Editor’s Note: The following article is a Guest Column from Charles Webster, MD, a health IT workflow expert and advocate for process-aware technologies in healthcare, including workflow management systems, Business Process Management, and dynamic and adaptive case management. You can contact Dr. Webster on Twitter @wareflo or through his blog at ChuckWebster.com. To learn more about submitting a Guest Column, Click Here.
Anyone who has wrestled with how to sell a health IT product has wrestled with features and functions versus benefits: what a product is and does versus what important problem it solves and how that will make someone feel. I’ll argue that workflow is the bridge from features to benefits. This bridge is missing in much health IT marketing today. With a modicum of self-study, any health IT marketing professional can use workflow to find clients, understand their products, and tell a vivid and credible story about how they will help health IT consumers prosper.
Back when I took my three-credit undergraduate marketing course, I learned about the original Four Ps of the marketing mix: Product, Price, Promotion, and Place. The Four Ps are now over a half-century old. Since then we’ve had the seven Ps (then eight), the Four Cs (consumer, cost, communication, and convenience), seven Cs, and, finally, four new Ps! (People, Processes, Performance, and Profit.) I could go on about interesting connections among these marketing frameworks (Processes!) and workflow, but I won’t (in this piece!).
Regarding workflow, I took courses about it during an MS in Industrial Engineering. I’ve looked a hundreds of definitions since. This is the short definition I’ve settled on: Workflow is a series of tasks, consuming resources, achieving goals. In marketing terms, you can think of goals as benefits, resources as prices or costs, and the series of tasks as what the product does. All purposeful human activity involves workflow.
So, how is workflow a bridge from features to benefits? Achieving a consumer goal is a benefit. Using a product requires a series of user-product interactions (steps, tasks, activities). Resources consumed? They start being consumed the moment a consumer realizes they have a problem to solve. They continue to be consumed after a product is acquired. And they only stop when a product is finally retired or discarded.
Workflows exist within workflows within workflows, all the way up to, and including, the workflows of life itself. Workflow extends all the way down to the micro-workflow of a series of button clicks.
Let’s imagine that a product has three salient features: A, B, and C. For example: HIPAA-compliant user authorization, ability to look up patient info, and direct staff to do something. A, B, and C are steps in a workflow. They accomplish a goal, the goal of the workflow, goal D. But goal D can be a step in a higher-level workflow, such as Help My Patient. And that workflow is embedded in an even higher-level workflow, such as, What I Do Every Day At Work. And that workflow is part of a life flow, How I Live My Life. Think I’m being silly? I’m not. Understanding how a product (the first P in the original four Ps) fits into lives of users is perhaps the single most important strategic insight a health IT marketing professional can impart.
How can you, a health IT marketing professional, use workflow to find, understand, and help health IT vendors and customers?
“Workflow” is becoming a bigger and bigger meme within the health IT industry. What makes the workflow meme so interesting and so strategic, is that workflow, in a sense, glues together all the other memes. Take SMAC, for social, mobile, analytics and cloud, for example. If you are going to create the next great health IT SMAC-based product, in what order does the user do what, at what cost to achieve what benefit? Workflow!
Furthermore, those tens of thousands of health IT products out there? No one product does everything, so products need to be combined into usable (wait for it) workflow. The biggest pain points within products (usability) and between products (interoperability) all critically involve workflow.
Before every HIMSS conference, I search over a thousand conference exhibitor websites for “workflow.” I tweet links to the most interesting content on the HIMSS conference hashtag. Last year over eight hundred of my tweets on the #HIMSS14 hashtag contained the words “workflow” or “workflows”. By the way, I’m delighted to be a HIMSS Social Media Ambassador again!
Early on, honestly, I had trouble finding much of interest about workflow on exhibitor websites. However, starting at HIMSS12, it really started to take off: four percent of websites, eight percent, and last year, sixteen percent. I’m only part way though the websites of exhibitors for this year’s HIMSS15, but I can already see this trend continuing (though I don’t know if it can actually double yet again).
So, “workflow” is in the air, in hallway conversations, in tweets, marketing, technical documentation, user forums, etc. Search in Google and Twitter for “workflow” and X, where X is a subject you already know. If you are already an ICD-10 expert, become an ICD-10 workflow expert. If you’re already a patient experience and engagement expert, become a patient experience and engagement workflow expert. You can pivot from workflow to any health information management area, and you can pivot from any health information management area to workflow. Doing so deepens your understanding and adds tools to your portfolio.
Network about your workflow interest, through contact pages, emails, listservs, blog comments, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Once you’ve started a conversation, ask for details. Ask about workflows. What happens first? And then what happens? And then what happens. What if something slips between the cracks? Do you have any workflow diagrams? Videos? Do you mind if I draw a workflow diagram and run it past you to make sure I understand how you do what you do? Use Visio, PowerPoint, draw on a napkin and snap a photo. You’ll be surprised by the degree you’re forced to prove to yourself that you really understand a product. And your interlocutor will be impressed (or pestered, you still gotta sell your value relative to the cost of their time).
Now that you understand a health IT product workflow, you have a detailed roadmap between low-level product features and higher-level user goals. If you need more context, bump up a level and understand how that workflow relates to even higher-level workflow and goals. If you need more nitty-gritty, drill down to screenshot-by-screenshot micro-workflow.
If above sounds like a lot of work, it is. It’s worth it. First of all, you’ll prove that you really understand the nuts and bolts of a product and how it fits into a user’s world. Second, you’ve got some great content. Workflow diagrams, simplified, annotated, and made aesthetically attractive are great for blog posts, white papers, presentations, and so on. The health IT market is a collection of complicated and intricate micro markets. The biggest, most costly, and (to the point) beneficial differences between health IT products are differences in workflow. Any means to more deeply understand, represent and communicate these differences is all the good: the consumer’s, the vendor’s, and yours.
Everyone is an expert on their own workflow. If you can vividly and credibly show me, an expert on my workflow, that your product fits perfectly into my workflow, I’m impressed. This is what I mean by the title of this column. Marketing Workflow Is An Incredible Opportunity To Differentiate Health IT Products, And You!
Workflow: It’s not just for industrial engineers anymore!
Latest posts by Charles Webster, MD (see all)
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- Healthcare BPM: The science behind task workflow interoperability. Pragmatic Interoperability series, part 4 - February 25, 2016