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Automating Processes via Workflow

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How Workflow Impacts Your Company

Simply put, workflow is the step-by-step process flow of documents, information, or tasks through an organization, from one person to another, in a way that is governed by rules and procedures. The movement of documents through an organization, such as purchase orders, is a typical example of a workflow application. Who requests its approval, how it gets to the approver, and what happens if it's approved or rejected are all part of workflow rules.

Recognizing the benefits of workflow, many vendors developed workflow management systems. Initially, these systems were created to pass scanned documents around departments for them to be acted upon. Soon, electronic documents (such as Word or Excel files) were included as well.

These workflow systems' main goals are to define, manage, and execute work activities. They describe the processes organizations should follow to carry out their daily fundamental tasks. If we continue with the example of approving purchase orders, the requestor creates the PO and enters it to the workflow system, which routes it to the preset reviewer. When the reviewer is finished, the workflow system identifies the next person in line and routes the PO to him or her—in this case, possibly an approver.

Typically, document-intensive departments, such as purchasing or accounts payable, benefit greatly from workflow, as it provides a great organizational method for critical documents to move through an organization.

By providing a way to monitor a specific process, managers can see how efficient they are and where bottlenecks may be occurring. Taking this data, managers can go into the workflow system and amend the rules. This allows for dynamic changes. What if the approver is swamped with other work and takes longer than what's deemed comfortable to approve a PO? A manager can see the lengthy amount of time it takes for the approval in the workflow system and, for instance, change the approver's role and assign small approvals of $100 or less to another person, while major purchases still go through the original approver. However, such adjustments require manual monitoring and intervention.

In concept, workflow is effective because it keeps the documents in your organization moving. By automating the majority of this process and storing every document electronically, unnecessary and redundant steps, such as faxing documents to another department or making multiple copies of a document, can be eliminated. As soon as you're finished with your part of any business process, you simply check it back into the workflow system and off the document goes to the next in line. Most of these basic workflow systems employ a sort of Boolean logic, Yes/No, If/Then, etc. If the approver declines the PO, it's sent back to the requestor; if he accepts it, the workflow system routes it to the buyer. These rules provide consistency and the comfort of predictability. This way, many managers enjoy the piece of mind that everything is running perfectly.

But this is where the fundamental flaw in workflow may lie. As a simple concept, with its straightforward Yes/No logic, there is not much room for input, not much room for the "maybe." While it's nice to have predictability, business is rarely predictable. And the key ingredient that workflow doesn't take into account is that the people who run the processes behind business are the most unpredictable factor of all.

While workflow does allow companies to design an organizational model for their processes, people tend to be over-confident that every part of the business process will be completely automated: One user will always be there to enter the PO; another will always be there to approve it. Workflow is designed to remove the human element that goes into operating the business processes.

But even with workflow, the opening example could still go wrong. Let's assume the PO actually makes it all the way down the line and ends up in the approver's inbox. Well, the approver's still gone and the document stops moving. Where did it go wrong? It wasn't a problem from the machinery, the copy machine, or the computer that created the order. No, the problem arose because the workflow system assumed that the approver would always be there to make a decision. It took out the fact that sometimes the key players in the business processes may be sick or on vacation. Or maybe they just simply forgot that the document was in their inbox.

While workflow is a great tool when just dealing with documents, a more complex and dynamic business environment requires a way for an organization to get a handle on its entire end-to-end business operations.

The Next Step: Business Process Management

It is to address the operational gaps previously mentioned that Business Process Management (BPM) was born. While workflow focuses on the documents, moving them back and forth through an organization, BPM goes a step further and takes into account the whole of a business process, including the users.

Unlike workflow's Boolean logic approach, BPM allows for a more interactive environment between users and the business processes. More-complex business rules can be set. For example, if an approval is needed for an amount over $1000, the document can be sent to the approver with highest authority, and an alert can be sent simultaneously to a manager. The route of the document could depend on the value of the information—in this case, the amount of the purchase order requested. As with workflow, what happens to the document can still be predicted, but the result is more flexible to allow for variation.

