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The human side of workflow

This article appears in the issue October 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 9]

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By Judith Lamont

Today's workflow products have come a long way from the days when hard-wired routing products sent claims forms along a predictable path. Whether automating the flow of content, transactions or tasks to be done offline, workflow is more flexible, easier to change if processes change and employs far more sophisticated rules. Most importantly, human intervention can be focused on the more complex tasks, while automated workflow handles the rest.

Travel risk management

When the founders of iJet first launched the company's travel intelligence and risk management services in 1999, they had no way of foreseeing the dramatic growth in their business that would occur following the events of 9/11. But from the beginning, the large number of sources and the complex analysis process pointed toward an urgent need for automated workflow. iJet serves organizations in the global travel business, large corporations whose employees travel and government clients. It collects information from thousands of sources and validates each "intelligence object" through a series of reviews by experts in a wide variety of disciplines such as geopolitics, health and insurance. The specific review path depends on the type of information and the needs of the client. Speed and accuracy are critical to iJet's success.

After reviewing about 50 products, the company selected i-Flow from Fujitsu Software. "We chose i-Flow based on its extensibility—its ability to integrate with other products and to scale," says Greg Meyer, CTO of iJet. "In addition, we believed it would offer us a short time to market." Meyer's hopes were borne out when the implementation was done in six weeks as opposed to the six months planned, with an accompanying reduction in cost. The product also has the agility iJet needed, so that analysts can put in additional review steps, without the assistance of the IT department. An unexpected benefit of the system, Meyer discovered, is that prospective employees are impressed by the system and eager to work with it.

Keith Swenson, chief architect at Fujitsu Software, says the company's research in the early 1990s showed that office work was not about literally following procedures programmatically. A successful organization is distinguished by its ability to handle exceptions to the rules.

"Every activity in i-Flow can be a decision point," he says, "so it is easy to incorporate human judgment into the process." To handle unanticipated exceptions, processes can be changed at any time; for example, certain steps in the workflow can be skipped if they don't make sense in a given situation. The software also provides "guardrails" to guide the types of changes that can be made in order to avoid errors in the new process.

Hospital gains efficiency through workflow

Lancaster General Hospital opted to deploy a workflow solution to expedite a number of key processes, including review of Employee Replacement Position Requests and Capital Equipment Appropriation Requests. The hospital's paper-based systems for those processes resulted in a long review cycle, in large part because the individuals in the review process were in different geographic locations. Therefore, paper forms had to be sent by interoffice mail, and each process took weeks. With the implementation of the Ultimus Workflow Suite, a manager can now submit an electronic form to request replacement of an employee who has transferred to another department or has left the hospital.

"Our review process has gone from a matter of weeks down to a few days at most," says Irene Zimmer, business analyst at Lancaster General. "In addition to speeding up the process, the new system allows people who have submitted requests to check on their status."

The same is true of Lancaster General's Capital Equipment Appropriations Requests (CAER). Individuals who submit a CAER can check on the status of the request and if it is delayed, they know the point at which it is being held up.

"There is more transparency and more accountability with the new system," says Ed Rund, manager of information services at Lancaster General. "Also, when we designed the system, we were able to identify some steps that could be eliminated. For example, depending on the type of equipment, the request might not go through all the departments that it would have gone to before." The system's flexibility also has been an asset. In some cases, an approval route might change slightly, and the changes are easy to put into the system.

A big difference in recent years, says Hank Barnes, VP of marketing at Ultimus, is that companies are looking at workflow from an enterprise perspective. "Previously, a department might set up an automated workflow to solve a single problem," he says, "but now, companies want to apply it across many processes." When viewed from that enterprise perspective, solutions must address both human-centric and system-to-system processes.

"System-to-system interfaces are much simpler than those involving humans. Once you get two computers talking, there is not much to change," Barnes maintains. "However, the system must be flexible enough to handle exceptions within human-centric processes, or even the most optimal workflow project will fail."

Collaborative workflow

For many years, KEMET Corporation, which manufactures tantalum, ceramic and aluminum capacitors, has been developing workflow applications for WLotus Notes by writing custom programs. From the beginning, those programs were integrated with the e-mail in Lotus Notes, which KEMET purchased as a collaboration platform. One of the first applications was a performance review system for salaried workers. Every year, the KEMET Performance Review System (KPRS) creates a batch of reviews for the employees and sends an e-mail to the appropriate managers. The managers complete a performance review form and discuss it with the employee. Once they reach agreement, it is submitted to Human Resources.

KEMET also developed a Pay for Performance (PFP) workflow for hourly workers, which is similar in function to KPRS but has a greater number of reviewers. Another workflow application, expense reporting, is integrated with the payroll system to obtain information about the organizational hierarchy, which in turn affects routing. The workflow path for expense reporting also depends on the dollar amount of the report, so information is pulled from the database to which the employee submits expense information.

"I was surprised by how much we could do with workflow in Lotus Notes," says Carlos Viveros, a senior analyst who developed many of the applications. "We use it for everything from personnel matters to technical documentation." One of the most widely used databases in the company is the KEMET Electronic Document System (KEDS), a document revision control system that complies with ISO/QS 9000 requirements. It's used for all important documents in the company, including manufacturing instructions, corporate and plant policies, customer requirements and training manuals.

"When changes to a document are proposed," says Viveros, "they are sent to a discussion group so users can comment on them." Participants in the review and discussion can be located anywhere in the world. After the changes are finalized, the revision becomes the new master document in the database. The ability to include a collaborative discussion group within the workflow is an aspect of the Lotus-based system that KEMET particularly values. Although KEMET wrote its own programs, automating workflow for Lotus Notes can also be done using Lotus Workflow. Point-and-click tools, object libraries and other features make the automation of complex processes much easier and allow for modification of the workflow.

