The term workflow (in the sense in which it is now used) was coined to signify a similar approach to administrative processes (and, especially, the moving of paper) as had been previously used to address industrial work. Thus, applying workflow involves the same kinds of approaches as in flowline production.
Workflow is concerned with the flow of information and control within a business process.
Thus workflow involves the analysis of (paper-based) administrative business processes in order to streamline them and make the more efficient - and to integrate them with other complementary processes and business
Although it is often seen as a 'simple' efficiency approach, it also has benefits in improving information access and distribution - and can even extend into knowledge management.
Workflow analysis involves the examination of (administrative) business systems
The simplest form of technological support for workflow improvement uses standard groupware software packages. At this level, much of the attention is focussed on the correct and speedy routing of documents and information and even with simple software, quite dramatic results can be obtained - addressing issues as simple as rules-based processing of incoming emails.
Of course, as ever with productivity technologies and techniques, much of the benefit comes from a structured approach to analysing the problem - just thinking about a situation almost always results in some ideas for improvement! This kind of simple, ad hoc workflow is often practised by individuals and workgroups without realising they are indulging in something as grand as practising or improving workflow.
Richer approaches to workflow requires some form of corporate approach - often requiring standard approaches and standard rules, requiring more 'back office' intervention and perhaps needing a heavier financial investment. The use of software such as Lotus Notes to represent and handle major business processes is such an example. It is at this level that we start to be able - with the technology - to do things that could not easily be done before. Collaborative working to tight deadlines between geographically dispersed work teams is one such example.
There are then specific workflow software packages. These are sometimes described as autonomous workflow packages - they do not carry out word processing or email handling or any other direct work task - they simple sit behind all that front line activity and handle the flow of information, documents and messages (interacting with the frontline software as necessary). They are very sophisticated - but need heavy investment, both financially and in terms of the time required to get them working. They are best suited to high volume, relatively stable processes - insurance claim handling for example. In fact, the financial services sector is where most workflow development takes place - they have the high volume, standard and stable business processes, and they have the money needed for the up-front investment.
Hybrid systems are those that have a sophisticated workflow 'engine' embedded in another application. A good example of this is SAP's R/3 enterprise resource planning software, which integrates the workflow engine with a large number of process templates within the application.
A new area of application is in Web content management. There can be few 'surfers' who do not fairly regularly come across the dreaded (though normally merely inconvenient) '404 not found' error - signifying that they are attempting to link to a Webpage that cannot be found. This is often due to a lack of structure in the Web content publishing process - so that as one part of the Website is updated, links to other sites are not necessarily updated alongside. Although it is a nuisance to run out of Web pages when following a link - from the company's point of view, it can signal a dissatisfied (potential) customer. Even worse, obsolete Web pages that are not identified and deleted can send out-of-date, inaccurate messages about the company and its products.
Using workflow to manage the process of web content production ensures that all links are maintained, and that obsolete pages do not exist. Such management is even more important when the web content is designed collaboratively - and no-one individual in the team can be expected to maintain a solid overview of all pages and their status.
Similarly, workflow is ideal for handling the back office procedures associated with ecommerce. These are often set up quickly - but since they (hopefully) have to cope with large numbers of transactions, small flaws and inefficiencies can be very expensive.
There are limitations to the range of applications for which the various workflow solutions are appropriate. The standard and simple packages are fine for standard and simple applications. Even some of the 'specialised' workflow packages are significantly limited : attempting to integrate purchase and supply processes across a lengthy supply chain, for example, probably requires a major workflow study - and a major investment in a highly specialised solution.
Some of these high-end solutions - recognising the importance of the people/roles involved in a business process - store profiles of these people and present information to them according to that profile. If such information is integrated with network directory services, it becomes possible to route and present whole swathes of information across multiple business processes in a coherent and effective manner.
However, the challenges to improving workflow not all technical.. Changing business processes and moving any business process from one medium to another inevitably entails some organisational difficulties as well. It 'interferes' with established structures and ways of working - and there will be hostility and rejection. Implementation must be carefully handled.
There are, though, major gains to be made - from very simple business processes. Common areas of implementation include the authorisation of purchase orders, the processing of time sheets, the document control processes involved in quality management systems.
The potential is sufficient that real thought should be given to considering a workflow approach and workflow solutions to major administrative tasks.
For a comprehensive list of documents and links relating to workflow, see http://www.workflowsoftware.com
The July 27 2000 issue of Computer Weekly cites a Scottish Law Firm - Shepherd & Wedderburn - that claims to have doubled its work output using a Web-enabled workflow management system developed in-house. Lawyers can deploy and track complex legal procedures in real time and update areas of work in the system themselves. Clients can also use the system to remotely follow their cases. The system - Benchmark - is based on the Microsoft suite of development tools, running on NT4 with an SQL Server database at its core. Users access the system via a Visual Basic written front-end when on-site, and via a Citrix/Browser solution when working remotely. The system was designed with the help of systems specialist Infographics, who is now, with Shepherd & Wedderburn's approval, marketing it to other legal firms.
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