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E-process technology: Heading in the right direction

In a world where every technology has an 'e' prefix, it was only a matter of time before workflow followed suit. But e-workflow didn't sound very good and so e-process has emerged. Alan Pelz-Sharpe and Angela Ashenden, authors of the Ovum report E-process: Workflow for the E-business, show how a once-unfashionable technology associated with job losses and the art of "rightsizing and outsourcing" is emerging again as a technology of importance.

By Alan Pelz-Sharp and Angela Ashenden Knowledge management is all about pulling disparate elements of a business together, into a collaborative and constructive whole--whether those elements are information or people. Workflow vendors have long touted their products as the means to do this, but with little real success. Revenues and market penetration for workflow have been far from dynamic over the years, and this is traditionally seen as one of the dullest of IT sectors--and a lot of IT sectors are very dull indeed.

The promise of automating processes and freeing people up to work on more useful and beneficial tasks never really materialized. Workflow became engulfed in the world of business process re-engineering, and as a result became labeled as the tool for cutting staff. It's hardly surprising, then, that there is little real affection for workflow technology.

The new world of e-business that e-process hopes to address is demanding and complex. It's a market that is still in its early stages of evolution, and it needs workflow to succeed. But workflow technology was not built to meet the demands of e-business. Many of the most well-known workflow products were designed to address the requirement of heavy duty production—of high volumes of files, channeling through simple flows hour by hour, day after day. In situations such as check processing, this high-volume, high-speed environment workflow was, and still is, essential.

But e-business has other requirements. The volume of transactions tends to be noticeably lower, but the complexity of the transactions much higher. An example of a true e-process instance might be that of a supply chain behind an e-commerce shopping site. As far as a visitor to the site is concerned, the buying process is simple: access the Web site, select the product, provide minimal personal information and take delivery of the purchase.

However, achieving those simple tasks involves the seamless, electronic collaboration and integration of a number of suppliers, logistics companies and financial institutions to ensure that the customer remains oblivious of the processes underneath. To achieve that, e-process must play key roles: the glue that holds the elements of e-business together and a management layer that provides reliability and consistency to business processes.

Back to workflow The past year has seen the revival of interest in workflow technology grow ever stronger. As companies move their business focus to the Web, they have built ever more sophisticated applications--and promised ever more to the customer. Yet, although the focus of Web site development has rested largely on issues of personalization, the customer's focus has remained on efficiency.

Whether you are involved in B2B commerce or provide a consumer-facing e-commerce environment, the key to ensuring your customer has a happy experience is in delivering a fast, efficient and repeatable experience. Yet, strangely enough, this is the one thing that e-business sites tend to do badly. The reason is that site developers have unrealistic expectations of their customers', and their own, capabilities. There appears to be an assumption that clients will always complete input information accurately and that they will always request something that is "do-able." Equally, the site owners tend to operate on the 80-20 principle that if they get 80% of the process right, then they should be OK.

The real world, however, suggests that it is the 20% (often a higher figure than this) that is the key to successful business. When the client asks for something we cannot supply, how do we handle it? When the customer provides incomplete information, do we penalize them? In short, how do we handle exceptions? If a "normal" process takes 10 minutes to administer (assuming every piece of information is complete and accepted), how long will we take to process it if some or all of this information is not standard or, worse still, incorrect? Will it take days or weeks?

E-process technology provides the means to visualize and map these complex processes. To check and test that exceptions are handled efficiently and quickly, and that customers have a consistent and happy experience, regardless of the internal loops that their order or inquire needs to perform.

Not there yet But all this suggests that e-business has already reached the point where it can provide a fully electronic trading experience. Again we have to look at the real world to understand that Web sites are often little more than a façade. In other words, once an order is received electronically, it is handled in the same manual way it always has been. The result is that ordering, customer account, sales, finance, stock control and logistics systems are often remote islands of information that have little, if any, interaction with each other. This approach to going "electronic" does little more than provide a Web interface for our clients while behind the scenes we continue with our inefficient, manual procedures.

E-process technology promises to link those remote islands, and the people who utilize them, together into a coherent whole.

E-business needs to grasp and implement efficient process controls; implementations need to pull together all the separate pieces of the process jigsaw that may contain both people and technology, and manage them coherently and in a measurable, and repeatable, manner. E-process technology is the technology that can do that.

The market today Workflow technology as it developed in the '80s and '90s can perform those tasks but is not always a perfect fit. The Web brings new demands. The idea of knowledge management, for example, is finally starting to have an impact on organizations. And, the value of the work force, in terms of its ability to make critical, rational decisions based on the information available, rather than its ability to perform unskilled tasks, is becoming apparent to business managers. As a result, the concept of collaborative working is taking root. E-process tools need to meet these new needs--to provide the interface between all the tools currently utilized in the e-business marketplace.

E-process technology means more than established workflow vendors re-badging themselves. It means a new market, one into which infrastructure vendors such as Oracle, Microsoft and Lotus are forcibly pushing themselves. Furthermore, CRM, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and computer telephony integration (CTI)—such a Lucent and Clarify—software companies are adding workflow technology to their offerings to make them more market friendly.

Another promising development is the introduction into the marketplace of vendors that have developed their workflow products specifically for the Web, such as Metastorm and W4. Others, such as icomXpress icomXpress, formerly Keyfile), are focusing their developments on low-throughput, high-complexity processes involving exception handling. There are also a few vendors trying to develop specific workflow solutions for new e-business environments, for example Savvion and iTendo.

With those newcomers moving alongside the established workflow vendors, a new e-process market is being carved out . At Ovum we believe that e-process is much more than re-badged workflow, in fact we go further and say that a lot of workflow products are not, and never will be, e-process tools. In our report, we define e-process as: "workflow technology that addresses the needs of e-business." In practice, it means that e-business brings to the table a whole host of new challenges to meet, and the reality is that no vendor in the market yet meets them all.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe is senior consultant at Ovum specializing in content management and workflow, e-mail aps@ovum.com. Angela Ashenden is a consultant in Ovum’s knowledge management group, e-mail aca@ovum.com.

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