Workflow management

Walking around an industry trade show, the word has become ubiquitous. Is it just a fad with the marketing folks, or is there something to it? Workflow
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Walking around an industry trade show, the word “workflow” has become ubiquitous. Is it just a fad with the marketing folks, or is there something to it?

Workflow has two meanings in relation to broadcast. One is a loose term related to the flow of work — a program or commercial — through the processes from acquisition to transmission. The other is applied to products that automate the workflow.

Workflow has become a hot topic since the move from videotape to file-based processes. When videotape was the primary medium for the carriage of content, the workflow was inevitably serial, much like passing the baton in a relay, except the baton was the broadcast master.

Move to files, and the constraints are off. A highly parallel and collaborative workflow is possible with attendant decrease in turnaround times for productions.

Creating efficiency

Many of the developments in workflow improvements have taken place in the automobile manufacturing industry. For example, Henry Ford introduced the production line, and Toyota created a production system called “The Toyota Way,” which focuses on continuous production flow and the optimization of processes through continuing reflection and improvement. Some of these concepts have been developed into the philosophy of business process optimization that is popular today.

The Toyota Way acknowledges that there is not a single plan to run a business. Instead, a plan is selected after careful consideration, and then it is continuously refined. Correctly applied, The Toyata Way should lead to a leaner and more efficient business.

One could argue that television is a creative business, and the methodology of auto manufacturing is not appropriate. But consider the soap opera or the game show. Are those not production lines? The need to remain cost-competitive in a multichannel, multiformat world of media publishing means that any tools that can improve efficiency must be considered.

Although the television business is a creative industry, many of the processes are not creative. The traditional tasks of the tape operator and librarian have evolved with the transition from tape to files into the movement of content through stages of distribution, encoding and repurposing. This area stands to benefit most from workflow automation.

However, editing is editing, and the processes of finessing a final cut or sound design remain the preserve of the creative human.

From start to finish

Many products offer workflow automation for broadcasters, but their functionality varies widely from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some focus on tasks, others on the progress of the media through the many processes. Ultimately, the broadcaster needs to manage the workflow through tracking assets, processes and resources, both operators and equipment.

The end product may be a channel — delivered over the air, via cable, satellite, mobile, IPTV or over the Web — or a discrete program delivered as a DVD, iTunes download, or through VOD. That end product is created via a long mesh of interconnected processes and is comprised of hundreds or thousands of media assets, including location video, graphics, animations, Foley, incidental music — the list is endless. Digital asset management is frequently used to manage the finished programs and commercials. It does not generally handle rights (contracts) or the fine-grain media assets used to create the finished item. Asset management also does not control processes, tasks and resources.

Automation

The information technology community refers to workflow management as the automation of the workflow as content or tasks are passed from one person to another in a way that complies with a set of procedures. The automation uses a software application to manage the flow. It is intimately linked with business process management. One key feature of workflow automation is that the software allows for flexibility so that the broadcaster can adapt and improve to meet business goals, and cater for changes in technology.

More formally, workflow is defined as the computerized facilitation of a business process, in whole or in part. A workflow management system completely defines, manages and executes workflows through the execution of software whose order of execution is driven by a computer representation of the workflow logic.

A process is a chain of steps to reach a defined objective — for example, to deinterlace, noise reduce, compress and wrap a video file for use on a Web site.

The implementation of workflow management starts with an analysis of the processes, which is then translated into a process model or template. This is the process definition. Once the broadcast processes have been modelled, the definition can be run on the workflow engine or software application. The engine creates the processes, schedules activities and manages interaction between human operators (e.g. editor, compressionist and librarian) and the tools (e.g. encoder, NLE and sound desk).

Some products claim to manage workflows but offer little more than messaging. After each process is complete, an e-mail notification is sent to the next person in the process chain. More sophisticated applications offer proper management of processes. It is this wide range of capabilities that has led to the abuse of the term workflow in marketing collateral.

Evolution

Although many sectors of manufacturing have adopted workflow management, broadcasters have been slow to adopt automation. There are many reasons. First, automation could upset personnel and their unions. Second, using videotape as a medium restricts what can be automated. Third, the business case is lacking.

