KEVIN GEPFORD: A BETTER WORKFLOW

I’m interested in the intersection of technology, business and creative organizations — especially in tools that bring creative people together to not only improve their work lives but also build positive business outcomes.

I write on topics related to digital workspaces, creative operations, media management, and workflows.

You can follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

About the Killer Ops series: How can creative teams increase their Value Proposition? How can they become better strategic partners in the organization? Following the entrepreneurial model of Product Development, creative teams – and organizations – can learn to think and act like a startup, to develop a framework for continuous innovation, improved operations, and greater success.

What This is About: Analyze your creative Tech Stack by studying your current needs and existing tools, and mapping your toolkit ecosystem.

Why it Matters: A Tech Stack Canvas is a powerful way to analyze your core needs and evaluate your digital toolkit, using four quadrants. This visualization will structure your thinking about the Tech Stack you need to thrive — helping with your decision-making and your business case when the time comes to fight for better tools.

Virtually everything that happens in today’s creative teams is built on or distributed through technology. I’m mostly interested in the production process and our whole stack is digital —  work is digitally generated, approved, and distributed.

Wouldn't it would make sense for us to have the best digital tools?

Reality is a little different — and the tech is often straggling and struggling.

In my current role at AT&T, my digital designer teams have blown past all the digital tools that support the work. Our cobbled-together collection of tools don’t work very well, and certainly don’t work together.

The problem with tech in our creative world is that it’s controlled by the IT or business branches of the organization. You can end up with some really inappropriate tech this way. DAM systems that are beastly to use. Workflow tools that look like they were designed to serve in the aeronautics field. Or, you discover that they think that email is totally OK for creative review and approval. Wow, right?

Decisions are made based on whatever their selection process or on the advice of a consulting firm — without real insight into the actual needs of the creative team. Nor, are they historically open to serious suggestions from us. In fact, on some levels it’s a threat to them if we try to get involved with the process.

But we must try — it’s the only way out of this rut. You’ve got to make a persuasive business case — and the Tech Stack Canvas will show you a different a way of thinking that can help.

We’ll have to study both sides of the coin — the business needs we’re facing, and the current state of our tech. (NOTE: This is not about the basic things provided by your IT team, such as servers, email, ftp, Microsoft Office, or the Adobe Creative Suite.)

On the front of the coin is your team: What tasks and processes are you currently doing that are assisted by, or performed via, technology? Identify themes for the type of work being done, or the types of media or information being managed, and your distribution and communication processes.

The back of the coin is the current tech that you use: Identify every piece of the tech stack, including any enterprise systems plus cobbled-together tools, and DIY tools that your users have brought on board.

To round things out, do some research and survey the marketplace. A great place to find potential solution providers all in one spot is at industry events such as the Creative Operations Exchange conference, or the Henry Stewart digital asset management conferences. This takes work. But you want to create a short list of potential systems and solutions to streamline your workflow, improve communications and job tracking, or eliminate multiple third-party tools by combining their functionality into one system. Areas where good tech can really make a difference include managing:

  • content creation
  • project management
  • review and approval
  • digital asset management
  • information such as creative briefs, communication and task assignment
  • channels of distribution

Now’s also a good time to go back and review what you learned from talking to people outside your company. Find out what else you should be considering — what works in situations similar to yours? I developed a Tech Stack Canvas, utilizing a quadrant-based visualization, to examine four core areas of creative operations where tech plays a crucial role.

Four Quadrants of the Tech Stack Canvas

Content & Production: How do we manage our collaborative server-based workflow so that projects and files can be located and passed off from one staffer to another as needed? How do we manage the approval of the creative content developed by multiple teams during the course of every campaign? How do we audit our work for brand and campaign consistency? Do we have a linear approval process, or a fluid one?

Digital Assets: What types of digital assets do we have in our business? How do we make our selected video clips, logos, photography, and finished graphics available for use across all three teams? Are our assets just for internal consumption, or for distribution? How much do we need to worry about metadata?

Projects & Tasks: How are creative briefs managed — are they in a central easily findable location? Do we assign jobs as one-offs, as staffers become available, or is a campaign/project assigned in toto to an individual or small team? How are the mandatories communicated? How is the campaign style established and enforced? How do project managers and designers know when the umpteenth version of a thing is finally approved?

Distribution Channels: How does each bit of our content reach its proper destination? Where does it go, exactly? How is it delivered?

I know that this Tech Stack Canvas works.

The structured thinking that this canvas produced helped me twice — at both Comedy Central and AT&T — to provide a business justification for why we needed specific systems and tools. It explained clearly why I fought to develop internally our own digital content hub to manage our creative review and approval. By charting our business needs, and potential vendors, in the appropriate quadrant, it became clear what our needs were and the shortcomings of existing vendor solutions.

The sample Tech Stack Canvas below helped me explain the difference between digital media and information, and the internal production process vs publishing — and then I dropped in vendor names to show the ecosystem and bolster my argument for building a bespoke system.

Example Tech Stack Canvas

Link: Download my Tech Stack and Vendor Research worksheet

Deliverable: Create three tech stack models: The first shows your areas of activity logically grouped into as few clusters as possible; the second identifies your current tech stack; the third model identifies potential solution providers for these business needs and activities. The finished models are something you can show to your technology and business teams — and you’ll wow them by talking their language.