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Go with the flow

Good workflow management is becoming increasingly important as commitments grow. Danny Bradbury takes a look at different types of solution, and finds out how to implement them efficiently and effectively

While many things may be uncertain in the business world, at least one thing is guaranteed: if you're good at your job, there will always be more work to do. Managing this work becomes more difficult as your organisation grows larger. The concept of workflow was invented to codify paper-based business processes into your IT infrastructure, making the flow of work through the organisation more efficient.

There are four major types of workflow solution, according to Rob Allen, who is chairman of the external relations committee for the Workflow Management Coalition, and is also European business development director for Open Image Systems, supplier of workflow software to financial firms.

Production workflow controls the creation of a framework for codifying business processes that can be changed only after referring to an approval process, Allen says. This contrasts with ad hoc workflow solutions, which include most groupware packages. Ad hoc workflow enables the individual to direct the course of events far more freely when a Web item appears in the in-tray. The workflow in this case is owned by the individual rather than the corporation.

This second form of workflow is popular with the many companies wanting to automate some of their paper-based workflow but, according to Jane Roberts, marketing director for document management and workflow company Toplevel Computing, it can often require too much investment. "Lotus Notes is costly to develop in, and a lot of people who buy Notes just use it as an e-mail product," she says.

Allen also describes a third workflow category, which he calls autonomous. This type of product consists of a separate workflow engine that enables you to define your business processes. Although it might interact with other applications, the defining characteristic is a distinct workflow module.

Finally, embedded workflow involves technology that sits within another application. A good example here, says Allen, is SAP's R/3 enterprise resource planning software, which integrates the workflow engine with a large number of process templates within the application.

But why implement workflow at all? One of the biggest objectives is simply to reduce cost, according to Mark Braddock, managing consultant at TCG, a business and technology consultancy focusing on the financial services sector. Braddock was previously director of information systems at Lloyds TSB, and set up a flagship workflow system for it.

"A lot of people don't have the appetite for making people redundant, and many of them put forward the idea of growing the business by workflow," Braddock says.

Unfortunately, the track record of most UK financial services organisations shows they are not good at growing their business, he contends. Another argument for workflow - that it can be used merely to increase customer service - is also flawed, he says, because improved service levels are often difficult to measure. So it can be hard to justify the investment in a workflow system using service-level management alone.

Still, Braddock's focus is very much in the financial services area. Looking further afield, it is clear that workflow can be a useful asset in areas such as Web content management. Most of us, when surfing the Web, will have selected a link on a Web site only to find that it leads to an out-of-date page, or worse still, throws up a '404 not found' error. This is often due to a lack of structure in the Web content publishing process. Companies that don't channel the production of content through the right people run the risk of producing erroneous, inaccurate or obsolete material.

SDL International produces a product called Webflow, which handles the workflow process but can also cope with multiple languages. The product relies on human translation, but then remembers what has been translated so that elements of future Web pages don't have to be translated from scratch. This is a good example of the marriage of workflow technology with other functions to produce added value.

Braddock takes this Web-centric idea further, arguing that workflow is central to any e-commerce strategy by providing some much-needed structure to back-end logistics processes. "It should be the engine that enables any business model to come alive," he says. This doesn't necessarily do away with his pro-headcount reduction argument, but it switches the emphasis somewhat.

He draws the line at using conventional workflow products for supply chain management, however. Most workflow products haven't been designed to integrate purchase and supply processes across chains of companies, so that they would generally require the introduction of custom code to work. "The minute you do that, you're adding complexity and difficulty into the implementation process. The risks increase," Braddock argues. Instead, specific solutions from companies such as i2 are necessary.

While supply chain management may not be on the cards, intercompany communication using workflow and document management technologies is still possible, says Allen. He was instrumental in setting up the Londex exchange for banks that trade derivatives with each other. The exchange works by enabling banks to submit derivative trading documents to a central hub, which are then compared and automatically matched to increase the accuracy of interbank trades. Those banks will have used workflow internally to get the documents approved before sending them to the exchange.

"This is all to do with production-oriented workflow, where the corporation owns the process definition," he says. Allen goes on to explain that there are many instances of derivative trades among banks, but the process for each is often different. "Each instance of the event has its process definition created on the fly, which then follows it around," he says.