The landscape for broadcasters is changing. Global media conglomerates dominate content production, and broadcasters are competing for advertising with the recent upstart of the Web. As broadcasters are forced to look for cost savings and improvements in efficiency, the concept of workflow automation becomes attractive. Just as it was difficult to prove an ROI for digital asset management five years ago, many think workflow automation is too difficult to apply to broadcasting.

The tipping point is the acceptance that the TV business is a production line. Some have long realized this, but the more creative departments like to differentiate themselves from automobile or food manufacturing.

The global media companies must process content for distribution in different countries and a diverse range of delivery platforms from HDTV to mobile. A program must be edited and segmented for each market, the titles and credits may differ, and it will need dubbing, subtitles and closed captions. All this must be done at minimum cost, which implies minimum human intervention.

Enablers

The implementation of a service-oriented architecture (SOA), most likely using Web services, makes it simpler for the workflow engines to automate common tasks as services. Such tasks could include encoding, quality checks, transcoding and archive management. Other tasks, such as editing and sound mixing, can still be considered a service, but the tasks will need human intervention.

The big change that has made workflow automation possible is the move from videotape to files. Other vertical sectors that have already adopted an SOA were already handling information as computer files, such as documents or database records.

Configuration

Any workflow management product will comprise several modules and will interface to other broadcast software applications, including program planning, traffic and sales, playout automation, digital asset management and accounts. Each application may have overlapping functionality, so the broadcaster must select which product best suits its need for each part of its operation. (See Figure 1.) Some digital or media asset management systems include elements of workflow, as do resource-scheduling applications.

As each broadcaster is different in its requirements, the way that the applications are implemented and linked should be planned to reduce complexity and gain efficiencies in the end-to-end workflows of the station. Clearly, this is going to need careful and thorough business modelling to achieve best results. For most broadcasters, there may be insufficient resources to generate the models in-house, so they must look to one of the few integration consultants with skills in this area. Vendors can also offer professional services to help with system design and implementation.

The workflow management is based on the workflow engine, with several functional modules, including:

  • scheduling for planning productions and departmental resources;
  • order administration;
  • MAM interface for exchange of production metadata;
  • document management for forms, reports, etc.;
  • gateways to other systems, such as MAM accounts and traffic; and
  • reporting for management analysis.

Although some broadcast processes are repetitive and easy to model, many operations like outside broadcasts or newsgathering can be more difficult to reduce to a single process definition. There have always been defined roles, such as camera operator, sound assistant, rigger and production assistant, so any operation can be broken down in to a set of tasks or processes. The key feature to a workflow engine is that it can accommodate refinements and changes to the models. Any attempt to impose a rigid model is unlikely to succeed outside the most mundane of processes like encoding. A broadcaster can adapt and refine the process definitions as it learns to use the workflow automation.

Many precursors to workflow management have focused on the media flow, without regard to the scheduling of resources. This latter is usually handled by a separate software application, loosely linked to the asset management. Although this works, it does not offer the flexibility of a true workflow management application with its inherent ability to modify and optimize.

Workflow management will join a broadcaster's other software platforms to create a loosely coupled system that combines the traditional services of program planning, traffic, sales, playout automation and accounts, with the more recent additions of manpower and equipment scheduling and media/digital asset management. As new productivity tools emerge, they can be linked into this SOA to give broadcasters' management the same view of its business that other sectors like retail and banking have had for a decade or more.

Summary

What is workflow management going to mean to a broadcaster? First, broadcasters need to analyze all the processes they currently operate. For many, these processes may have evolved accidentally, dictated by the equipment, such as VTRs and editing systems, used for common tasks. Once the processes and workflow have been analyzed, the business model can be created.

Unlike earlier management systems, the advantage of workflow automation is that this model should be refined and optimized over time with a goal of maximum efficiency. With the move to workflow automation, broadcasting can become the content factory that the modern business climate demands. As telcos and Internet publishers have become direct competitors, broadcasters can no longer survive with the craft processes of the past.