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The term workflow was derived from the flowline approach to manufacturing, to refer to a similar approach when applied to administrative paperwork.

Workflow is concerned with the flow of information and control within a business process.

Thus workflow involves the analysis of usually paper-based administrative business processes to streamline them and make them more efficient. It may also integrate them with other complementary processes such as flow production. The application of the workflow approach often involves the application of technology.

Although it is often seen as just an efficiency approach, it also has benefits in improving information access and distribution and can even extend into knowledge management.

Workflow analysis involves examining administrative business systems processes to identify the information involved, the routes it travels, the people involved and the role they play within the process, the decisions taken and how these affect the flow. Once these are identified, it aims to simplify the flow, with shorter routes and fewer people involved, delays minimised and duplication avoided.

The simplest form of technological support for workflow improvement uses standard groupware software packages. At this level, much of the attention is focused 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.

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 who would not think of calling it workflow.

A more thorough approach 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 an example. At this level, and using suitable technology, we can do things that could not easily be done before; such as collaborative working to tight deadlines between geographically dispersed work teams.

Workflow software packages are sometimes described as autonomous workflow packages. They do not carry out word processing or email handling or any other direct work task. They simply sit behind all that front line activity and handle the flow of information, documents and messages, interacting with the front line 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 such as insurance claim handling. 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 where the system manages the structure and reduces the risk of broken links and obsolete or contradictory content. 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 may 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 recognise the importance of the people and roles involved in a business process and store profiles of these people so that they can present information to them according to that profile. If this 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 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 and 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.

June 2000

The July 27 2000 issue of Computer Weekly cites a Scottish Law Firm, Shepherd & Wedderburn, that claims