Some of the technical challenges surrounding workflow are not to be underestimated. Many workflow systems use databases to store profiles associated with personnel who are located at various stages in the workflow process. The next step is to integrate such profiles more tightly with the organisation's infrastructure.

Integration with directory services, while not vital for many companies, can be a good way to get the most out of your workflow solution. Object-oriented services such as Novell's NDS or Microsoft's Active Directory can be used to store a variety of information about personnel, which can be useful in a workflow context. Roberts is building-in support for the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, which is a means of exchanging basic directory information.

Often workflow systems will fail because there are too many potential points of failure on the desktop, warns Braddock. "All too often, when the business case for workflow is conceived, software providers are concerned about putting revenues on the desktop, but are less concerned about guiding organisations to build an infrastructure," he says. This means that individual pieces of desktop software can cause breaks in the workflow chain when they fail, disrupting the business processes.

The challenges are not all technical, however. Moving any business process from one medium to another inevitably entails some organisational difficulties as well. One of the biggest challenges is also the simplest - where do you start? "We need to find the areas that are causing the most grief for the organisation," says Toplevel's Roberts. She adds that there is no need to pull all of your corporate processes into a workflow system straightaway. "You don't have to eat the whole apple at once," she quips.

In Roberts' experience, the four most popular processes to move into a workflow format are expenses, authorising purchase orders, time sheets and requisitions. Other popular areas are personnel management and change management. The latter focuses on issues like ISO 9000 certification.

One challenge that straddles both the technical and the organisational areas is the issue of flexibility. Business processes contain rules, but as we all know, rules are meant to be bent, if not broken. "With a piece of paper, people can buck the system, scribbling in the margins, letting different people approve some things to get around obstacles," Roberts says. "It's important to keep your workflow system flexible, because people can already have a Luddite reaction to it."

The danger here is that people will revert to the old paper-based processes if they find the newer system less intuitive and impossible to adapt to adverse conditions.

Implementation teams must take into account the ramifications of a particular manager who is a key part of a document approval process being away sick or on holiday, for example. Finding the right balance between flexibility and control involves a detailed analysis of the business process in question. Ideally, the workflow system will change over time to reflect the ways in which employees adapt workflow processes to suit their own needs.

Managing workflow therefore involves a number of different choices, ranging from the type of workflow product that you want to implement, through to the specific business processes that you want to transfer into such a system. The level of flexibility that you wish to offer your employees as part of the automated business process will affect the type of software solution that you implement.

Finally, integrating a workflow system with infrastructure resources such as directory services is a good way to ensure your workflow remains up-to-date and relevant to the way your business functions.

The XML Standard

While workflow is an important issue for many companies, standards governing the interoperability of products have been relatively thin on the ground. The Workflow Management Coalition has been working for some years to develop such a standard, and last July it came up with an XML-based specification called Wf-XML. The initiative brought together work from the Object Management Group, along with proposals from the Internet Engineering Task Force.

"There are 200 people representing vendors and users working out the things that are of common interest," says Rob Allen, chairman of the external relations committee for the coalition. "If I am a customer dealing with IBM, Staffware and Open Image, for example, this is a method of getting each engine to understand each other."

The key question here is how valuable such a standard will be in the context of all the other XML subsets that are emerging. These include Microsoft's Biztalk initiative, the Ebiz-XML standard from the Business & Accounting Software Developers Association, the international trading XML scheme from Bolero.net, and a host of XML document-type definitions and schemes under development by independent vertical-market consortia. Will there be any room for a workflow-based XML standard, particularly when the coalition is gearing it towards the e-commerce market? "At some point there is going to be a shakedown," predicts Allen.

One interesting feature of the workflow XML standard is that it supports workflow actions such as forking - the idea of performing different actions on a document based on external criteria and events. You can string simple processes together using other XML schemes, he says. "With workflow, you're dealing with more complex situations where you need to supervise things like exceptions," says Allen. "Workflow users have moved away from just producing positive workflow to deciding what happens if, for example, we ship something and are unable to produce an invoice for some reason."

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