BPM also provides more visibility in an organization. Deploying BPM begins with taking a good look at the current processes. If it is determined that one or more of the processes need streamlining, a design is formulated. An organization should look at every step in the process and see where the bottlenecks occur (e.g., where the PO could be held up). Once the processes experiencing inefficiencies have been mapped, an organization should have a professional analyze where and how the processes should be streamlined and what steps should be automated and given safety nets, such as alerts and escalation procedures for upcoming deadlines.

The next step is the execution of the processes. A truly integrated BPM system will use connected applications to perform business actions, such as automatically faxing copies of invoices to customers. If a step is too complex to operate on its own, the BPM system will alert the user responsible and request input, such as an electronic signature on an invoice. Thus, BPM works like workflow, as it keeps documents running through the organization, but it also allows for human interaction.

The final aspect of BPM is process monitoring. BPM can keep track of the status of customer orders, for instance, and invoice approvals. Any bottlenecks can be quickly identified and corrected. Process monitoring keeps track of the time it takes to accomplish a task by looking at such things as cycle time or the overall productivity of a process. Through this, managers can see which processes need to be tweaked and which are working. Employing this methodology, BPM can easily be seen as a driver for evolving processes to keep up with new business demands instead of making dramatic changes to fix a broken process.

Document Management: Where BPM and Workflow Meet

Workflow was designed to handle the documents in a business process. Business Process Management deals with the processes that depend on these documents. So then, one would reason that the most effective system would encompass both document management and the overall process. Document management takes both these factors into consideration.

An unfair view of document management is to see it as just a method to capture and store documents in an archival system by capturing documents into the organization through scanning, generating electronic faxes, capturing internally created electronic documents, or storing email attachments. Sophisticated document management systems offer more than that.

In a system that utilizes document management as its workflow or BPM system, business processes can be considerably shortened and streamlined. Documents such as requisitions can be filled out online and electronically routed to the correct person for approval. The beauty here is that, with the right document management system, if the approver is not in the office or the PO is inactive for a designated amount of time, the system will activate escalation procedures and route the request to the "proxy" (the next person in authority) and allow that person to approve the requisition. The approved requisition is then routed to its preset destination, like accounting's electronic inbox.

Document management systems also utilize alerts to make sure deadlines are met. If that PO being sent to accounting is time-sensitive, an alert will inform the AP department of the situation.

This is a great asset for any organization, not just to meet deadlines, but also to benefit from vendor discounts. The alerts remind users of their chance to pay invoices early to take advantage of many vendors' early-payment price reductions. The bottom line is saved dollars.

Document management also allows for the creation of secure audit trails for better monitoring. Compliance with business regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley or HIPAA is much easier through document management. Any document brought into the system is automatically indexed. Searching for related documents is as simple as typing in a customer number or name. All related documents are quickly found and brought up on the screen no matter how old.

The time it takes to approve, route, or do anything else to a document is also monitored. Managers can get the visibility that they need from a BPM system with a document management solution. This way they can make changes in the right area based on solid, hard data, instead of a hunch.

Choosing What's Right for Your Company

The benefits from workflow and BPM are boundless. They can be used to automate mundane tasks, send documents through an organization, and, by employing alerts and escalation procedures, ensure that important documents don't get held up anywhere. Systems employing the concepts of workflow and BPM will route documents in and out of organizations, allowing for approvals, signatures, and distribution to customers or vendors with ease.

The best part of these concepts is in the savings given to a business. Through the use of automatic routing, labor time is saved by eliminating menial tasks. Documents move in and out of an organization faster, with nothing hanging around in limbo; this allows organizations to avoid late fees as well as take advantage of vendor discounts. Offsite document warehousing fees can be reduced or eliminated by archiving documents electronically.

When considering options in employing these concepts, it is important to find out what's right for your company. If everything in your organization is automated and simple and doesn't need to factor in the human element, workflow will do just fine. But if your business requires a lot of human input and contains a constantly shifting environment, it may be time to look into Business Process Management and complementary tools such as document management.

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