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An Introduction to Workflow Automation

We define workflow as:

"Any task performed in series or in parallel by two or more members of a workgroup to reach a common goal"

Note the words with emphasis:

Any Task: Which implies that workflow refers to a very wide range of business related activities.

Series or in Parallel: Which implies that steps in the task may be performed one after the other, or simultaneously by different individuals, or a combination of the two.

Two or More Members: Which implies that if only one person performs a task it is not workflow. As the workflow name suggests, a task is workflow if it "flows" from one individual to another.

Common Goal: Individuals participating in workflow must be working towards a common goal. If they are working on independent projects, that does not constitute workflow.

Since this definition may include tasks related to the physical production of goods also, we use the term "business workflow" to emphasize that we are talking about the automation of tasks other than manufacturing. We use the term "workflow" and "business workflow" interchangeably throughout this document to refer to non-manufacturing workflow tasks.

Examples of Workflow

Given the definition of workflow there are a very large number of business activities in a organization which fall in the workflow category. These include :

         Purchase Orders

         Capital Appropriation Requests

         Employee Performance Reviews

         Weekly Time Sheets

         Loan Approvals

         Claims Processing

         Capital Appropriation Requests

         and many more

Structuring a Workflow Process

A workflow process is created as follows:

1.        Define an activity, or task, which a workgroup needs to perform and the business rules governing the activity.

2.        Break the task down in into "sub-tasks," also called "steps." Each step represents a well-defined list of things which are to be performed by one individual and which are logically done together. A task may be broken into steps in many different ways. This is where business judgment is required to decided where to split a task into its component steps.

3.        Decide the skill sets required to perform each step. This will specify the job function(s) or individual(s) who may be called upon to perform the step.

4.        Decide the sequence in which the steps have to be performed.

5.        If some of the steps are performed on a conditional basis, identify these steps and define the conditions.

6.        Lay out a "map" of the workflow which identifies the steps and the sequence, or "flow" in which the steps are to be performed. Associate job functions or individuals with each step.

7.        Create the forms, documents and instructions which will be used by the individuals at each step to perform the sub-task.

As you will notice, workflow involves a sequence of steps or a "process." The task "flows" from one step to another based upon pre-defined rules and conditions. That is why the term business workflow is often interchanged with the term "business process," or simply a "process."

The Problem with Workflow Today

Before the advent of workflow automation, all workflow was manually implemented. Typically the steps in a task required the participants to review a file with forms and documents. After a participant has completed the review and filled out the pertinent sections of the form, the file containing the form and documents was manually routed to the person who has to perform the next step. The participants were trained about the rules which dictate the routing, or instructions were provided in the file folder itself. To track the status of the task one had to go around and ask where it was. There was no easy means of finding tasks which are late, or lost in the paperwork. And no one had any idea about the cost of the process.

So the major problems with manual workflow are as follows:

1.        High dependence on paper.

2.        Labor intensive

3.        Susceptible to tasks "falling through the cracks"

4.        No easy way of tracking status

5.        No means of measuring process time and cost statistics

Workflow Automation

The pervasive use of Personal Computers, networks and e-mail has made it possible to automate workflow. Computer software provides an excellent means of replacing paper forms with intelligent electronic forms. Databases provide a means of storing vast amounts of information which used to reside in file cabinets. Networking has spawned e-mail, which in turn provides an excellent and almost instantaneous means of routing information. And, finally the inherent computing capability of computers provides a virtually unlimited resource to control, monitor and measure workflow processes.

State of the art workflow solutions like Ultimus provide a graphical means of taking a workflow process and implementing them. Each step in the process is represented graphically by an icon. By linking the icons together, the designer can specify the flow, or routing, of the workflow. For each step, the designer can also specify an electronic form which is the means through which the users will interface with the process and perform the tasks they are required to do.

Essential Ingredients of Workflow Automation

Workflow automation is becoming a buzzword. There are numerous products in the market which claim to be workflow enabled. Vendors take the liberty to label their products workflow-enabled if they support rudimentary E-mail routing capabilities in their applications. However, the difference between such capabilities and workflow automation is the same as the difference between text editors and word processors.

We believe that to be classified as a workflow automation solution, an application must have the following key ingredients:

         A means of designing workflow maps, preferably graphical.

         The ability to design the electronic forms for each step in the workflow map.

         The ability to link electronic forms to enterprise databases.

         The ability to route the information gathered at each step to subsequent steps based upon job functions, user names, or reporting relationships.

         The ability to monitor the status of workflow.

         The ability to measure workflow.

         The ability to simulate and test the behavior of workflow


Last update:  14:48 22/04 2004