Go with the Flow: Improving Workflow and Document Management

Workflow is best described as the flow and control of information within a business environment. This is what defines your processes, many of which are critical to your business' survival. Managing this workflow in the most efficient manner provides your business with a competitive edge.

Workflow is best described as the flow and control of information within a business environment. This flow and control of information is what defines your processes, many of which are critical to your business' survival. Managing this workflow in the most efficient manner provides your business with a competitive edge, allowing you to improve time to market, time to produce, and the quality of the products and services you provide.

Workflow applications are designed to achieve the maximum efficiency in the management of business processes. These applications automate the planning, tracking and performance of tasks for a project or process, providing automated notifications on predefined and significant events. The availability of the Internet and corporate intranet have, for the first time, brought the ability to easily reach every desktop within an organization, simplifying the implementation of workflow across geographic boundaries and throughout an entire business.

Matching platform and application requirements to workflow, Windows NT and Windows 2000 provides for a single operating system platform that can be deployed across an enterprise from the desktop to multiple-processor enterprise server systems. Workflow systems require the flexibility to be deployed for small workgroups, up to the support of complex team processes across multiple locations.

Unisys systems based on Intel technology provide the opportunity to be able to respond to these requirements. The platform needs to address not just deployment requirements, but also the ability to match the platform to performance requirements of response time, replication and network bandwidth. Servers need to be deployed and integrated according to specific workgroup and site requirements. The flexibility and performance aspects on the hardware platform side of workflow systems need to be complimented by ease-of-use and administration on the application side.

Users need to be able to respond to the continuous changes in personnel, processes and requirements in order for a workflow system to be viable. Another important requirement of workflow is accessibility. Web-based systems offer the best accessibility option whether the system is deployed on an intranet, extranet or Internet-based solution. The integration of all of these requirements into a solution would enable a workgroup or enterprise to implement an effective workflow application.

The Axean Group's Moséa is a Web-enabled database application, which employs an Active Server Page (ASP) architecture built on Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0/5.0 and SQL Server 6.5/7.0. NT is used to provide page level security, where additional security is provided through table-driven entries. Users can access the system via standard browsers (Netscape 4.x or Internet Explorer 4.x and above) to perform all functions, including ad hoc reporting and system administration.

Processes are developed outside of the system and are then implemented within the application. Simple requests use the basic request forms already offered by the system, whereas complex forms and processes can be automated with additional development work, leveraging standard tools and methodologies.

Case History

Recently, one of the nation's largest healthcare providers embarked on a complete overhaul of its information systems and technology infrastructure. As a core component of each engineering project, the company engineered streamlined processes using Axean's ModelOffice Methodology.

As the company's projects moved forward with larger, geographically diverse teams, automated IT processes and document management features surfaced as key requirements for effective communication, ongoing process improvement, and reporting and tracking of requests. High level goals included:

• Organizing, managing and ensuring the currency and relevancy of the company's documentation

• Ensuring engineering processes, including integration, testing, versioning, and change/release management, were followed

• Ensuring that published information was easy to locate via a Web browser

In order to meet its goals of supporting decentralized teams while simultaneously implementing structured desktop and delivery services and providing a vehicle for national and regional system initiatives, the company realized it had to implement a workflow and document management system. The system they wanted to implement had to be cost-effective and offer Web-based client access, easy maintenance, process implementation and change capabilities.

Axean's Moséa Web-Based Workflow and Document Management System was selected.

A Multitude of Challenges

Given the weight of pressing internal projects (including a national clinical system initiative and ongoing regional Y2K remediation efforts), process automation became a necessity to save time, prevent human error and enhance quality communications. In addition, geographically dispersed and decentrally managed team environments for engineering, operations, customer relationship management and project management made a centrally managed workflow system an imperative.

The company's engineering processes for desktop and server integration were among the first to be targeted. The integration chain of events had been mapped early in the process for both engineering and documentation.

Multiple internal reorganizations and resource optimization had caused some skill dilution within the teams responsible for parts of the process. Many key IT resources were reallocated for Y2K remediation projects from the core engineering teams.

The company's workflow requirements mandated an ability to implement multiple processes on a core workflow engine. Additional key requirements included ease of defining business processes and exceptions (in either parent or child serial workflows), defining ad hoc workflows, and the ability to override (with the appropriate security) any workflow.

Project documentation was also key to the success of the company's IT projects, including access to current documentation. Processes for ensuring documentation reviews, linkages, timely updates, and rapid deployment during Y2K remediation and project implementation were bogged down through manual procedures.

Web-based document management features, allowing for document searches, check in/out, subscriptions, version control and support for multiple document formats, with a security model integrated with the company's NT core services, were mandatory requirements.

Accountability was an additional challenge for the company, as request tracking and management reporting in a geographically divergent environment were part of regular IT management routines. Ad hoc reporting via a Web browser empowered team members to view information in the manner that best met their business objectives.

Technology transfer to key internal resources made it possible for the company to receive assistance in implementing the system, and then reduce the cost of the resources who would manage ongoing change and operations. Internal usage training on the new system was provided to key groups involved in implementing and changing processes in order to enhance implementation effectiveness.

Minimal training was provided to the end users of the system on responding to workflow queue requests, finding documents and requesting updates, and creating reports, although the Web-based system provided required very little explanation.

The selection of a Web-based system that was not browser-dependent offered nationwide access to Workflow and Document Management features regardless of the client access mechanism.

The Solution

In choosing an automated workflow and document management system, the company did a thorough analysis to access:

• Multiple levels of security integrated with NT 4.0 and Windows 2000

• Browser and Web platform independence

• Costs within project budgets

• Technology transfer, promoting staff independence from contractors

• Ad hoc report writer as part of application

• Workflow and document management features at the level of top tier vendors

The Approach

The methods used to analyze, select and implement the system followed The Axean Group's ModelOffice Methodology. The current environment, including existing procedures, were reviewed and re-engineered, including process maps, written procedures and standardized templates for all workflows associated with engineering, implementation and support documentation.

A documented storage architecture for in-progress, final and archived documentation was included, as well as an updated look and feel for documentation Web sites, with enhanced searching and automation of Web page creation for document posting.

Methods for notifying the Documentation Manager of issues regarding any of the posted documentation and for correcting outdated and incomplete documentation were included.

Definitions for documentation resources and competencies that adhere to project/position requirements, job descriptions and roles and responsibilities, and processes for rapid deployment of business critical documentation were also required.

The Analysis

In the analyses, workflow and document management products were divided into two categories: "enterprise" and "teamwork" solutions. Multiple resources were used to complete the analysis including The GartnerGroup, the Workflow Management Coalition, the IDC, Image and Workflow Systems Program, and multiple media and educational resources.

The emerging area of teamwork solutions was selected to provide a combination of Web-enabled document management, workflow and other groupware attributes suitable to the work of engineering, management and documentation teams. These solutions were deemed to be more flexible and at a lower cost than high-end enterprise systems.

Base criteria were established for the teamwork automation solution, including cost limitations for the entire workflow system, provision of a browser-based system that works in the current desktop environments and use current NT core services and domain design for the company.

About the Authors: Victor Tayao is President and CEO of The Axean Group (San Francisco), a technology consulting group.

Sandy Villers is Web Application Development and Business Manager for The Axean Group.