AWorkflow Models In The Digital Domain

As manager of News Operations for WRC-TV in Washington, DC, much of my attention is focused on new production tools. Until recently, email, voice mail, dubs, and FedEx were the administrative order of battle in media production activities. Now intranets, platform-independent web-based groupware, and peer-to-peer (P2P) models have evolved to give digital media producers efficient and rapid collaborative work environments. This exciting, fast-paced period of evolution will not abate, driven by issues such as streaming, bandwidth, networking, edge distribution, storage models, asset management, file formats, collaborative work groups, hardware upgrades, and more. Just as new technologies and models emerge, the TV technology professional has to keep changing as well. There will be no mercy for those persons and companies who don't study the new methods of media production and distribution.

Though it often seems that information overload is inevitable, there are many tools available to digital producers and managers to help them adopt new and effective work models.

Information Sharing

In the past, broadcasters and production concerns ran projects with little more than text-based information systems, email, newsroom computer systems, and elementary search and retrieval from content libraries. While these systems were an improvement upon previous paper-based record-keeping, the new models are comprehensive in scope and offer a wide range of capabilities and connectivity. Now, asset management systems include low-resolution browse of media files from the desktop, relational databases, email of clips and edit decision lists as well as flexible, user-friendly file organization. Further, shared groupware applications as seemingly routine as Adobe's Acrobat offer unlimited document flexibility in the electronic domain.

Among the most important developments to emerge in this period is the creation of the "virtual" office-Web-based "e" environments that allow shared information and access to anyone, anywhere. These virtual information sites can be dedicated to a single project or an entire organization. They offer tools that give us the means to navigate and organize projects in minutes. Scale up or down as needed. Control access and edit the site as your project evolves. Do all of this with minimal IT support. Your only limitation is your imagination.

These new models provide a virtual meeting space where mobile groups can collaborate productively, without being limited by location or conflicting schedules. There are many potential Web-based solutions to choose from, including JoyDesk, OnProject, Lotus QuickPlace, MagicalDesk, eRoom, FreeDesk, NetDocuments, Punch WebGroups,,,, PlanetIntra, WebPerfect Solutions, and Intranets. com. These applications all allow building a digital workplace for extending your information reach. The concept of "distributed" teams is central to all of these options. And all of these companies provide various levels of security. The distinctions between an intranet and extranet are indeed becoming blurred within these environments as connectivity within, and external to, the organization are possible.

The learning curve is very fast. The developers of these "virtual" environments have created elegant and easy to use GUIs. Team members with only minimal computer skills are not left out of the project for want of substantial training. To be sure, these environments only work well if the entire team is on board. Everyone on your team needs to be introduced to the concept and there must be a group commitment to "work" in the virtual space. So, How Can I Use Such A Tool?

Usage Example: To plan for television news coverage of the presidential inauguration in late January, NBC-4/WRC-TV used the Lotus QuickPlace application as a single repository for all project planning. Remote survey pictures were posted on the site illustrating camera positions, cable paths, set-up locations and parking, thus allowing all team members to "see" the locations prior to game day. All documents were stored on the intranet site related to the project. These included schedules, staffing, credential lists, clearance forms, site guidelines, vendor contacts, billing invoices, equipment inventory, templates for ordering fiber, and communications support. Technical support information, including frequency coordination, satellite window bookings, internal routing, and technical asset allocation for the project was resident on the site.

This shared environment gave the executive producer and operations manager a virtual place for information dispersal and content creation related solely to the project. When the set-building contractor called and wanted to survey the location, he was first directed to the posted pictures for review. Other team members commented via the discussion group page anticipating problems or issues related to the project. The discussion group model is far more efficient than traditional email, as readers can see a linear progression in the dialogue. As a project progresses, the discussion page gives those joining the effort a chronological history of the project and brings them up to speed much faster.

Other options within the Lotus environment allow for effective project management. The calendar function lists "tasks" as well as the multitude of meetings necessary to complete the project. Links to websites associated with the project are present, as well as vendor sites. The auto-email notification option provides for immediate notification of changes in the plan up to the last minute. Additionally, the "news" update option within the Lotus QuickPlace application gives an individual a full summary of all project documents that have been modified or added since his or her last visit to the site.

This collaborative tool offered our team a significant productivity increase and literally "drove" the project. It's hard to imagine returning to the tired process of email only and paper-based documents (that can become obsolete almost as fast as they are distributed).

Peer-to-peer applications (Groove. com, eliberation, Consilient,,, for example) are online and offer even more direct production flexibility. The Napster-like P2P model uses the "many-to-many" concept of information sharing. Information flows directly from one user to another. P2P users do an end run around centralized servers working directly with one another. Users literally reach into a team member's screen and manipulate documents, share image files, collaborate in realtime with white boards, and chat and browse the Web simultaneously. In brief, this model creates an environment whereby net-connected computer users can collaborate as if they are in the same physical space.

It all sounds like administrative heaven. Freedom from heavy IT involvement, fast editing of files, rapid and automatic notification of team members, net-based and accessed from anywhere. What's not to love about these new models? Plenty, according to some experts. Just because you have a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher, does that mean you use every effect efficiently? Are all the bells and whistles necessary for every production? Of course not. Nor are all the options in these new Web-based work models necessary.

Published reports have intranet and collaborative e-environment spending at an astounding $64 billion worldwide in 2001 (Ziff-Davis Smart Business Magazine, March 2001). Cambridge, MA-based consultant Leonard Fuld asserts that the potential for waste is huge: "It's like walking into a room with piles and piles of paper," (or video tape, stills, and production documents). John Rockart, of MIT's Sloan School Of Management says that, "companies need to determine which information is relevant," lest they end up in a data quagmire. Just as we carefully determine how to use sophisticated production switchers to produce content, users of collaborative tools should think and plan how to best incorporate intranets into their administrative systems.

In a short period of time, the Lotus QuickPlace collaborative environment has fundamentally changed workflow at WRC-TV. Though its no panacea, its a contemporary tool that gives us a flexible and scalable platform to deal with a rapidly changing environment. When new versions evolve, we will (must) change yet again. Such is the awesome empowerment the digital era offers.