Human vs technology
We’re living in a unique situation where the paradigm of work is changing at a rate in which it’s difficult to keep up with innovation. Each day new methods rise to do things differently, better, faster.
I can almost see some readers in front of the screen turning away, resisting reading further. They probably imagine that this article is about a technocrat “data will solve everything” gospel. Well it is not. We have our own opinions and reservations about technology. We still believe more than anything in human interaction. In human engagement and collaboration. Human capacity to imagine and create will not be completely substituted by machines, but other humans will take a serious advantage of machines to do the same we do. Therefore, it is useful to self assess where we stand today in terms of workflow and digitalization in order to stay competitive, or in some cases, in the game.
The old ways
The old ways of working in the creative sector involved lots and lots of administrative work. It was originally a world relying on paper and words. A world of printing. Of calls, of synchronous work. Lots of manpower were involved in organizing assets, crossing information and creation of briefs. To give you an image, the perfect one is the office of Mad Men. People working on the sales, people working on the PR, people working on the creative and some others on the executive side of things. Tons of secretaries, assistants, and other intermediate figures.
The (now) old ways
Computers then arrived and we believed we became modern. Word documents, Excel documents to organize information, Powerpoints to present them. A battery of programs to manage and edit other assets: vector files, video files, images, etc. These digital docs arrived and we felt we were “digital”. Email arrived to substitute couriers and messengers. Things started to move faster.
For many, this is the present moment. Online meetings, words, excels, and powerpoint presentations. Emails and attachments to exchange data. For bigger files, WeTransfer. Everything’s solved! We don’t need more assistants.
Are you there now? Probably.
But there’s a small administrative toll that started to build up, compounding time for literally everything. The email inbox started to become a sort of funnel. Unsorted, permanent. An everlasting flow of information that we need to consume, sort, organize.
Each single item of information becomes an intermediate step that we have to manually digest. For each document that is edited, saved, uploaded, and emailed, there’s another person on the recipient side that will have to download, edit, save and send back. The more people involved the more compounded extra work. Information gets lost in the middle, or needs to be discussed, contextualized. People have to trace back their steps to understand what happened, etc.
The new ways
Until the arrival of the internet, we lived in a paradigm of centralization. Everything was piramidal, tree shaped. Things had a hierarchical structure that ended up on a cusp, a top. We are now currently living a new paradigm, one of decentralization. A paradigm of interconnectedness, hundreds of nodes interacting, exchanging information and data autonomously. No middle men. No previous steps. Fewer hierarchies.
The new world is a world relying on data exchange and workflow consolidation. Raw data and information, that used to be in the hands of humans, is now on the cloud, available for whoever needs it.
A world built on the idea that whenever possible, things must be done only once. There’s no point in sending back and forth a document, creating copies, and versions in several computers. Crowdsourcing is the key word here. Instead of repeating an action three times by three different people, each person can do one third of work. That’s the real principle of smart work. That’s what the smart part means.
This is our present, but it is astounding the low percentage of people that actually use smart tools properly. Simple, reachable instruments like google docs, google spreadsheets. Lots of people, in a very important role, are still using offline tools like regular Excel files (not even the cloud ones). Hopefully you’re here now.
Tables are the first interface that a machine can use to ingest, and therefore, work. And people tend to underestimate the amount of work that a machine can do for them. Unfortunately for many, this is the most exploited asset of the age of information. Smart companies rely on this principle to automate the heavy, unproductive lifting of organizations.
I did mention specific programs like Google Docs, and Google spreadsheets, but the key to improve our workflows in the creative sector is to be as software agnostic as possible. Companies tend to create their own standards, or at least they did until recently, in order to protect their R&D investments, but the paradigm is changing and fast. Many tech entrepreneurs understand that allowing interconnectivity between platforms, to make them compatible with each other, is the best strategy to offer real value to people and organizations.
Agnostic software then is probably the best way to ensure future compatibility.
IOT: Where you should be
Wherever there was a person moving information from reality to virtuality, there’s now an alternative. Devices right now pick up data, that can be crossed, enriched, and processed with other data. This gives give better accessibility and more insight to people and organizations in their everyday lives.
It sounds like really complex stuff, but it is way easier than it sounds. I’ll give you a simple example: in the old way of working, when doing a recce, whenever we took a photograph we needed to write down the location where the picture was taken. Today the phone and the gps within geolocates the place at the moment of capture. This is something that is already happening, but few people take advantage of it.