Automating workflow helps organizations by reducing transfer time that might once have taken days or weeks down to seconds, notes Michael Loria, director of workplace document and Web content management marketing at IBM Lotus software. It also reduces task time for people once they get the work, because the task does not arrive until all the preceding steps (such as compiling information or documents) have been completed.

"This aspect of workflow makes the work time itself more productive," observes Loria.

Rules in plain English direct the workflow

The quality and flexibility of the rules base that routes information through a workflow is key to a system's success. Farm Bureau Financial Services (FBFS) developed straight-through processing for its property and casualty business. Agents submit applications using an electronic form. Applications that meet the defined criteria then go through the approval process automatically. FBFS uses a workflow system that was a combination of FileNet's ( Acenza workflow product and programs that were developed in-house. However, in many cases, intervening human judgment by an underwriter is required along the way. Those exceptions were diverted for review based on a relatively simple decision tree.

Over time, FBFS recognized the need to develop a more sophisticated set of rules that would be flexible and transparent to business users. After reviewing a variety options, the company selected the rules engine Authorete from The Haley Enterprise ( Scheduled for completion by year's end, the new system will allow much easier changing and fine-tuning of the rules base, which is presented in plain English. Up to this point in the development of the application, all of the rules have been written by business users, without involvement of IT staff.

"We also will be listing the rules (and associated data) that were invoked which sent the case to the underwriter via a new Underwriting Web page," says Dan Pitcher, VP of information systems at FBFS. In the existing system, there is no easy method for an underwriter to determine the rationale for the exception. "By seeing the rules that caused the exception and their connection to the policy data," adds Pitcher, "the underwriters will know right away where to direct their attention."

Paul Haley, president of The Haley Enterprise, sees Authorete as unique in its ability to augment workflow with intelligence and decision-making using English. "Authorete can understand the meaning of a sentence, such as ‘schedule an adjuster visit if all the vehicles involved in an accident are repaired at the same body shop,'" he says.

Haley points out that workflow is no longer just a routing process. "As business rules become more sophisticated, more decisions can be made along the way and less human intervention is needed," he says, "which allows businesses to scale more readily." Improved workflow allows employees to focus their time on complex tasks and decisions, a shift that is valuable to employers and makes the work more interesting to employees. In addition, increased productivity gives organizations the breathing space they need to step back and consider how new business rules could drive continuous improvement in the enterprise.

Decentralizing the workflow

Prince George's County in Maryland had begun work on a citizen-centric Web site that would unify its existing content and provide consistent navigation. But Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, the county's CTO, recognized that moving content efficiently through a review process that reflected the county's priorities was not possible with the existing system. Outsourced maintenance of the site (along with most of the other IT services) meant that the county did not have direct control over the timing of the then-manual Web publishing process, nor the tools to update any of the rapidly changing information on its own.

The outsourced relationship required additional fees for constant updates during a county election and other circumstances such as a heavy snow season. Ellison-Taylor made the business case for hiring an IT staff and moving management of the work in-house.

"We set up controlled decentralization so departments could manage their own content," she says, "but gave the site a consistent look and feel." Ellison-Taylor's team selected Rhythmyx from Percussion Software to manage the workflow associated with reviewing content and updating the site.

Rhythmyx combined the features that the County needed with an affordable price. Two aspects of particular interest were the ability to prioritize content in the review queue, and being able to place an expiration date on content so it would be removed automatically.

"When it comes to posting an item about a missing child, we want the notice up within minutes," says Ellison-Taylor, "but we have more flexibility on routine items such as press releases on upcoming events."

Rhythmyx sets the priorities according to business rules developed by Prince George's County staff. Time-sensitive and critical information is posted immediately to the site, once the responsible department head has reviewed it. In other cases, depending on the topic, others such as the County Executive media office may also review it before it is published to the site.

By moving the management of its Web site in house and automating the workflow, the county was able to save $300,000 in its first year, cutting total costs in half.

Caroline Michaud, director of marketing at Percussion, says, "In addition to providing customers significant ROI, Rhythmyx is a strong contender for the increasing number of organizations who are focused on ease of content reuse and content delivery to multiple channels."

Gaining value from workflow

Kuljit Bawa, CEO of Americas, Staffware

"Automated workflow produces significant efficiencies in business process management but also has other benefits, such as flexibility and improved job satisfaction, beyond those that initially drove the implementation. For example, companies are now able to look critically at their business processes from end-to-end for the first time, and realize they could be improved. Today's businesses are dynamic, not static, and it's key for them to be able to change their process flows easily, both before and after the new system goes live.

"Very few processes at present can be automated straight through, so the human element also remains important. Supervisors are more comfortable delegating work because they know they will receive an alert from the system if a certain service level is not met. And although workers may first be uneasy about automation, they soon realize that once much of their routine work is being supported by the automated process, their jobs actually become more interesting and diverse."

Bob Farrell, CEO of Metastorm

"Organizations can distinguish themselves from competitors by using workflow to automate their unique business processes, creating greater efficiency and responsiveness to customers. Successful business process management requires workflow systems to effectively mix interaction between people and automated systems. For example, a field worker executing a business process behind environmental remediation may observe factors that require the business process to be dynamically changed and automatically reflected in the workflow system.

Humans may become involved in innovative ways. For example, many government organizations are encouraging their citizens to initiate processes within their communities such as reporting a broken street light. The process behind the repair (scheduling, procurement, etc.) is driven automatically, producing superior service, and the citizen can monitor the project's status. There is tremendous value to be gained from automating, managing and controlling business processes that drive workflow systems."

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail

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