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Workflow: horizontal, vertical and all-purpose

By Judith Lamont, KMWorld senior writer

Workflow has been a mainstay of knowledge management for years, and has changed significantly as technology has evolved. An early application was the routing of insurance claim form images around to individuals who reviewed and approved or disapproved them. The field has evolved to encompass a broader discipline referred to as business process management (BPM), which includes in the flow both people and enterprise applications. These applications not only route information or documents to individuals for decision-making, but also automate decisions by linking business rules to databases.

Acorde Process from Optika is designed for transaction-intensive functions such as accounts payable, invoice approval and claims processing. The Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated (CCBCC), the second largest bottler of Coca-Cola in the United States, was experiencing significant delays in tracking and processing invoices. Those delays, which were due primarily to off-site scanning operations, resulted in the loss of early-payment discounts and less than ideal supplier relationships. In addition, 10% of the invoices were out of tolerance because they did not match either the purchase order or the inventory received. They were difficult and time-consuming to resolve.

After Acorde was implemented, invoices were scanned into the system from the mailroom and automatically routed for approval. Time for approval was reduced from a week or two to just a few minutes in most cases. Out of tolerance invoices are automatically routed to a controller's office for a decision. After its initial deployment to accounts receivable, Acorde Process was implemented in accounts receivable, the tax department, general accounting and human resources (HR).

Dru Anne Walz, director of product management at Optika, notes the new options available now that Acorde is Web-enabled. "Using Acorde Resolve, staff in an accounts payable department can collaborate with a vendor company, with both viewing an image of the invoice, which greatly expedites resolution," she says. Acorde Process also can call out to a third-party application to update its database, and uses triggers in the database to launch e-mails requesting action. The graphical interface used to design workflows allows businesspeople to be directly involved in the design process.

Vertical application expedites printing

Specialized workflow products set up for specific vertical industries can dramatically improve performance. A family of modular software products from Creo designed for the printing industry allows automation of the workflow process, communication with management information systems (MIS) and collaboration with customers. The prepress phase of printing is focused on processing files from a page layout document such as QuarkXPress from Quark (quark.com) into a format that can be used to output to film or to a plate directly for printing.

Typically, prepress operators spend a significant amount of time troubleshooting the files, which may have missing images, incorrect fonts or other problems. One Creo product, Synapse Prepare, allows vendors to specify the settings for the content creator. Those settings are immediately "populated" into the various dialogue boxes, which ensures that the files are built error-free and will move smoothly through the vendor's workflow. Another product, Synapse InSite, allows for collaboration by providing customers with secure Web-based access to prepress files. Through Synapse InSite, one or more customers can proof their jobs online, make annotations, approve or reject pages and obtain job status information.

Brisque and Prinergy are the Creo workflow products that move each job through the prepress steps. Brisque is a dominant product in the prepress market, with 7,000 installations. It is used by large-scale printing companies such as R.R. Donnelley and the latest version, Brisque4, includes regionalization features that manage multiple versions of a publication in different languages. Both use a job-ticket model for tracking print jobs. Prinergy is said to be the world's leading end-to-end PDF solution, with over 2,000 servers installed since its launch slightly more than two years ago. An Oracle database stores job status and history.

Because the workflow can be linked to an information system, the impact of production decisions can be determined immediately. "If a change in a special color of an advertisement is requested using Online Synapse InSite, for example," says Christine Krause, product marketing manager at Creo, "we can learn immediately whether the ink is available simply by integrating that workflow with the inventory control portion of the system. If it is not, an order can be generated automatically." In addition, events such as page approvals might trigger a message to a pager or cell phone that indicates a proof is ready for review. The implementation of Creo's workflow systems is highly customized, Krause points out, to accommodate to each vendor's requirements. Consultants work to review the vendor's processes and map them into the system.

At the Motheral Printing Company in Ft. Worth, TX, implementation of Prinergy has produced significant results, partly as a result of automation and partly as a result of redesigning the basic workflow sequence.

"We used to run three shifts a day for four working days to produce a proof for one of our regular jobs. We would then send it out for review and resend corrected files," says David Motheral, VP of the firm. Since the proofs were sent out as hard copy, delivery delays were a part of the process. "Now the proofs are produced in an hour and a half, and plates are ready in another two hours," he says. Staffing requirements for both the company and its clients have been reduced to a fraction of what they were.

A key element in the improved workflow is Creo's Synapse Prepare, which allows the client to submit a document that is virtually error-free. Review of the proofs results in few corrections. Moreover, those corrections are done by the client, eliminating the labor-intensive correction process at Motheral Printing.

"This is a major change from a process that has been in place for 50 years," says Motheral, "in which proofs were seen as an interim version for the client to review rather than a final step before printing."

All-purpose workflow products

When he worked for a high-tech manufacturing company, Rashid Khan could not find a workflow product that could support his company's administrative processes. He co-founded Ultimus to fill that gap, but the Ultimus Workflow Suite quickly found uses in other areas as well. Prince William County, VA, has begun implementing Ultimus Workflow Suite for HR functions in all the county departments.

"We identified HR actions as those for which we could get the most immediate return on our investment," says Maneesh Gupta, IS division chief. With more than 3,000 employees, the county was using slow, resource-intensive, paper-based processes for performing personnel actions such as annual merit raises. Now the review and approval process for merit raises is automated and integrated with the county's document management and HR information system.

When a personnel action is required, a staff member receives an e-mail and then logs onto a secure, browser-based system to complete the action.

"Data entry is reduced to almost nothing," Gupta points out, "and the time to complete the actions has been reduced to just a day, whereas previously it would take three to four days." The county selected Ultimus in part because it integrates with its existing infrastructure, which is Microsoft-based, and plans to implement other HR functions over the next year.

Ultimus also was selected by Carnival Cruise Lines to automate its business processes, including an initial deployment in its shipbuilding program. Ultimus Workflow Suite will be used to coordinate communications such as change orders and ship design specifications between several organizations, including Carnival and the shipyard.

Khan identifies Ultimus' flexibility as a key advantage of the product. "Earlier workflow systems were rigid once they were in place," says Khan, "but the Ultimus Workflow Suite can easily adjust to new processes." In addition, it can capture workflow metrics and feed them back into a design model to optimize the workflow. A unique aspect of the software, Khan believes, is an organizational chart embedded in the design that captures work relationships. It allows the system to adapt, for example, by automatically rerouting tasks if an individual is out sick.

Another workflow product that can be used across a variety of vertical and horizontal markets is BizFlow from HandySoft. BizFlow can be used for applications ranging from product development to supply chain management and coordination of marketing efforts.

"A deficit in today's market has been the lack of an interoperable platform that works with all applications," says John Salimbene, VP of marketing and business development. "BizFlow works with a wide variety of applications and operating systems, including Unix." It adheres to XML standards and is compatible with Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) for secure collaboration. The company has a strong emphasis on the consulting side to ensure that the BizFlow technology is tailored to the way a company wants to do business.

"In the course of such enterprise production deployments," Salimbene continues, "processes are typically streamlined and errors eliminated." Salimbene cites the case of a consumer products company in which a 95-step product life cycle was reduced to 16 steps by streamlining problem areas in its processes.

One of the major barriers to the adoption of workflow automation, according to Khan, has been the high cost and complexity of integrating with other applications. He expects the emergence of Web services will drive the cost down and marginalize integration as an issue. That will enable companies to focus on the significant productivity improvements offered by workflow platforms, and to use workflow automation as a key strategic initiative for process optimization.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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