They utilize significant tribal knowledge built up over time, and while there are some concrete business rules behind the workflow, there are many exceptions requiring experts to make daily judgment calls.
This Gray Work falls in between a department’s projects, services, and other daily work and is often hidden from leaders seeking to scale operations, improve efficiencies, or deliver new customer capabilities. It’s also a risk should one of the department’s key managers leave the organization or when unexpected disruptions require major operational changes.
Why is Gray Work an issue for operational resiliency?
Let’s consider an example facing all SMBs, small enterprises, and nonprofits with field operations, such as real estate, construction, and field service businesses.
Large operations may utilize field management enterprise systems or SaaS to align crew schedules, trucks, and assets required for the jobs with work priorities and job schedules. Smaller organizations often manage this as gray work, cobbling together spreadsheets and other tools to help align resources with job requirements.
Either approach is often hidden from business owners and leaders until a major disruption or change is required for the operations. For construction and field service operations, a major weather event may require shifting resources to jobs needing emergency services. In real estate, economic downturns and changes in customer preferences may require realigning agents to different opportunities or adjusting sales strategies. A practical approach for field service work focuses on making mobile work and bridging the gap between work done in the field and back office work.
These are examples of where dynamic work management is needed because business managers must adjust their rules and decision-making processes quickly to respond to evolving operating conditions. Small businesses rely on a few expert business managers to manually adjust operations to these conditions. The risk is whether they can adjust their workflow and business rules fast enough and without too many hard-to-follow workarounds.
Larger organizations may need IT or technology consultants to modify the hard-coded business rules in their field service enterprise systems and SaaS platforms. Alternatively, they resort to temporary exception workflows outside these platforms using spreadsheets and other tools.
Operational resiliency requires departments to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and adapt to disruptions, threats, opportunities, or changes in operating conditions. Gray Work can inhibit departments from adapting to new or evolving requirements and is a roadblock to the dynamic enterprise.
What is dynamic work management?
Let’s contrast dynamic work management by first reviewing what structured work is and its deficiencies in supporting today’s volatile work requirements.
Structured workflows are characterized by steps to get work done, roles defining who does what, and business rules for transitioning from one step to the next. They are often linear processes and ones with few decisions and outcomes. Contract approvals, hiring processes, or content publishing are examples of structured workflows, and these may be sufficient if the scale of operations and business rules don’t change often.
Dynamic work acknowledges several operational realities, including volatile business demands, business rules with many factors, and integrations required between multiple tools. The workflows must be easily developed, improved, and supported by the business managers and subject matter experts responsible for completing the work, regardless of how conditions change.
Dynamic work management breaks away from structured work by utilizing the following capabilities.
- Automation – Supports completing key workflow steps or the integrations between multiple tools used in a complex workflow without a person’s intervention.
- Machine learningand AI – Enables more flexibility than hard-coded business rules, where machine learning models make predictions and recommend decisions, factor in many data inputs, and produce recommendations faster than people can do on their own.
- No code – Provides tools for business managers to adjust workflows, create new data fields, and load data sets without IT implementing changes in apps or workflows.
The combination of automation, ML/AI, and no-code are tools for eliminating workarounds, spreadsheets, and email collaborations and replacing this gray work with a more operational resilient capability.
Driving the future of smarter and faster work
Today’s challenge is that many structured workflows are too restrictive, and harboring too much gray work is an operational risk. Operationally resilient organizations recognize the need for dynamic work capabilities so that business teams can respond faster to new opportunities and smarter to operational risks.