Working Smart

As computer systems have become more tightly integrated into business processes, many organizations look to technology to automate routine, or even nonroutine, business processes.

After a burst in the mid-1990s workflow technology has been overshadowed by the emergence of solutions such as ERP applications. With the emergence of e-business applications, however, interest in workflow is picking up. As corporate portals are more widely adopted, workflow technology will become increasingly available on the general knowledge worker’s desk.

So what is workflow? First, let’s talk about what it isn’t. Document management, for example, isn’t workflow. Document management focuses on capturing, indexing, and storing text files in a repository, and tracking documents routed throughout an organization. This is not workflow.

A workflow product has to have some of the following characteristics. First, it has to address a business process, whether it's as simple as approving an expense report or as complex as building a piece of machinery. The key thing about a process is that it has a set of definable, repeatable steps that are taken in a specific sequence.

Second, a workflow product has to have a rules-based engine. This allows the system developer to define business rules -- including exceptions -- and establish the stages of the business process that are being implemented. This implies the tool needs a scripting language.

Third, the workflow engine has to track activity and send notification when a particular process is stuck. There should be a built-in escalation process so that if the first level of alert is not acted on, the system can escalate the alert to a higher level. Alerts typically are invoked when a workflow element times out and isn’t acted upon. For example, the business rule may be that a purchase order request that is submitted to purchasing should be completed within 24 hours. If it isn’t, it alerts the manager of the purchasing department and the individual who submitted the request. This implies the product must have a database to track activity and a scheduler to evaluate a task’s status.

Fourth, the workflow product must work with enterprise applications. A true corporate workflow process may span multiple departmental systems. While many companies have a single, integrated ERP application that can handle routine processes, most organizations don’t. The workflow engine must have the ability to import tasks from a source and export them to target systems.

When properly defined and implemented, workflow can help improve productivity and efficiency. Automated workflow processes can also manage routine business processes, leaving time for knowledge workers to focus on more complex problems.

The burgeoning demand for e-commerce software is driving demand for workflow in many organizations. After all, an e-commerce application is an example of a workflow process: product selection, purchasing, credit authorization, and fulfillment.

A workflow system can be used essentially anywhere you can envision an automated, repeatable business process that can be either managed by, or facilitated by, a computer program. The operative words here are "repeatable" and "computer program." Supply chain management and routine credit verification are two examples of processes amenable to workflow. But no workflow engine on the planet can manage the process of taking a history and physical from a patient.

One of the pitfalls of using workflow applications is the rejection by those who are not involved in the selection or implementation of the product. You need to be careful to involve the people who are going to be part of the process to ensure they understand its benefits. This means you need to understand their problems and issues before you start implementing a workflow package. --Robert Craig is vice president of strategic marketing at Viador Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a former director at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at robert.craig@viador.com.