APIs and Webhooks
Thanks to the current paradigm of software developing, different platforms can dialogue to each other and start to exchange information that otherwise would be exchanged by a person, eating up that person’s time.
APIs or Application Programming Interfaces are intermediaries between platforms that can be configured to be consulted by other platforms. Webhooks are similar, with the difference that instead of being passive (waiting for someone to ask something) they are active, telling that something happened right away.
These dialogues can build a robust automation system that removes the burden of moving data manually and spending time on repetitive tasks.
A simple yet practical example
In our company, we had and have to work with several clients or collaborators who are not in the same city as us. Some are not even in the same country, others not even in the same continent. For us, these tools were vital from the very beginning of our activity.
In the last few years we have worked a lot for the scientific field. And this specific work involved the participation of scientists from more than 5 countries. All working on the same scripts, that is, on the same document. This document would be both the guide for the filming (what the scientists should say) and for our post-production team, which had to assemble about 30 videos in 3 weeks, on topics too specific and complex for those who are not immersed in these scientific matters. So both our team and the scientific team were working on the documents at the same time.
Using shared online documents allowed us to anticipate lots of activities since we had information in real time, since we could see how the whole structure was taking shape.
The rogue one
The problem we had is that one of these scientists seemed not to like working “online” too much, so he decided to download the document from google drive and continue working in the privacy of his computer (offline). This means that he created a parallel line of information.
While everyone was still working on the “online” document, this other scientist was adding and changing lines that all involved were unaware of until… the moment he uploaded his document online! generating chaos. This implied having to stop the machine, review the changes, define how to incorporate those changes, without squashing the changes of others, and redo other things. In other words, the usual things were lost: time, resources, money. Then the thing was solved and life went on.
What happened with this scientist is something that, unfortunately, happens quite often. And it is not a technical obstacle.
Writing a text in a spreadsheet column is the same as writing in an excel column. The resistance was to the novelty. This scientist, having the opportunity to try something better, stayed in his comfort zone. This stalls improvement.
It’s not (only) about software
Regardless of where in the spectrum you are, the important thing is to start (or continue) to be mindful of your methods and your organizational structure. The answers to these questions are the starting point to improve productivity and save time for everyone.
- What are the steps of your projects?
- Who is responsible for each step of the process?
- How do you organize incoming data?
- Is everyone on the same page about how you organize data?
- What is the best tool to organize this data?
Your method should arise from these answers, and the digitalization should help you consolidate it.
Four tips to jump on board the smart way of working
Define a criteria and stick to it
Have a quick meeting with your collaborators and stakeholders to discuss your methods. Find the stressing points, and check where there can be improvements. Define a criteria. Stick to it for a while.
Think about the process to do something. Design a social media post. Build a website. Think about the phases of a process from start to finish. Then think about the people involved in each phase. What do they need to contribute? What do they need to start working? If you start thinking about how your organization works, you will start to find ways to improve the flow of information.
Name files and folders correctly
Pay attention to how you name files. This is one of the most simple yet powerful changes you can build in an organization. It will save you lots of headaches and time when looking for stuff.
The right name is the easiest way to find something. The wrong name is the perfect way to never find a file ever again.
We had clients who had decades of material on a private library, but the library was so poorly managed that it was virtually impossible to find anything. Imagine having to visually browse thousands of images looking for something because images were named like “IMG_004440”.
We dedicate a full chapter to this subject in How to name files in a creative agency – Taxonomy 101
Whenever possible, move documents and discussions to a shared environment
There are many tools that allow you to collaborate in real time. Try to make most of your documents collaborative. This avoids losing information in between saves, keeps discussion in context, and saves tons of emails and messages.
Create file request folders, and/or shared folders to collaborate.
Whenever possible, avoid email attachments and WeTransfer or similar courier services. That’s the perfect way to get duplicates of files, lose files on the way, or just waste time tracking changes between files.
Get a collaboration storage space instead that allows you to create file requests to external collaborators, and syncing files with colleagues. There are both cloud and network solutions for these. We will cover this subject in the article Where do we put stuff
In the following articles, we will develop these tips and more in detail, explaining simple ways to implement powerful changes in your organization.