In our last blog entry we reported on some of the new workflow tools coming out of the NAB convention. But, what is a workflow tool and why is it relevant?
I’d like to begin the discussion by quoting an old friend, Stephen Angelovich (who passed away far too early, seemingly a lifetime ago). Stephen was a partner of mine at NBC Universal and one of the best software & systems architects I’ve ever met. Although I had written software, before I met Steve, I believed that setting up electronic systems was difficult – Once we got the hardware in place, any rough spots could be fixed later with software. Stephen taught the lesson that “Hardware is easy and Software is hard.”
The logic introduced by Stephen had two parts. The first was “hardware takes time to procure, install and connect, but the time is finite and mostly predictable. Software is less tangible and therefore its development is more difficult and risky to estimate.” His second premise was “if the physical systems can be set up in an infinite number of ways, it pays to set them up in the way that simplifies the software or in a way that leverages the benefits of the existing software the most.” These two premises guided our collective workings for a long time and, working together, we never had a project that was not ready in time.
Why do I share this? It is exactly this foundation that workflow systems are trying to undo. The myriad of hardware platforms that need to be supported by a typical media company and the exponential speed at which they are growing means that no upstream preparation systems, regardless of how carefully laid out, can hope to guarantee accurate and timely delivery to all platforms, every time. Remember, each of these platforms (think Android, iPad, connected TV’s) was made without consideration for how it could share media with any of the others.
As these systems grow in complexity, workflow tools are an attempt to get around Angelovich’s axioms and permit components to be quickly optimized to meet their own needs. These tools are designed to enable production steps to be placed in any order depending upon the goals of the media and the platforms they will be seen on and to report on their progress in real-time. In effect, workflow tools are designed to turn the axioms upside down, making the software flexible enough to support any hardware architecture.
That’s quite a task. So, do they work? If so, are Steve’s lessons still important?
In short, yes! and sadly, YES. Modern workflow tools do permit disparate systems to play together in a more seamless, well orchestrated manner. The best of them permit the order of steps to quickly change and permit work to be done in a serial or parallel fashion. They can make organizations more efficient, eliminate non-value-adding steps and simplify the complexity of feeding multiple platforms.
The downside is that Stephen, bless his soul, is still right. These systems are still made of software and software is still hard. Although many tools permit visual orchestration of work processes, setting up the vast number of these pathways still takes a significant amount of time. Screens need to be optimized for each operational step and each operator; systems still need to be interfaced with each other. All of this takes time that Steve accurately identified as difficult to predict and more risky than the procurement of the hardware.
So, the moral of the story? Select workflow systems closely matched to your current and predicted future needs and that come with tools to speed the creation of screens and system interfaces. Plan for this to take longer than you think.
In other words – keep making the software as easy as you can, because it is still hard.